Beltway politics and palace intrigue tend to dominate Washington, D.C.’s headlines, often overshadowing the District’s thriving culture scene. Georgetown University’s own status as an epicenter of politics and international relations often results in a strong emphasis being placed on the school’s government and foreign policy programs, leaving its literary program overlooked.
Still, the university’s English department is thriving: The English major is one of the most popular academic programs on campus and is consistently considered one of the best English programs in the country, coming in second place in USA Today’s 2017 ranking.
Bolstering this large academic program is a lively network of clubs, groups and organizations dedicated to fostering the creative talents of writers and poets — both faculty and students — who consider Georgetown home.
The Drive for Diversity
Before 1995, Georgetown’s English curriculum focused on the past and was heavily skewed toward white, male authors.
With pressure from both students and faculty, Georgetown’s English department revised its course requirements to give English majors greater freedom in studying authors and topics that interested them personally, rather than restrict them to studying two of the three eminent English authors: Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton and William Shakespeare.
Among the drivers of the change was Henry Schwarz, a writer and professor in the English department since 1991. Along with students, Schwarz saw the need for a more diverse, well-rounded curriculum.
“There was no historical requirement because everything was historical,” Schwarz said in an interview with The Hoya. “English was taught as the language of the past. It was not what was happening to us in the present.”
Instead of focusing primarily on texts written by traditional male authors like Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare, English students could finally study female, black, Latinx and LGBTQ authors as well as literature from around the world.
“Social tendencies were pouring into the kinds of books that students wanted to read and the way that they wanted to see themselves represented as university students,” Schwarz said.
While many applauded the move toward multiculturalism, a conservative petition signed by 150 students said Georgetown was “killing” Shakespeare, according to a 1995 The New York Times article. One opponent was Alexander Hertzberg, the editor of the conservative publication, The Georgetown Academy. At a meeting with students and faculty members in November 1995, Hertzberg argued that the curriculum change would have detrimental long-term effects.
“It’s OK to have a progressive literature department,” Mr. Hertzberg said. “But then people would have to graduate from Georgetown with a degree in progressive literature and deal with the consequences of that.”
Other opponents to the curriculum changes were Lynn Cheney, vice president Dick Cheney’s wife, and Georgetown alumnus William Blatty (CAS ’50), author of “The Exorcist.”
“Those two movements came to a head in the mid ’90s: the young people wanting a change and the old people digging their feet,” Schwarz said. “The Georgetown English department in the nation’s capital happened to be right in the middle of that for a brief period of time.”
The curriculum change was supported by the English department’s faculty four to one, leading the change to be implementerd in 1996. Since then, the English curriculum has continued to evolve by giving students more flexibility in choosing their academic paths, enabling their creativity to truly take flight.
A Creative Curriculum
After realizing the English department lacked a creative outlet for students of all areas of study, poet and English professor David Gewanter helped initiate the creative writing minor in 2016. He now serves as the program’s director. Before its implementation, imaginative students could only take one creative writing course.
“Writing a piece that really matters to you and to others may take longer than a semester, longer than a regular writing assignment,” Gewanter said.
Capped at 20 students per year, the six-course minor is designed to be interdisciplinary and moves from an introductory genre course through a series of genre workshops. Because it builds on the English department’s pre-existing courses, the minor is not available to English majors, but it offers students from all disciplines a chance to put their ideas to paper and to revisit and improve their writing portfolios.
Since its implementation, the minor has helped shape Georgetown’s reputation as not merely a high-profile political university but as an illustrious, artistic one.
“It is a little bit of a one-company town with politics, but there is a very lively literary environment here. It is just slightly quieter and a little more thoughtful,” Gewanter said. “Now we have a chance with the creative writing minor for people to redevelop themselves and push forward and leave with a manuscript. Once that happens, the school will make gains as a literary place.”
Stories for Social Change
Georgetown’s literary culture is not purely academic. Outside the classroom, students and staff can cultivate and enrich their writing, as well as learn how their words can drive change, at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice.
Created in 2006 by the Lannan Foundation, a family foundation committed to issues of cultural freedom and diversity, the center’s main purpose is to explore the intersection of poetry and literature with human rights and social issues. Carolyn Forché, a politically engaged poet and human rights activist, currently serves as the Lannan Center’s director.
Each academic year, the Lannan Fellows Program offers up to 20 Georgetown students the opportunity to critically study and discuss poetry from a variety of writers.
“It is not just an enhancement of their education. It is something that becomes rather central to how they think about the world and about what matters and how they view public intellectuals, poets, writers, journalists and activists,” Forché said in an interview with The Hoya.
Another important component of the program’s work is the Lannan Readings and Talks Series, a yearlong program that brings diverse, often-overlooked poets to campus to engage with students and comment on social issues. Last semester, the series welcomed Helon Habila, Jamaal May and Solmaz Sharif, among others. The next talk, slated for Feb. 20, is set to feature Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess.
“I like to bring young poets to this community, because I believe our students need to see that there are poets that are only a few years older than themselves. They need to hear the voices of their own generation in the broad sense of the term,” Forché said.
In alignment with the English department’s increased efforts to broaden its curriculum, Forché also recruits authors of color to come share their stories and writings with Georgetown community.
“I also bring a lot of poets of color. I try to bring many Native American poets. The poets who are not usually or often included in institutional reading series at universities,” Forché said. “I have been interested in voices that were in the past excluded and that is where a lot of very interesting work is happening. The energy of the poetry community comes from that source.”
The Lannan Center’s highlight of the year is its Lannan Spring Literary Symposium and Festival, a two- to three-day weekend symposium centered on a relevant topic of concern, such as immigration, race or America’s involvement in warfare.
In 2017, the symposium, called “The Global Soul,” focused on themes of cosmopolitanism and transnational identity. Aminatta Forna, a world-renowned writer and current Lannan Foundation chair of poetics, directed the symposium.
In the past, the literary community at Georgetown has been overshadowed, but it is on the rise. With opportunities in and out of the classroom, Georgetown is building a culture for writers to work freely and succeed.
Washington’s political landscape increasingly influences the English department as it continues to evolve and expand. Forché believes literature, and Georgetown’s English classes, can be just as political a history or government courses.
“Georgetown has an interesting and vibrant literary community. We have one of the most vibrant literary centers in the United States, and it is hidden all over campus. There are writers all over this campus. Not only among the students, but among the faculty,” Forché said. “World literature is here too and some of its political. It kind of all works together on this campus.”