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As early as 1895, shortly after the establishment of the Department of Engineering, the idea was conceived that a special type of work in English should be developed for students in engineering. As a consequence, although no separate unit was constituted, English courses for engineering and architecture students were taught by instructors borrowed from the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

The purpose of the instruction was to improve the student’s command of his language as a means of communication. Two teachers of this period were Louis Abraham Strauss (‘93, Ph.D. ‘00), who later became chairman of the Department of English in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (see Part III: English Language and Literature), and Shirley Wheeler Smith (‘97, A.M. ‘00), who became Vice-President and Secretary of the University. Strauss taught English to engineering students from 1895 through 1898 and Smith from 1898 through 1901.

In 1908 Professor Joseph Raleigh Nelson (‘94, A.M. ‘03) was brought from Lewis Institute to take charge of the English courses being taught in the College of Engineering. In co-operation with Professor F. N. Scott, chairman of the Department of Rhetoric of the University, and Dean Mortimer E. Cooley, Professor Nelson worked to broaden the conception of English instruction to include not only the mastery of the language as an instrument of expression, but also the expansion of the student’s culture by means of the study of language and literature. Dean Cooley was always an ardent exponent of the idea that the engineer needs a broader background than it is possible for him to secure in purely technological pursuits. He was at all times an energetic supporter of the Department of English, which may be said to have had its beginning upon Professor Nelson’s arrival. Although the department had its inception in 1895, the work in English was on a more or less tentative basis until 1908.

From 1908 to 1915 the department expanded in line with the rapid growth of the College. The requirement in English was increased from four to six hours in 1914, an arrangement which continued until 1932, when the number of hours required was increased to ten. Also, new courses were offered to meet the demands of the rising enrollment and the cultural needs of the students. Courses in literature, particularly the novel and the short story, and a course in scientific literature were established. In 1913-14 instruction in report writing began under Nelson, who became a pioneer in this field. This particular course, in accord with Dean Cooley’s idea that English should be considered as a tool, became very popular with students.

Other developments, some of which were a result of World War I, occurred between 1912 and 1924. Special work was developed for foreign students not only in the College of Engineering but throughout the University. Out of Nelson’s relationship with foreign students grew the interest that led to his appointment as Counselor to Foreign Students in 1933 and to his resignation as chairman of the department in 1936 in order to devote full time to the directorship of the University’s International Center. During the same period courses in speech and business English were established. Business English was dropped after a few years, but instruction in speech has been continued and has developed into an important part of the curriculum.

In 1922 a library was established with funds donated by students and faculty members. After a period in which the number of accessions increased rather slowly, Dean Sadler provided funds from the budget for the regular purchase of books. The library has since grown rapidly and now performs a distinct service.

For some years dentistry and pharmacy students took English courses in the Engineering College with the engineering and architecture students. Although the College of Architecture and Design became a separate unit of the University in September, 1931, students of architecture still take part of their work in English in the Engineering College.

After a brief reunion with the Literary College under the regime of President Little, the department was restored in 1930 to independent status in the Engineering College.

In 1930 the freshman work was placed on an experimental basis in that it was fashioned after the model of orientation courses offered in various other universities. The opinion of some of the men in the technical departments, and of Dean Sadler in particular, was that the courses in English could be designed to direct the students into other cultural branches of learning. Hence, the content of the beginning courses for some years was devoted to a consideration of the social sciences in the first semester, and to science and the humanities in the second.

After Professor Nelson’s resignation in 1936, Professor Jesse Earl Thornton (Albion ‘08, A.M. Michigan ‘20) served in his place until 1937, when Professor Carl Gunard Brandt (‘21l, LL.M. ‘22) was named chairman. Among those who have served on the staff of the department since Nelson took charge of the work are the following: Otto C. Marckwardt (‘01, A.M. ‘02), Charles Albert Langworthy (Albion ‘08, Ph.D. Michigan ‘21), Ivan Henry Walton (‘17, A.M. ‘21), Christian N. Wenger (‘15, Ph.D. ‘22), Carl Enoch W. L. Dahlström (‘20, Ph.D. ‘28), Robert D. Brackett (Northwestern ‘09, A.M. Michigan ‘23), Carl Edwin Burklund (Western State Teachers ‘22, Ph.D. Michigan ‘28), William Henry Egly (‘13, A.M. ‘19), Leo Kirschbaum (‘28, Ph.D. ‘37), Wilfred Minnich Senseman (Columbia ‘33, Ph.D. Michigan ‘50), Webster Earl Britton (Randolph-Macon ‘27, Ph.D. Michigan ‘45), George Middleton McEwen (Park ‘31, Ph.D. Michigan ‘46), Joshua McClennen (Harvard ‘35, Ph.D. ibid. ‘40), and William Harrison Mack (Oberlin ‘13, A.M. ibid. ‘13).

During World War II the staff was increased radically in order to provide instruction for the students in the various Army and Navy training programs. Directly after the war, the department again expanded to meet the demands of the returning veterans. At its peak the staff numbered thirty-five, including both full-time and part-time members. The department has now resumed its normal size, and nearly all courses are being taught by full-time instructors.

The freshman courses no longer emphasize a particular subject matter such as orientation; instead, the reading materials are selected as a means of developing the student’s insight and sharpening his understanding. This purpose also carries over into a variety of advanced courses covering American literature, world literature, general reading for professional students, the literature of science, the novel, the short story, and the drama. In all these courses, as well as in many of the speech courses, composition occupies a prominent place.

Interest in work in speech has been so marked that, in addition to large enrollments in the numerous courses offered, more than a hundred students regularly belong to the Stump Speaker’s Society of Sigma Rho Tau, a student organization devoted primarily to discussion of engineering and related problems.

Methods and materials may have altered through the years, but the work of the department is still focused upon the original purpose for which the initial courses were established in 1895: sound training in written and oral communication, and the development of comprehension and reading skill through contact with broadening and humanizing material.

Webster Earl Britton


Announcement, College of Engineering (title varies), Univ. Mich., 1915-52.

Catalogue…, Univ. Mich., 1914-23.

Catalogue and Register, Univ. Mich., 1923-27.

MS, “Minutes of the Meetings of the Faculty of the Department (College since 1915) of Engineering.”

President’s Report, Univ. Mich., 1920-52.

Proceedings of the Board of Regents…, 1895-1952.

The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor, Volume III, Part VII, pp. 1252-1254.

History of the University of Michigan

Engineering English