Professor John Brenkman Crossing Borders With Curriculum

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John BrenkmanJohn Brenkman, distinguished professor of English, has some busy days ahead of him. Last fall he was named chairman of the Weissman School’s Department of English, one of the largest and most complex departments in College. Having taken on the role, he is excited about it. The Department of English, Brenkman says, is not just about teaching students the classic texts of British and American literature. “We’re going to revamp and modernize the curriculum over the next couple of years,” he says. At Baruch, within the confines of the Department of English, it’s already possible to study pedagogy, linguistics, rhetoric, and creative writing, as well as literature and literary theory.

Brenkman is very aware that the English language has become a kind of global lingua franca these days. His own writing and teaching tends to cross national boundaries, notably in the “U.S.-Europe Seminar at Baruch College,” that he has led for a number of years. It germinated, Brenkman says, during the two years he spent in France, when he was struck by the radical discrepancies in how the French and the Americans perceived the Iraq War. The seminar, which is open to scholars CUNY-wide and also includes academics from Columbia, Rutgers, St. John’s and elsewhere, is an attempt to bridge the cultural divide between Europe and the U.S. and explore differing views on major issues. This year’s overarching theme is the often-incendiary mix of religion and politics. During the course of the year, seminar participants will contrast the profoundly secular French polity with America’s far more ambivalent attitudes toward religion in public life. Participants usually hold their discussions over wine and cheese. “It’s intellectually stimulating and great fun,” says Brenkman.

By nature and inclination, Brenkman is a “think big” scholar with a dual academic identity. A literary critic, he’s also deeply immersed in political theory. He’ll be combining the two in a very explicit way in his next book, Politics and the Art of the Novel, a work that will examine the writings of Herman Melville, Henry James, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth, among others. It sounds like a magnum opus, and—wearing his new department-head hat—it may take a while to complete.