Why English? Why Pillsbury? Message from the Chair

Pillsbury Hall archway

Pillsbury Hall archway
The doorway to English's future: A Pillsbury Hall renovated for English will serve 6,000 undergraduates a year

Nationwide, English is the oldest, largest, and most central of the humanities fields—taught in the small colleges of the early 19th century, the land grant universities of the late 19th century, and the research universities of the 20th century. Today no university or college can hope to achieve distinction in research and teaching without a strong English department.

English Chair Ellen Messer-Davidow
Chair Ellen Messer-Davidow

English at Minnesota goes back to the origins of the University. In 1851, seven years before Minnesota became a state, Congress granted land to start a public university: Young people learned the basics of grammar, reading, and arithmetic. The Morrill Act of 1862 strengthened the fledgling institution with another land grant, and the first two presidents—William Watts Folwell (1869-1884) and Cyrus Northrop (1884-1911)—taught grammar and literature. In 1885, Northrop, who had been a professor of literature at Yale, formally established English as one of the institution’s first departments. When the University was beset by crises in 1889, John S. Pillsbury, chair of the Board of Regents and former Minnesota governor, saved the University from dissolution and donated the funds to build Pillsbury Hall.

Over the decades, faculty members in English have been leaders in new directions within the discipline—for example, helping to found American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University; advancing the institutionalization of American literature, folklore, New Criticism, and poststructuralist theory nationwide; and developing a creative writing program, along with two student-edited literary journals, closely linked to the many literary and arts organizations of the Twin Cities.


Why English today? The age of discourse—in all of its oral, printed, and digital forms—is the age of English. At a time when everyone writes, English students write better. At a time when everyone is bombarded with information, English students excel at identifying and interpreting the most significant information. At a time when people are muddled by competing discourses on the world’s complex problems, English students critically analyze their ideologies, rhetorics, and impacts on our lives.

For 50 years, English has been housed in what was supposed to be a “temporary” home: Sharing Lind Hall with the College of Science and Engineering, it makes do with outdated research and teaching facilities at a far remove from the other humanities departments located in the University’s historic district, which includes Pillsbury Hall.  For 19 years, the chairs, faculty, and staff of English have worked toward the renovation of Pillsbury Hall as the department’s future home.

A renovated Pillsbury Hall will not only position English in proximity to its sister humanities, thereby fostering inter-departmental collaborations, but will provide it with modern classrooms, technology and magazine-production labs, a film studio, a performance space, student study nooks, and much-needed meeting spaces. This new home will ensure that our students—some 500 majors, 115 graduate students, and 6,000 general education students—are prepared for post-graduate life amidst the uncertainties of the 21st century.

Ellen Messer-Davidow
Professor and Chair, Department of English