The Department of English of the University of Lagos has was reknown for its literary and linguistic excellence. Founded fifty-five years ago, Professors Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark, who, at various times, served as the departmental head in the 1960s, were among the pioneers who set the ball of creativity running. Professor Hope Eghagha, a literary Houdini himself, is the current head of the department. He shared with Henry Akubuiro how Soyinka and J.P. Clark’s magical moments in the department provided the impetus for academic and literary exertion, which the department has become synonymous with in the academia and the world of letters.
This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Department of English of the University of Lagos, having taken off in 1962. How do we situate this epoch in the university’s annals?
This is one of the point we should clear. There are two narratives at this point: that the university took off in 1962, while another historical account has it that English was a servicing unit to the university, but it started admitting students in 1964. So, if we take 1962 as a take-off point, that means we are 55 years. Then, if we take 1964, it is 53 years. We opted to celebrate 55 years of service to humanity.
Before then, the English Department used to be under Classics at the University College, Ibadan, which was the pioneer institution in the country. At what point did it become imperative to go a different way at Unilag?
The University of Lagos was created by an Act of Parliament in 1962, and it defined its focus. It was not tailored after the University of London, which gave birth to the University College, Ibadan (now the University of Ibadan). So, it seemed to me that, right from the outset, the University of Lagos decided to have its own character; and when it took off, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, the Faculty of Arts. It was the School of Humanities, in which you had History, English, Geography, among others. Gradually, the Faculty of Arts emerged. I have to put it on record.
Who were the pioneers when the department when it took off?
You can see from the roll call here [Professor Dunn, the first HOD of the department; Professor Wole Soyinka, from 1965-1967; followed by Professor Bruce King and Professor JP Clark], who later became prominent persons in the literary world. After JP Clark, it was his wife, Ebun, and, later, Professor Theo Vincent. Those were the persons we met. Of course, they were other teachers who didn’t become the HoD. We would like to beat our chest to say we have made our contributions.
And what legacies did the pioneers leave in the department?
They created a platform for us, their grandchildren as it were. The fact that Professor Wole Soyinka and JP Clark were here was a big plus. They established a tradition of excellence. They were able to combine both literary and linguistic studies effectively. So, it was not a mono-programme department. We have continued to run courses in literature and language. That tradition started then. When it comes to writing, the fact that Professor Soyinka was here at a time contributed. Professor JP Clark retired from here. So, the tradition which they started –excellence in teaching and creative writing –were built upon, and we continue to build. We have a good relationship with them. Professor JP Clark has a building named after him here, and he comes in sometimes once every week. The 55th anniversary lecture we had on Tuesday was in his honour because of his immense contributions to the development and the establishment of the Department of English.
A department is measured, parts, by the progress and successes of their graduates. To what extent has the department contributed in literary scholarship in the country?
We have produced quite a number of persons who went on in life to become professors in different universities. We have also produced persons who did not become professors but excelled in their different fields. If I can take a professor of sociolinguistic, for instance, Tope Omoniyi, who is at the University of Roehampton, he has made enormous contributions to linguistic studies. We can easily recall one of our students, G. Ogunsanwon, who became a popular journalist in Nigeria and became the editor of Daily Times. There are quite a number of others. We have produced actors, too, people who schooled here. Let me start with Wunmi Obe –she is an artist, and I taught her here. Tony Umez, who is in Nollywood, was also my student here. Tope Makinwa is also a product of this place; she has gone into writing and social media activism. They are so many. We have persons who graduated here and are abroad teaching in American and British universities. Some are working in banks. Some are in the media. Louis Odion, the former editor of Sunday Sun, is also a product of this department – I taught him.
English is not a professional course, yet students keep drifting to the department in their hundreds every session. What’s the attraction?
There must be something about English that prepares a graduate of that discipline for all facets of life. You take a degree in English, and you can work in almost any industry in Nigeria and in the world. It has also provided a platform for some of our students who went into communications studies and IT. Last December, the set of 2006 had a reunion here in Lagos, which I attended; and I found that quite a number of them had gone into different fields. I am going to bring some of them here so they can interact with our students, let them know that your studying English does not limit you. We have our graduates in banks, television, teaching, business, journalism, among others. English prepares you for life as a degree in the Humanities where you can appreciate the sociology of the environment in terms of communications, language and culture, so that you can fit into any aspect of life.
Against the backdrop of growing unemployment in the country, is there anything the department is doing to prepare its students to face the diminishing labour market or to fend for themselves thereafter?
