Last night I had dinner with my favorite teacher. He taught The Canterbury Tales when I was in graduate school, and his lectures were elegant, well researched, thought-provoking, yet not overly specialized or academic. They taught you to love Chaucer.

He retired from UCLA about a dozen years ago, and I couldn’t help asking him how he felt about his former department’s move to dispense with long-standing requirements that English majors take classes in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

My friend did not survive a long, distinguished career in academia without learning how to dodge a loaded question. He patiently explained that the university had assembled a blue ribbon panel of experts to assess the department’s competitiveness. The panel reported back that UCLA’s English department was hopelessly outdated, had none of the characteristics of a modern literature program, and radical change was required.

Out went Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. In came (additional) faculty specializing in race and gender, criticism, and literature of other cultures. It gets more and more specific, he said. It’s not just Chicano literature, but the literature of the border communities.

But the biggest new trend, he noted, finally allowing a smile, is…ecology. UCLA went out and recruited some of the biggest names in ecology. Anything written about ecology is now, de facto, literature. "I don’t understand what ecology is doing in the English Department," he said. "It’s obvious it belongs in History."

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