1960s Courses

By all accounts, life in the English department in the 1960s was exciting, dynamic, noisy, contentious, and difficult. It was a decade of transition between a department formed in the 1920s, a department that defined itself primarily in terms of teaching and service, reading and writing (small r, small w), and the department that was to emerge in the 1970s, a department with ambitions to national prominence in research and publication. The figures, energies, and administrative structures to emerge in the 1970s created a department that led the nation in rethinking the terms, methods, and reach of English Studies. But it was not an easy transition.



In the 1960s, the graduate program grew dramatically. In the 1950s, the department granted 26 PhDs; in the 1960s it granted 89. The number of MA candidates increased at almost the same rate, by a factor of 2 rather than 3. The PhD program, as it always had been, was a program of fairly conventional literary study—period, author, and genre. With the emphasis turning to the PhD program, the study of literature became the center of growth, energy and visibility in the department. And with the large numbers of graduate teaching assistants that were added to the lower division teaching pool, the study of literature became the frame of reference for general education (including the teaching of composition) in ways (and to a degree) that were markedly different from the past.    

This growth in the graduate program was planned, part of a campus initiative that began in 1956 when Edward Litchfield took office as the University’s 12th Chancellor. It began to shape the department in 1959, when the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust gave $12 million to the University to establish ten distinguished professorships and 50 pre-doctoral fellowships. English was one of the 10 departments chosen to receive these funds and, it was assumed, to develop a significant research profile and a distinguished graduate program. Philosophy, with the appointment of Adolph Grunbaum as its Mellon Chair, would lead the way. (It is worth remembering that Charles Peake, a Professor of English, was Assistant Chancellor, soon to be Vice Chancellor for the Academic Disciplines. Putnam Jones, a Professor of English, was Dean of the Graduate School. And Frank Wadsworth, a Professor of English, would be hired in 1962 to serve as the Dean of the Division of the Humanities.)   

The growth in the graduate program was part of a growth across U.S. universities, prompted in part by demographic predictions of a need for college faculty, in part by the war in Vietnam and students seeking draft exemptions, but primarily (at least at the University of Pittsburgh) by the generation of men and women who entered the profession after the war and who wanted a professional status that came with research, advanced study, and engagement with a PhD program. In a 1964 report invited by the Dean’s office, the department projected annual graduate student enrollments to more than double between 1962 and 1970:  

            Full Time MA/PhD       from 47 in 1962 to an estimated 118 in 1970
            Part Time MA/PhD      from 98 in 1962 to an estimated 159 in 1970
            Full Time PhD            from 2 in 1962 to an estimated 56 in 1970
            Part Time PhD           from 32 in 1962 to an estimated 96 in 1970.

In a 1971 report to the department by Robert Gale, Director of Graduate Studies, the primary PhD research areas for the decade of the 1960s were:       

Old English, Medieval and Renaissance Studies 20  (dissertations from a total of 89)
American Literature, 1900 to the present 20
Eighteenth Century British 10
American Literature, 1860-1900 8
Criticism 8
American Literature to 1860 7

And it appears that the PhD graduates in the 60s were successful in finding tenure track positions, many at local colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh’s regional campuses, but one third of them at major research universities across the US. In the PhD class of the 1960s, there would be 16 English department chairs, 4 college presidents, 3 Provosts or Deans, several endowed chairs, and an MLA James Russell Lowell Award winner.  

The hiring to support the graduate program in English, and the very substantial number of graduate students who joined the department (and who wanted to bring literature into the composition course) gave new weight and definition to the teaching and study of Literature. There was an increase in the number and range of literature courses in the course catalogs of the 1960s, and the newer courses went beyond the usual period designations to include: “The Roaring 20s,” “The Augustans,” “Metaphysicals and Cavaliers,” “Makers of Modern Drama,” “Milton,” “Contemporary British Novelists,” and “The American Renaissance.” The reading list for the PhD Comprehensive Exam, a much contested document, assumed coverage of the broad canon in English and American literature. More than anything else, the growth of the graduate program changed the department’s sense of its mission and identity.  


Creative Writing

From 1920 to 1960, the English department defined itself by highlighting the success of the undergraduates who learned to write in its classes. In the 1960s, the Writing Major remained a popular choice among undergraduates. But during the decade of the 60s, the Creative Writing program began to lose its momentum. With the retirements of Edwin Peterson and Emily Irvine creative writing would lose two of its most effective teachers and, in Peterson, a much heralded, much admired public figure. Lawrence Lee, who had the strongest national reputation as a writer, and who might have been expected to step forward, turned his back on the program and insisted on teaching courses in literature. 

