150 Years of Change, 150 Years of the Same

A Look at Evolving English at Dalhousie

If you were given this question on your exam, how would you answer it?

“Give the derivation of the word ‘Rhetoric,’ together with its earliest application; and show how it was afterwards modified.”

If you’d stumble on this, you are not alone. Last Friday, students, faculty, and alumni were asked this very question taken from an 1869 exam of Dalhousie University as the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Department of English celebrated the yearly homecoming by commemorating 150 years of English here at Dalhousie, dating back to the 1865 appointment of James De Mille as a Professor of History and Rhetoric.

The commemoration of this event would become focused around the theme of “Evolving English,” seeing how English and discipline here at Dalhousie has both changed and stayed the same since its introduction. To do this, the event began with Dr. Melissa Furrow and Dr. Bill Barker channeling the spirit of the 1800s to the audience, reading a (thankfully abridged) convocation speech which De Mille gave in 1878, and then proctoring an historical 1869 exam.

This would be followed by a hearty rendition of the comic poem “The Maiden of Quoddy” by De Mille, where all would amusingly stumble upon the lines “Where the swift gliding Skoodoowabskooksis / Unites with the Skoodoowabskook.”

From here, the heady mood was furthered by Shauntay Grant, the department’s newest hire, to the Creative Writing programme, a former Halifax Poet Laureate, presenting a poetic presentation, which was both hauntingly nostalgic and poignant, as one was washed away by a wave of melancholy for when times were simpler.

The formal events proper would end with the presentation of prizes by Dr. Stone to students who had responded to the reflection of what “Evolving English” is. Prizes were awarded to Mady Gillespie, Jade Nauss, and Courtney Sharpe for 3rd, 2nd, and 1st prize respectively. An excerpt of Sharpe’s winning entry is below:

I Telephone my great-grandmother’s grave

and ask her what the last poem she read was

a laugh trickles through the cracking line

she tells me what indigo black ink boiling across

a page smells like, tells me the last poem she read

was a letter from England entitled “killed in action”

She tells me, “No one reads poems anymore.”

Lastly was a noteworthy announcement by Dr. Diepeveen of the new establishment of a Bursary for the Department of English for Black and Aboriginal Students enrolled within English Students, supported by departmental faculty and with the intention to have further established in the future by Alumni.

The good cheer all present would continue as they broke into lively discourse, as the comparing of tweed jackets and the strains of song – “I’m a tenured man on a Halifax Pier, the loss of Munro’s Profess-ers” (to the tune of Barret’s Privateers) – broke out. English has evolved at Dalhousie, but the fascination with the word, and its role in society has not left in the slightest.

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