1930s Overview

In the 1930s, the English department continued its close ties to Chancellor Bowman and the Bowman administration. It was also a decade of change, some of it fairly dramatic. Like the Cathedral of Learning, the department was still a work in progress.   

The graduate program grew significantly. Percival Hunt continued to recruit nationally and to hire regularly. In fact, Bowman, on behalf of the department, wrote to Robert Frost to see if he might be interested in joining the faculty. Agnes Lynch Starrett, now an Assistant Professor of English, was commissioned to write the history of the university, Through One Hundred and Fifty Years: The University of Pittsburgh, a book that celebrates the university and its mission in the region. William Don Harrison, an Associate Professor of English, was appointed Athletic Director in 1928 and was responsible for athletics during the peak years of the Jock Sutherland era, an era that included a win at the Rose Bowl in 1937 and efforts to replace Chicago in the Big Ten. (Harrison was to resign the position in 1937, when he, representing the Chancellor, and Sutherland were locked in battle over funding for athletics. Sutherland would resign in 1939, creating substantial controversy and attracting the attention of the national press.)

In the late 1920s, Speech, Debate and Theater had become a “division” of the department, with separate course listings. In the 1930s, there was substantial turnover among the faculty in these areas, surely a sign of conflict and dissention, and, by the end of the decade, the division was growing in importance and in course enrollments. The faculty in this area wanted more independence. In the next decade, it would break away from English to become a separate, free-standing Speech Department. In 1935, in a reverse move, the Department of Journalism, originally in the School of Economics, became a division of English headed by an Instructor, Robert X. Graham, who was also responsible for student publications. The 1930s saw the first course in Linguistics and the first course on Children’s Literature.

In the 1930s, the department was still being shaped by Percival Hunt’s distinctive style and his determined vision of an undergraduate education centered on “writing and reading.” Here, to close this overview, is Hunt describing the department in a 1934 report to the Dean of the College:

The chief occupation of the Department of English and, I suppose, its chief distinction, is trying to show nine thousand students each year what is good writing and what is good reading. We do this at almost all times and in almost all places. English is taught on the Campus during the year and in the Summer, in Extension, in the Downtown Division, and in the junior college centres. In the Summer, for instance, we have about nine varieties of Summer session. This that I have called writing and reading is not so simple as it seems, for it includes an attempt to have the student realize the world he has grown up in, the world in which he is living, and form some standards of taste and judgment about places, and people, and ideas among which he has moved or will have to move. Perception, good taste, good judgment, and clear expression—these about sum-up what the Department of English is trying to do.

From a 1934 Fund Raising Campaign

I have not said anything about research because research in English is pretty much a graduate occupation. We have about four hundred graduate students each year. In the past nine years, the University has granted in English one hundred and forty-two master of arts degrees and thirteen doctoral degrees. Most of these students are teaching in high schools. There is scarcely a high school in the western part of the state and none in Pittsburgh in which our graduates are not teaching. Many of them, however, are teaching in colleges, in Antioch College, Queens College (North Carolina), California State Teachers College, University of New Mexico, Wittenberg College, Geneva College, Seton Hall College, Mt. Union College (two), Western Reserve University, Mt. Mercy College, Seton Hill College, Pennsylvania College for Women, Lehigh College, Virginia State College, University of Michigan, National University of China, Budapest (Hungary) National Gymnasium, Indiana State Teachers College, Johnson C. Smith University, Lincoln Memorial University, University of Hawaii, Kansas State College, Syracuse University, Washington University, Arnold School, and the University of Pittsburgh. Besides, among holders of graduate degrees in English are ministers, housewives, and business men.

Public Speaking, especially debating, is done most directly in front of the public. This year, for instance we have had, roughly, one hundred debates, many of them before chambers of commerce, women’s clubs, and discussions groups, as well as before college audiences. The debating teams have met schools from Canada to Cuba, and from Maine to Washington.