In 1964 Peterson wrote a letter to George Crouch, responding to a request for a report on the status of the Writing Major. Peterson wrote reluctantly and said that after almost 20 years of success,

a change set in, not suddenly but almost imperceptibly. An excellent young teacher, George Abbe, who has since done very well for himself, became an understandable embarrassment to the University and was relieved of his duties. Mr. Lawrence Lee was employed in his place and after a number of years Professor Lee, for many reasons resigned from our program. Later, Miss Dorothy O’Connor, one of our more talented teachers, left the University to be married. Professor Crow, who had kindly consented to help in our work, became so deeply involved in graduate teaching that he could no longer assist us. In 1962 Dr. Laufe gave up his course in article writing to assist in the freshman program. In 1963, Miss Emily Irvine, a substantial and invaluable part of our program, retired. And back in 1961, I myself had to give up two courses in advanced writing to take care of a new system of teaching Freshmen English with graduate assistant as instructors.

In the end, he said, the writing major had 1½ teachers “trying to take care of about one third of all the majors registered in the English department.” And, he concluded: “Obviously the quality of the program has deteriorated.”

Montgomery (Monty) Culver, who emerged as the available senior figure in the Writing Program after Peterson’s retirement, did not have the personality to fight the battles for faculty resources or to propose an MFA, a move that would have tied the writing program to the growth in graduate studies. (The Writers Workshop at Iowa could have provided the model.) The Writing Program would struggle for recognition and for faculty resources until Ed Ochester took over as program Director in 1978.



The story of Composition in the 1960s is a story of a transition in leadership, from Edwin Peterson to Virginia Elliott. From the time he joined the faculty in the 1930s, Peterson was at the center of both composition and writing in the undergraduate curriculum. In the 40s and 50s, these areas of writing became more finely differentiated. The value of “creative” writing became increasingly measured in terms of publication and awards, recognition from the outside rather than the value to the student writer. And composition was increasingly understood in relation to the demands of administering a required course to thousands of students. In the 1960s, Peterson gained national attention for creating a composition course, the “magic lantern” course delivered to hundreds of students in a lecture hall. This was far removed from his famous conference courses in the Early American nationality room. Developing this course moved Peterson away from the Writing major and back more fully into first year composition. 

By the time Peterson retired in 1968, the composition course he represented was meeting substantial opposition from faculty colleagues, who would refer disparagingly to the “Pittsburgh Paragraph,” but even more so from the now very large cohort of graduate teaching assistants, students in the 60s who saw the course as old-fashioned, rigid, and formulaic, more of an “exercise to be endured” than a course for the new generation, as argued in a long report from a committee chaired by Charles Crow.

Robert Whitman, the department chair, needed to prepare for the transition. He recruited Virginia Elliott from the School of Education to join the department in 1967 as a Lecturer. Her assignment would be to direct the Composition Program—to write the curriculum, to train the graduate assistants, and to coordinate the instructors who taught composition. Elliott had been teaching and supervising student teachers in the School of Education since 1965. Before that, she taught English at Mt. Lebanon High School (from 1940 to 1965). In the 40s, she had taken courses in the English department, courses in Short Story and Advanced Short Story, most likely with Peterson, and she had published two stories in Prairie Schooner.   Elliott was active with the NCTE and, in 1969, with Lois Josephs Fowler (a former Pitt PhD student, now at CMU), she edited and provided a chapter for English for Academically Advanced Students (NCTE, 1969).  

With no one in the English department prepared to step forward to run the program, Whitman turned to Elliott. (Abe Laufe, who had worked on the “magic lantern” course, would have been an obvious choice, but Laufe was to retire in 1971.) For the English department, Elliott taught composition, children’s literature, and a teaching seminar for graduate assistants, English 285, first called “Teaching Composition in College” and later “Rhetoric.” She rewrote the required first year course (we have from two versions of this – “A Basic Course in Freshman Composition” and “Freshman English”), and she began to explore a computer-assisted course for remedial students.    

In 1970 Elliott was promoted to Associate Professor but, to her disappointment, her primary appointment remained in the School of Education. She felt she had earned her status as a member of the English department; she felt this had been part of the deal when she was first hired. She retired a few years later, when William E. Coles, Jr. was recruited to become the new Director of Composition. Coles would once again bring the department’s composition program to national prominence.  

For more on Edwin Peterson, composition, and creative writing, see this conversation between David Bartholomae and Andrew Welsh.