What's Wrong With English Department Websites

They aren’t engaging, and that’s a problem, argues James M. Van Wyck.

October 9, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Lesia_G

Clear communication is supposed to be the business of English departments. If you look hard enough -- and maybe ask around -- you’ll eventually find an English department website that communicates clearly. But you don’t have to look hard for clunkers. Pull up a random English department website and you’ll find sentences that don’t speak to students (or their parents).

English departments are putting out website copy that ranges from forgettable to laughable. Let’s begin with a few examples.

  • The first sentence on the landing page of one department site tepidly announces that their department “is concerned with the attempt to communicate, both orally and in writing.”
  • Unnecessarily pompous phrases like “we mount 14 to 16 courses a year in the literatures and cultures of the Americas” are common, as are vague allusions to the evergreen “critical thinking,” which seems to be a way to say “thinking” with three more syllables.
  • Some departments pose important questions like “Why Major in English?” but respond with trite answers: “Perhaps the simplest answer to that question is because it's fun.”
  • A favorite example of mine, from across the pond: “The [department name redacted] is rather inclined to congratulate itself on its antiquity.”

Clichéd college writing is the hangover from AP and SAT test preparation benders. English professors battle these clichés in the classroom but not in the online copy that’s supposed to represent them.

No matter who’s responsible for writing this copy, it’s a depressing fact that English department websites are riddled with stock phrases. For instance, there’s a reflexive tendency to describe English faculty members as “distinguished.” A quick Google search of “English department” and “our distinguished faculty” turns up 1,430 hits. That’s not a coincidence. It’s a collective failure of the imagination.

I cite the examples above not to pick on specific offenders -- I’m avoiding names and links -- but rather to illuminate three unanswered questions most departments don’t appear to have asked:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What does this page need to say and do?
  • What kind of writing is called for in the moment? That is, how do we engage a skeptical public, members of which walk our halls, perhaps as they consider majoring in English?

Nearly as problematic as these unanswered questions is the lack of attention to design. For starters, the writing on English department sites isn’t geared for the ways we read online. All too often, English department websites feature long chunks of text -- long paragraphs probably copied and pasted from a Word document.

Those undigested lumps of exposition bludgeon the online reader, who pays for our lack of attention to the visual. How we design our websites will shape whether someone reads on and discovers more about us. Poor design limits the chance of discovery, especially if someone is looking at our sites on a phone, which almost is a given at this point.

Recently updated research into online reading habits reinforces the importance of design. What are the visual elements of your website saying to your audience? Is your design complementing or hindering your message?

You might have noticed in my first example that the department “concerned with the attempt to communicate, both orally and in print,” left out the visual aspects of communication. So, too, do many English departments, forgetting that our websites are experienced, not just plundered for written content.

Hawking a Dream

So, why can’t we tell our story effectively, and why don’t we use our websites to do so? Because we (professors, mostly) don’t think much about how to pitch our major.

Our limply phrased, jargon-riddled, unintentionally elitist websites usually do just enough rhetorical lifting to reach the converted. We’re not preaching to the choir; we’re addressing wannabe preachers. We -- most likely without realizing it -- primarily write to readers who are hip to enough insider lingo that they can parse the clues about what a particular department is all about. To be blunt, we’re writing for the students we want, students already convinced that the English major is right for them: third- or fourth-generation college students familiar with our shibboleths.

So we don’t pitch the major, we hawk a dream. And it’s a dream that might not translate well to audiences with pasts different than the typical tenured professor. How, for example, does our language speak to first-generation students? Take the phrase “liberal arts.” Polling by Gallup suggests that phrases like “liberal arts” are all but meaningless to a wide swath of the public, especially those “at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder,” who may not have a family history of attending college.

One pitfall of departmental websites is that they can all sound alike after a while. But with similar missions and values, how can departments avoid this pitfall? How can departments find the heart of what it is they do best and communicate that to prospective students?

Tarshia Stanley, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences at St. Catherine University, told me via email that “While many students are initially choosing majors based on what they think they know about themselves or the market and what they've been told, often by the sophomore year they are also looking for where they belong.”

One of the problems she saw in a recent analysis of more than 25 English department websites was that many of them “rush to showcase their courses or areas of expertise” and forget that “revealing why those courses and those areas matter is [more] important for a student trying to decide on a major.” Instead, departments have to “reveal who they are in their marketing materials,” she wrote, and noted that “testimonials from students and faculty members about what makes them show up to that particular department can go a long way in the quest to win majors.”

Stanley concluded, “I don't think most departments have approached their pages as crafting a web presence; they're [simply] disseminating information.”

And so, a gap exists between those sophomores looking to find “where they belong” and departments who might see the website primarily as a static vehicle that conveys information like requirements for graduation.

The concern here goes beyond recruitment and survival. It is about the kinds of audiences we imagine when we picture our future majors. For example, are the needs of first-generation students considered when we craft our content? (More important: if you make promises to meet the needs of first-generation students, can you keep such promises?)

