The End of the English Major? Not So Fast
The English major is disappearing. Maybe it doesn't have to.
This is the time of year when I try to do a little recruiting for the English department.
As a teacher of first-year writing, I can do this from an advantageous position. I get one-on-one conference time with each student during their researched essays, and at this point in the semester, I know which students seem particularly engaged with our assignments, or maybe, just maybe, I noticed someone reading Jane Eyre, rather than looking at their phone before class.
With a year of college almost behind them, students are also well-positioned to assess the path behind and the road ahead. Their initial choice of major was likely made in a state of near total ignorance of the specifics of college, and often reflects parental desires, rather than their own interests.
My pitch is soft. I note how well the student is doing, how they seem to be enjoying the course, and then I ask if they’re maybe considering taking another English class sometime, maybe even a major?
Many of the students I query express that they’ve long enjoyed English classes, or writing, or both, but most demur when it comes to future commitment. They could imagine maybe taking a poetry or fiction writing class in the future for fun, as long as it fits their degree plan, but even those who express some wish to major in English (or other humanities) tend to look at it as a dubious proposition, an unwise choice consigning them to a life of economic struggle post graduation.
These attitudes are reflected in a recent Washington Post story on the declining enrollment in English at the University of Maryland and their efforts to resist this tide.
The Maryland approach seems to combine targeted outreach (contacting students who’ve done well in previous English classes), and branding efforts pointing out (correctly) that an English degree qualifies one for many career paths other than “teacher.”
That’s an easy sale for me because I lived it, spending a period as a marketing research consultant/analyst despite being burdened by not one, but three English degrees.
I’ve also witnessed many former students go forth with their English B.A.s and conquer. While I well understand that things have changed, employment market-wise, since my day, I think much of our current anxieties are primarily rooted in post-recession traumatic disorder.
Which is to say that I think Maryland is on the right track to remind people that an English major has broader applications than students might imagine.
At the same time, I wonder if those of us inside English departments should be having conversations about what an English major should look like in today’s world.
I’d be curious to hear from others if this is a conversation that is indeed already happening. As contingent faculty, it has never been one I’m privy to.
The assumption we sell English majors is that they will learn how to write, except that the traditional “literature” degree in its purest form offers a fairly narrow slice of what it means to write, particularly if we have them grinding away at academic essays in course after course.
While the academic study of literature is endlessly fascinating, if students know what’s good for them, very few will attempt to follow in their professors’ paths because there are no jobs.
And yet, the English majors I know love literature, and deeply want to spend their educations working through the pleasures and challenges this kind of work affords.
But they also worry about what it all might add up to, and so they hedge their bets, double majoring, or gravitating towards a writing, rather than literature, focus.
Indeed, at my former employer, Clemson University, a majority of students chose the “Writing and Publication Studies” emphasis over “Literature" inside the English degree. Anecdotally, I understand this is common elsewhere.
Again, I would be curious to know from others what they’re witnessing in their departments.
I believe we should be thinking about the range of writing that might confront our graduates and expose them to as many different modes as possible during their undergraduate years.
At the same time, I would be loathe to move towards a model where literature is not central to the major.
The most important courses I took to my work as a writer were in literature, an undergraduate course in modernist literature that made me realize I wasn’t a New Critic, and then one in postmodern literature that showed me what I wished words to do.
And in graduate school, a course in the “History of the Novel” still informs my fiction on an almost daily basis, and has proved far more impactful than any writing workshop.
In fact, I see a conversation about the “new” English major as a way to reaffirm the centrality of literature to the field, while also recognizing that students are not going to become English academics and that the "real world" demands proof of competencies beyond the degree itself.
Perhaps my personal, long and winding road through writing and academia has me looking at this from a unique perspective, but rather than bifurcating students into “literature” or “writing” tracks, we should be seeking overlaps.
Looking at my own life as a teacher and writer, the fields of rhetoric, literature, and creative writing are inextricably intertwined. I have to believe there is a curriculum that reflects that reality.
I think we could give students the best of all worlds, a major that not only studies texts of fascination and meaning, and allows them to explore life’s biggest questions, but also arms them with tangible skills for whatever careers await.
What that looks like will take a lot more thinking. I'm interested in hearing what others have to say.
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