The Department of English, University of Peradeniya, is the direct heir to the English Department of the Ceylon University College which was situated in Colombo during the first half of the 20th century.* The Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies of the newly created University of Ceylon (1942) ceased to exist in Colombo when they were transferred to Peradeniya in 1952/3. The Department of English in Peradeniya, which was one of the first Departments to be relocated, consequently, is the oldest in the island. E.F.C. Ludowyk, who had joined the staff of University College in 1932 (and was appointed Professor in 1936), was the first Professor of English of the University of Ceylon. He was also the first Dean of Arts in the newly established University in Peradeniya.
The aim of the Department of English is to impart a broad understanding to students of English language and literature as these developed over the centuries, and of the socio-cultural and political factors that determined this development. Special emphasis is placed on tracing the historical development of English, as it spatially expanded from being a regional dialect in the early medieval period to possessing the status of a colonial and imperial language of power and mediation. English as a language producing resistance and counter cultural expressions is also a particular focus of the department. The Department conducts both undergraduate (BA General and Special Degree) and postgraduate (Diploma/ Masters Preliminary/ MA/MPhil/PhD) programmes.
For a considerable period of its existence the Department of English concentrated mainly on the teaching of British Literature but subsequently American Literature, European Literatures (in translation), Commonwealth (Postcolonial) Literature and Sri Lankan Literature in English were introduced into the curriculum. This emphasis on Literature is still reflected in the composition of the Department’s staff—five of the nine cadre positions are held by those whose doctoral research was on Literature. In keeping with changes in national realities and needs, however, the Department now teaches a substantial number of Language and Linguistic courses as well. Furthermore, after the introduction of the Course Unit system, the curriculum was so adjusted that approximately a third each of the syllabus is devoted to Literature, Cultural Studies and Language.
The Department has always made adjustments to meet national needs, When the social revolution of 1956 resulted in a number of students without the ability to read reference books in English entering the University, it instituted a Sub-Department to serve the needs of such students. The concept of a Sub-Department of English was borrowed by most Universities in the country. The Sub-Department was subsequently converted into an English Language Teaching Unit and administered separately. The Department was also the first in the country to initiate Writing Skills courses for students. In the early 21st Century, a self-financed Extension Course in English for Professionals was set up. The Department also spearheaded the designing and teaching of a programme leading to a Diploma/Postgraduate Diploma in Translation. In addition to this, the Department was involved in the recent past in drawing up a special English course for Government English teachers.
Although the Department has changed considerably over the years, it remains committed to producing students with “critical incisiveness, depth and range of humane learning and rigorous critical standards” (Halpe 164) which was seen as its credo in the halcyon days of Professor Ludowyk.
* For a more detailed history of the English Department read Ashley Halpé, “The English Department and the University” More Open than Usual? An Assessment of the Experiment in University Education at Peradeniya and Its Antecedents. Ed. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana. Peradeniya: University of Peradeniya 1992. 162-75.