I asked Stanley if, in her review of the websites, she saw English departments communicating well with first-generation college students. Her response is telling: “I didn't see a lot attention to first-gen students. Again, the websites were often efficient at dispensing information but not as much at anticipating and answering questions. I don't know that the designers were thinking about the nuances of the students who might be accessing the information.”

Global Problems, Local Solutions

So how we communicate on websites and other platforms what happens in our departments is a serious affair. If we keep appealing to prospective students using the same kinds of jargon that speaks to those already primed to major in the humanities, we'll never convince first-generation and lower-income students that an English major -- or any humanities major, for that matter -- is an appealing and viable option.

Make no mistake: a departmental website is a chance to define your mission and goals, highlight outcomes, and concretize talking points that students and faculty members will need to advocate for funding in the future. You’re either making the most of that chance, or you’re wasting it. If it’s the latter, that might require devoting time during a faculty meeting to close reading and editing your department’s landing page. Such an activity might help articulate the department’s north star and identify a shared mission and set of practices that reflect those values.

Alyssa W. Christensen of Dear English Major told me via email that “most English department websites need a makeover, and that is reflective of a lot of English departments in general. Many websites feature outdated designs, a lack of information about all that the department offers (courses, extracurriculars, academic opportunities and so on) and zero career resources. English departments need to modernize in every way, from the way they market themselves to the actual content of their course offerings.”

And now -- before your department shrinks further -- is the time to do it. Because there’s a link between subpar English department websites and the national debate about the value of the humanities -- which, despite having the facts on our side, we are currently losing. One reason we’re trailing is because we’re doing a terrible job advocating for the humanities at the local, institutional and departmental level.

English Ph.D.s should know a thing or two about appealing to an audience. But the shrinking band of hardy souls who darken the halls of English departments haven’t told our story well at all.

How bad are we at attracting majors? Numbers help tell the story: more than a million more bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 2014-15 than were awarded in 1970-71, and in 2015, English departments attracted fewer majors than they did then -- not only as a percentage, but also in total. In 1970-71, just under 70,000 English B.A.s were awarded out of a total of about 840,000 graduates -- or 7.6 percent. In 2014-15, 46,000 English B.A.s were awarded out of a total of about 1.9 million, or roughly 2.4 percent

We wonder at the drop. Our answers are telling, as we often attribute falling enrollments to forces out of our control, and thus we conveniently absolve ourselves from doing something about it.

Enrollment is often cast as a national issue rather than a local one. And for good reason: the losses have hurt everyone, and humanities enrollments are linked to broad cultural assumptions about the supposed value of particular majors. But if the problem is global, the solutions are local -- and they begin with how we reach out to those who would study with us.

On their own, crappy English department websites are only small, isolated failures. The problem is the accumulated waste. We’re collectively failing to use our own digital front porches to make the national case for the liberal arts. I use the image of a front porch here with reason: porches and stoops are places where we connect. Does your website have any level of interactivity at all? Is it imposing or inviting? Does your porch invite or forbid conversation?

Needed: Better Stories

Ryan Cordell, a distinguished scholar -- scrap that, I mean an accomplished innovator -- is an associate English professor at Northeastern University. A while back, Cordell wrote about how seemingly innocuous jokes about English majors have a cumulative effect: “they are doing slow, small, but steady and substantive harm to a field and to students … I worry frequently that my generation of English faculty will be the last, and it seems many in the public and in some legislatures would be thrilled to wave goodbye.”

Cordell situates these digs within the discipline’s past and future: “I would argue the broad trends in literary research have been toward more capacious approaches to written culture, but those trends have largely not filtered down into the undergraduate curriculum, which largely rests on period and author courses not unlike those offered decades ago.” In other words, we’re innovating without letting it change how we reach the one public we’ve got (for now): our students.

As Cordell notes, English majors can be “keenly critical working with technology, and I believe my field can do a much better job inculcating an engaged technical practice rooted in the historical technologies of our field, such as books, rather than championing a vaguely bookish technophobia. To think about human flourishing and social justice today requires both practical and intellectual engagement with technology. We need the critical and creative capacities of English majors distributed liberally across the technical fields.”

English departments, Cordell writes, “need a lot of help if we want students to recognize the value of studying the subject even as they (rightly) look with terror at the post-graduation job market.” Students and their parents don’t know that the numbers are on our side, because we aren’t doing a good job of telling them so. We have to think of the sorts of things that would-be English majors and their anxious parents need to hear -- and then say those things first.

We need to attend to national trends, but above all, we can’t believe we are helpless in the face of them. We’re not helpless. Individual departments can’t challenge macroeconomic shifts, but they can use their websites to engage local communities, prospective students and alumni. We need to start telling better stories at the local level.

The place to start telling that truth is on our department websites. We’re not telling effective stories, and even when we do, we’re telling them to only a small subset of prospective students.

Next time, I’ll offer some practical suggestions and highlight a few English departments that are getting it right. I’ve got a few model departments in mind, but please nominate candidates in the comments below, or reach out to me directly on Twitter or email.

Bio

James M. Van Wyck earned his Ph.D. in English from Fordham University and is a research fellow at Robert Weisbuch & Associates. He welcomes comments and suggestions via email [email protected] and Twitter @jmvanwyck.

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