The Changing English Major

Amid enrollment declines, speakers at Modern Language Association discuss shifts in the major, such as a de-emphasis of traditional survey and the addition of more writing-related courses.

January 11, 2017
 

PHILADELPHIA -- What does -- or should -- the English major look like?

Members of an ad hoc committee on the major presented Friday at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. They reviewed findings from their inquiry into what changes English departments have made or are considering making to their requirements for undergraduate majors. The full report from the committee, which was formed by the Association of Departments of English, is forthcoming and its inquiry ongoing, but some of the preliminary observations that came up during Friday’s presentations include a movement away from common required survey courses, the widespread availability of writing-related tracks within English majors and an increased attention to career planning. A minority of programs seem to require courses in Shakespeare.

Kent Cartwright, the chair of the committee and a professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park, said his own preliminary analysis of about 45 English departments at Ph.D.-granting universities found that just five have Shakespeare requirements. (Here it’s worth noting that groups that advocate for a traditional curriculum have raised alarm bells about the relative lack of Shakespeare requirements, but others say the single-minded emphasis is misguided and point out that English majors may get exposed to Shakespeare in all kinds of courses, not just those specifically on the Bard.) A third of the programs Cartwright examined -- 15 -- mandate survey courses, though he noted in the paper he presented “variations in those requirements that cast further doubt on the goal of providing foundational knowledge.”

“Of those 15 departments, only five seem to require students to take the same survey courses with largely the same content,” Cartwright wrote. “In the other 10 cases, either content varies considerably from section to section of the same course or students are given some choice among the survey courses. Sometimes the content of the survey is slanted in a thematic or topical direction. That means that, in a number of instances, survey courses have taken some of the characteristics of distribution ones. The survey course, then, even when it is required, cannot be assumed to convey generally common foundational knowledge. Furthermore, one of the trends in departments that have recently changed their majors is the reduction even of historical distribution requirements themselves, especially in early British literature -- the kind of change favored by students in my own department.”

“The curriculum of the English major, like the faculty, has traditionally been organized according to a principle of literary history, and the profession in all sorts of ways continues to embrace the values of that model,” he continued. “On the other hand, at the large Ph.D.-granting institutions that educate the majority of undergraduates, the curricular structure that enshrines literary history is being progressively abandoned. We need to face this dilemma.”

Cartwright presented on the three iterations of the major offered by his own department over the last three decades, “each,” he wrote, “differently conceived but showing over all a drift away from survey courses and even away from meaningful historical requirements.” The current major, which he described as “essentially formless,” has a single required course, on critical methods in the study of literature. It requires one course each in literary and cultural history; one in literary, linguistic or rhetorical analysis; and one in literatures of people of color, women and/or lesbians, gays and bisexuals. It also requires two courses in writing before 1800, one in U.S. ethnic writing and one in modern or postcolonial literature. Each of these requirements, Cartwright said, can be met by multiple courses and in some cases courses fit multiple categories.

“Basically, as my colleagues recognize, this major is a taxonomical illusion, arrived at as a political accommodation after our previous failed experiments,” Cartwright wrote. “While our student numbers were going up, we felt little incentive to wade back into these troubled waters. But no longer.”

Cartwright said his department is currently reviewing its English major, in part in response to a decline in majors from a high of 850 in the spring of 2011 to about 500 today. The decline in English majors nationally was part of the backdrop for Friday’s presentations. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in English has dropped from about 54,379 in 2004-5 to 45,847 in 2014-15 (the peak was 55,465 in 2008-9). In a presentation on enrollment trends, David Laurence, the director of the MLA’s office of research, noted that the discipline of history has shown parallel declines in bachelor’s degree completions. “So more mutedly did the other humanities disciplines, languages other than English and philosophy,” he said.

Tarshia L. Stanley, an associate professor and chair of the English department at Spelman College, presented on her analysis of the websites of 25 English programs at B.A.-granting institutions. Stanley is following up with a survey, but in her preliminary investigation of program websites she found a number of trends. The majority of programs had distribution requirements organized around historical periods -- “they had loosened some of the stipulations in that students were able to choose; perhaps it was one or two courses before 1800 or before 1700” -- and the majority do not require a class in Shakespeare, though Shakespeare courses can count toward these distribution requirements.

