Selling the English Major

At MLA, professors consider how to make the case for their discipline -- and talk about salary prospects -- to prospective students, but also to parents, presidents and politicians.

January 11, 2016
 

AUSTIN, Texas -- At her college, when she started teaching not that long ago, there were 122 English majors, said a professor in the audience at a panel here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Today there are 55. The trends, she said, are "extremely scary."

The professor's college is not alone. At the University of Maryland at College Park, the number of English majors is down about 40 percent in a little more than three years.

English faculty members point to all kinds of reasons for these declines (which are not present at all institutions). Some colleges have changed general education requirements in ways that minimize the odds that a student who isn't setting out to be an English major falls in love with the field while taking an introductory course. A tough economy has many students (and their parents) worried about employability. And superficial media reports create the (false) impression that studying literature is a sure path to unemployment.

At last year's MLA, a session highlighted the reasons for the declines. At this year's meeting, a session focused on strategies for selling the English major -- not only to students, but to parents, college administrators and politicians.

One point of tension discussed was how much to talk about something that may seem a point of pride at MLA, but might be terrifying to the career-minded parents of college students these days: many people study literature because they love reading literature, not for career-related reasons.

Mary K. Ramsey, chair of English at Eastern Michigan University, said that, a generation ago, a department like hers might have created a brochure promoting study of English by showing a student sitting under a tree, reading a book. Today, she quipped, such an image would prompt parents to tell their children that if they study English, "You will be living in our basement forever."

But at the same time, Ramsey said it was important that English professors confront their own fear of discussing "less tangible reasons" for studying literature. Many worry, she said, that simply admitting that reading literature gives them great pleasure would lead administrators or parents to view them as hedonists or narcissists. Even when research shows that those who read literature have more empathy for fellow humans than those who don't read, it's hard to imagine telling a provost to create a new faculty line so that students have more empathy, she said.

Ramsey argued for a mix of talking about the joy of literature in ways that don't hide that pleasure, but also show positive qualities that relate to students' later careers. Professors need to remind others that the Internet is basically "a limitless array of texts." Further, many businesses are in fact based on text. She cited Amazon, not because it is a bookseller, but because of "its ability to sell through text -- selling through description and consumer evaluation."

Emily Todd, English chair at Westfield State University, spoke of the need to constantly be talking with students and parents about the many paths for English majors. She said that means not only the student who goes on to become a published poet or to earn an M.F.A. (although she talks about them, too). It also means the insurance agent and real estate agent who use critical reading and thoughtful writing in their jobs.

The reality, she said, is that her graduates aren't necessarily pursuing careers in literature.

Robert Matz, a professor of English and senior associate dean for curriculum and technology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University, also picked up the issue of talking about careers and money. He noted that there is a steady stream of reports coming from entities like Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce that rank college majors' impact on subsequent income. The message seems to be "study STEM" and get a job in a science or technology field and get rich.

Matz pushed back at that narrative. He said the most important takeaway from the Georgetown research and similar studies was that the value of the bachelor's degree -- across major fields -- yields a significant economic payoff. And while it is true that, on average, engineering majors earn more than English majors, the earnings of English majors are hardly at mere subsistence levels. People who want to study English, he said, have every reason to believe they can earn a decent wage.

He also argued for the importance of looking at career diversity among English graduates. Using American Community Survey data (the same source for many of the studies showing engineering majors earn more than English majors), he notes that the job titles of English graduates include a wide range of positions. Some, like teachers, are predictable. Others include lawyers, physicians, executives and many others. It happens that some of these careers don't pay as well as they should, but that doesn't mean the careers don't provide value (and a living wage).

He noted that the food service category that would include a Starbucks employee has hardly anyone who is an English graduate. English professors, he said, should not hesitate to tell parents worried about their children majoring in English that, if they do, they are "more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than working as a barista."

Further, Matz raised the question of whether a would-be English major encouraged to study business would necessarily succeed. "What if you have no head for business and you hate it?" he said.

One audience member, identifying himself as an English professor-turned-provost, said that humanities professors should remember to remind administrators that students who love their majors are more likely to succeed. Those who end up in a program in which they don't find an intellectual home "may not be with us" in the next year, he said. If English and related departments can show that students finish and thrive, that's a strong argument to administrators focused on completion rates, he said.

Going Where the Students Are

Most of the discussion here focused on how to sell the English major.

But Tarshia Stanley, chair at Spelman College, described how her department has not only changed how it promotes itself, but the substance of the major.

For example, she said that, historically, the tracks in the English major were all oriented around literature, with writing as a clearly secondary focus. But "going where the students are," the department now has writing and literature on equal footing, so that the many students who are attracted by creative writing or new media feel that English is a department in which they can major.

The department also created a new course, which Stanley as chair teaches, about being an English major. Students create portfolios in which they outline their goals as English majors (both for their time at Spelman and after graduation). They regularly talk about their progress and, in the process, Stanley said, they become "ambassadors" for English. Students who have really thought about their postgraduation plans can talk effectively with their own parents and other students about the program, she said.

In the new course, the students also learn new media skills that relate to texts. For example, students are assigned to make trailers for each literature class. They must talk to professors about the material and work to come up with an appropriate video introduction. Stanley said that students picking courses are also attracted by these trailers, such as the one that follows.

Stanley said professors are well aware these days of reports of program cuts, especially in the humanities, at many colleges. Her colleagues are committed to their students primarily because they want to share their love of literature, writing and culture. But Stanley said that's not the only reason.

There are eight official "outcomes" to which the department has committed itself, she said. But there are two "invisible" outcomes that aren't on the official list. No. 9 is "getting more students." And No. 10 is "keeping our jobs."

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