We are exposing them to communications studies, business communication, editing, printing, and understanding the book industry. They also take some practical in theatre. They are also exposed to phonetics, phonology and creative writing. These are things they can exploit upon graduation, so they can fit into the labour market. Some could be on their own in certain minor sectors of the economy. We make them realise that, when you are studying a text in literature, you don’t study it in isolation; you study it in relation to your environment so that whatever lessons in it can be applied to the environment upon graduation. The highest number of our graduates are in the teaching profession, both public and private, within and outside the country. So, we give them skills that will prepare them for life, so they are not circumscribed or limited because they studied English.
Creative writing has become a big thing round the world and, in the western world, we now have thriving creative writing schools who churn out budding writers. What is the department doing to tap into this creative boom?
We are working hard on creative writing, but there is a lot that still need to be done. We are working in that direction as well.
The culture of literary journals is no longer as robust as it used to be in those days in English departments of Nigerian universities. How is the departmental journal fairing?
We came out in January this year, and we are in the process of accepting essays now that will be sent out for peer review, so our journal is still at it; but you know that we also suffer the hiccup which the financial meltdown in the country has brought about in the university system. So, funding is an issue; but we do hope that, in the years ahead, we are going to have seed money. Our plan is to make edition of LARES an online journal. We do hope that the next edition of LARES (Lagos Review of English Studies) will also be online. In the university system, you cannot have career advancement if you don’t write and publish in reputable journals. So, we have a lot of our colleagues contributing both from within the university and outside of it. But we believe that, in line with contemporary thinking, you would be widely read if you went online. So, we are working in that direction. We are working hand in hand with the TRS, which is the computer wing of the University of Lagos.
What has changed from the inception of the university till the present? Are there innovations that have been brought to bear on the curriculum and method of impartation?
Texts have changed. The focus has remained the same –to produce manpower –but there have been new courses introduced, for example. Oral Literature is now a course. Modern discourses and contemporary novels have also been introduced. You see that many things have changed in Nigeria. At the time the department started, we didn’t have so many text books, novels, plays, poems written by Nigerians and Africans. In the last 30, 40 years, a lot of Nigerian writing have gone into the pantheon or the canon. By that, we have expanded the syllabus, contemporize it and, of course, we have also tried to teach using modern equipment, for instance, power point presentation. When we teach Shakespeare, for example, we try to do an intertextual study between the film and the original text. So, the dynamics of the 21st century have also impacted positively on the programme that we run here.
What efforts are you making to ensure that your masters and Phd programmes are faster, because, in Nigeria these days, graduate students are drifting towards overseas to do their masters and PhD programmes abroad when we have thriving English and Literary Studies departments in Nigeria?
It is a two-way thing. The fact that students come in and hardly does anyone ever make it through the prescribed 3-4 years. A lot of factors militate against completing the PhD programme within the stipulated time frame. For the MA, it is fairly straight. It is a one-year programme –twelve to fifteen months. People easily do that and finish up. It is when you come to the PhD that it becomes harder. One is that there are too many distractions to the students. A lot of them don’t concentrate; they don’t do it fulltime. Of course, we can’t run away from the fact that some supervisors are distracted. But the university is trying to introduce some institutional mechanisms to ensure that you face your work. One, they keep reinforcing that you cannot stay more than two years beyond the prescribed time for the programme.
If, for instance, the programme is four years, and you are going to seven and eight years, there is a query to find out why you have been slow. For post-graduate students, because there are no grants and scholarships, as you have abroad, people are allowed to fend for themselves here; and, because they work –some of them are married, and they have families they maintain –they don’t give full attention to the work. Then, the typical Nigerian university lecturer is overburdened, teaching so many courses, supervising so many students, and the resources to go on field trips are not adequate. All of them are contributing factors.
I agree some teachers across the country are more effective than others. That’s the fact. Some are more committed. We do know that there are some teachers who are too busy to read the chapters submitted by these students until there is a query from within the system. If we have enough grants and scholarships that are tied to certain projects in terms of time –in order words, you are entitled for grants for three or four years –it will go a long way, because you would lose the grant if you don’t deliver.
On a personal, when did your romance with the Department of English start?
I first came here as a student in the 1983-84 section and, in 1988, I went to the University of Ado-Ekiti for six years and came back in 1984. I went out again in 2009 and came back in 2015.
What would you describe as two of your most memorable days in the department?
[They were] When I got my PhD and when I got my professorship (laughs). Those were memorable days. To become a professor in the university, which is a result of hard work and based on the significant contributions you have made to the academia, not politics, nothing can beat that.
The Department of English marked its 55th anniversary early this week with a keynote speech dedicated to Prof. JP Clark. What other activities are lined up for this anniversary?
We are going to have a roundtable on drama: dramatic literature, dramatic production and film. This roundtable will examine what has happened to stage plays –it seems to have lost its popularity. Our readings will celebrate our 55th anniversary. We are going to have another lecture before the end of the year, to be delivered by Professor Munzali Jubril, on a topic that is related to language and national development. Those are the activities lined up for the rest of the year.