She also found that the majority of programs allow students to count some form of writing courses, creative or otherwise, toward a literature major. Most required a thesis for an honors concentration but not necessarily for regular graduation as an English major. Many programs had some other form of capstone requirement, such as a portfolio or public presentation.

Further, Stanley found that many of the programs include language on their websites that speaks to career planning or that is otherwise responsive to what she described as “the political and cultural climates that see the study of literature as dated, elitist or unnecessary.”

From there, Stanley went on to discuss curricular changes she and her colleagues have made at Spelman. She said one thing they did was survey their students. From that, Stanley said, they learned that the majority of their students are seeking careers in writing in some form, and “see the reading aspect as less important than they see the writing aspect of the major.”

The finding, Stanley said in an interview, prompts professors to think, “How we can leverage that and also think about how we get them to also think of themselves as readers and thinkers who can produce knowledge?”

The revised major at Spelman now offers areas of “deep study” -- a track of four to five courses -- that students can choose between: either textual studies (literature, film and visual culture, cultural studies) or writing studies (creative, professional, technical). Before, Stanley said, students could minor in creative writing, but they couldn’t count it toward their literature major.

In addition to their deep area of study, Spelman English majors have to take five foundational 300-level literature courses, including a required course on Shakespeare and one on African-American writers. But before they get to those, they have to take three required entry-level courses -- Introduction to Literary Studies, Introduction to Critical Studies in English and a sophomore workshop. The latter course, a two-semester, one-credit-per-semester course, developed by Stanley, is designed, she said in an interview, to “get them thinking about the English major, and I realized that they couldn’t think about the major just in terms of sophomore, junior and senior year. They also had to think about it as graduates and what they were going to do when they left.” The course therefore includes a variety of reflective and career planning-oriented assignments. Among them, students upload a résumé and statement of intent into a portfolio and write an essay on their community service (required collegewide) and revise it and turn it into a speech they deliver on tape to a panel of faculty serving as judges. They are required to attend events like a career fair and undergraduate research fair (the definition of careers, Stanley stressed, is wide, and includes preparation for graduate school).

In a separate panel on writing within the English major at the MLA convention on Saturday, Leeann Hunter, a clinical assistant professor and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the English department at Washington State University, presented on the Passport Program, a new set of related courses she developed to get students to think beyond the classroom and university. She began her presentation by observing that “one of the greatest barriers to recruiting for the English major has been the perceived lack of professional opportunities.”

The one-credit, pass-fail seminar designed by Hunter -- of which there are a couple iterations -- is structured as a series of workshops. One key assignment is a “finding your why” activity in which students identify six “foundational memories,” choose three to use as develop into pieces of creative writing and, with the help of a partner and Hunter, the professor, identify patterns, such as common beliefs or values, across the various pieces. A version of the course tailored for seniors focuses on things like résumés, cover letters, social media profiles and digital portfolios, and includes performance-art activities aimed at helping students develop confidence and presence. Hunter brings other faculty from the English department to help with various class sessions. She said 20 faculty members participated in the course last fall.

In the paper she presented, Hunter described developing the Passport Program as a way “to tackle the question of how to get students meaningfully engaged in high-impact practices that will lead to long-term adaptability and high engagement in their careers.”

“When I first taught our Introduction to English Studies course, which is an introduction to the major, I realized how anxious our students are about jobs, but how reluctant they are to actually go and do the things that they need to do,” Hunter said in an interview after her presentation. “I held a professional development seminar just for them outside of class. Zero students showed up. They asked for it, but then nobody came. I offered to teach them [Adobe] Illustrator,” a graphic design software. “It was held during class, but they didn’t have to come. It was an optional class. Zero students came. That’s when I realized if we were going to get them engaged, we needed to have some sort of way of requiring it.”

Among the course requirements, Hunter said, “they have to go to three events hosted by the faculty, so a talk, a lecture, other kinds of things. That’s how you connect with faculty, by actually going and showing up to things. We’ll also be doing some service learning and a few other things as well.”

The idea, she said, is for students to say, “Hey, I’m going to sign up for this one credit and we’re going to do this all on purpose, intentionally.”

“We tell students, ‘Do all these things, it’ll make you really great,’” she said. “But they don’t do them if it’s optional -- at least not my student population.”

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