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The English Ward

“What,” say you, “are you giving me advice? Indeed, have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?” No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.

—Seneca, Letter XXVII. “On the Good Which Abides”


Walk 1

As an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, newly (even in her fourth year) immersed in an English department in a relatively small town, Emily is apprehensive about disclosing too much at faculty dinner parties. Much like Emily, Stephen, an MFA student in creative writing, fears that he reveals too much of himself, even by means of the subjects he pursues. He worries that the professors who have welcomed him into their lives are more concerned for his health than his development as a student.

Our independent study this semester is organized around the following questions: if the English Department is, as we have often joked, a hospital ward, what kind of specialists are writers and what kind scholars? What manner of cures and prolonging tactics are deployed by the various faculty and students in the English department in order to survive a geographical move? Via the useful analogues of the university as hospital, the teacher as doctor or therapist, the student as patient or analysand, and literature as medicine or analgesic, we seek to discuss our academic pursuits as they stand in relation to our everyday lives; we will attempt a therapeutic act. Although our project will certainly usher in exaggeration, even melodrama, we must steer clear of objective analysis.

Instead of holding a weekly meeting in Emily’s office during working hours, we will read independently then meet on Sundays at an abandoned golf course where we will walk together for an indeterminate period of time. Anxiety and loneliness, like our walks, are at the heart of our project. How did we get here and why are we housed together? At the end of each walk, we will reflect on our conversation in writing.


{To read more of this piece, please purchase Issue 39.2.}


Stephen Gropp-Hess is an MA candidate in art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research is particularly concerned with the history of private and intimate space in the twentieth century. More of his work can be seen in journals including Sleepingfish and Unsaid.

Emily O. Wittman is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama. She is particularly invested in reading and authoring collaborative works. She has co-authored several essays and translations. Two collections (co-edited with Maria DiBattista) are forthcoming from Cambridge UP: Modernism and Autobiography and The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.