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Bringing Back the English Major

May 23, 2007

A typical student comes to John Jay College of Criminal Justice expecting, understandably, to learn about crime. She loads up on criminal law and procedure courses, as well as others that look at the field through a quantitative lens.

When the time comes to apply to law school, as nearly 30 percent of students there say they plan to do, what's often missing is a record of analytic study, as honed through a series of literature and writing courses.

The City University of New York’s public service college has long offered dozens of literature, writing and related courses. But for the past 30-plus years, students could only declare a minor in English. With the state's approval later this year, John Jay is again set to offer a major, a move that the department chair, Chris Suggs, said is long overdue.

"Some of the best students would transfer out after they realized that they couldn't major in the things that their curiosity took them toward," said Suggs, an English professor at John Jay since 1973. "This gives students a chance to approach in a different way the same fields that brought them here."

In a time of shrinking budgets, the norm is for colleges to drop courses, if not majors. English departments are thought of as mainstays -- there are 1,145 departments that offer English or related degrees at the bachelor's level or higher, according to Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. But they are not considered cash cows, which is why John Jay's addition is all the more intriguing.

"It sounds like they are responding to the interests of their students," Feal said. "[The students] are seeking a liberal arts education, and English is the hallmark of that."

John Jay considers itself a liberal arts college, Suggs said, and administrators decided that the college needs to put resources back into the humanities, which took a major hit decades ago. Fiscal problems within the City University system (which were tied to New York City's much-ballyhooed budget problems) threatened John Jay's future in the late 1970s, eventually forcing college leaders to cut a number of majors, including English. Some have been refashioned into new programs with new names in the past several years. For instance, the sociology department recovered with a major in criminology; students interested in psychology could major in forensic psychology. Philosophy has no major, nor does history -- but professors in the latter field are planning and writing a new proposal.

As part of a larger plan put in place by Jeremy Travis, John Jay's president, the college is gradually eliminating its associate degree programs. By 2010, students who would have earned an associate's degree at John Jay will go to a CUNY community college. Joint-degree programs, supported in part by the state, would allow a student to study English for two years at a community college and then automatically transfer into John Jay's new program.

Feal, the MLA director, said that in her experience, it's quite common for colleges to reorganize English and foreign language programs based on finances or student interest. At John Jay, much has changed since 1976, the year the English major was dissolved. At that time, the majority of students there already had started a career. Now, the student body is less pre-professional, according to Suggs.

The English minor at John Jay has always attracted interest, and in recent years, the college has hired several faculty members who concentrate on the intersection of literature and the law. The newly designed program would give students the option of pursuing an English degree with an emphasis on traditional texts or specializing in the study of how literature confronts the central questions of the law, and how lawyers use themes in literature to structure their arguments. The "literature and the law" track would be intended largely for students who want to enter the legal profession.

In designing the program, Suggs said administrators have had to speculate.

"For more than 30 years, no one has come here to study literature," Suggs said. "They might have found it interesting once they arrived, but it hasn't been a destination. So we're not just asking students here what they want; we're looking at what will help attract future students."

All colleges in the CUNY system have a chance to comment on the new program proposal. It then goes to the university leadership and the state. Though the major wouldn't be offered officially until January, at the earliest, the college is already promoting it and developing new courses.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, to prepare for expanded offerings, John Jay has hired 21 English faculty members. Suggs said he would like to have at least 50 majors three years into the program.

 

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