Getting Students to Study Literature

Number of English majors is dropping and many language programs fight for survival. But at the MLA, professors share strategies that are boosting enrollments and in some cases forcing them to change what they teach.

January 4, 2019
 
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CHICAGO -- Some discussions of enrollment trends at the Modern Language Association convention are full of doom and gloom. Students these days want to major in business. Even if they don't, their parents don't want them to be humanities majors. As a result, the number of English majors is falling. Positions are eliminated; departments (especially of some languages) are closed.

But what stood out at a session here Thursday was an emphasis on strategies that are boosting enrollment in some English and foreign language departments. There was (relatively) little bashing of administrators. Instead, speakers talked about how specific changes they could control would result in students signing up for courses.

Most of the ideas were well received here, but speakers acknowledged that some of their strategies would not go over well with senior faculty members back home. Of course, as more than one person said, "this is about survival," and some said that, as a result, over time more professors would be willing to consider new approaches.

When it comes to boosting enrollments, "your most important students are not your majors," said Peter Kalliney, who described five years of work, starting in 2012 as associate chair of English at the University of Kentucky, where his duties included scheduling courses. He assumed that job in a year when English enrollments dropped more than 20 percent.

Kalliney said he started by asking which courses were filling up and which ones were largely empty. The courses at capacity -- or turning away students -- were those popular with nonmajors, such as courses on creative writing, film, the Bible as literature, science fiction, mythology and other topics. The senior-level courses for majors, on the other hand, were underenrolled.

So Kalliney said he used his authority as course scheduler to add sections of the popular topics. Then, with backing from his chair, he pushed senior faculty members to teach these courses, even if they would have preferred (as many of them indicated to him that they would) to teach traditional literature classes. "This is about changing the teaching culture," he said.

A key part of the strategy was to apply it to himself, and to the chair. Other faculty members were more willing to go along because they saw the department's leaders doing so.

"If faculty and graduate students teach fun, effective courses to nonmajors, we are going to turn a few heads in the process toward becoming majors," Kalliney said. And many of those students who don't become majors might take a second or third course.

He said that departments shouldn't spend their time rejiggering the major requirements or offerings, which he said would be time-consuming and might not accomplish anything. The emphasis should be on creating or nurturing courses students will take and enjoy.

Kentucky has only had modest gains in the number of English majors. But he said that the entire enrollment drop that the department had experienced has been reversed, and total enrollments are up.

During the question period, one woman in the audience who said she admired his approach speculated that it would be difficult to get an entire department on board.

Kalliney's answer was that "I told the faculty what I was doing. I didn't ask for consent." He noted that he acted with the backing of his chair and that professors who disagreed could have appealed there. He also noted that his duty as scheduler of courses is one that many departments give to a nontenured faculty member. He said that without tenure and its protections, he might have had more difficulties carrying out the agenda, but that the increased enrollments "are clearly good for the department."

More German Majors

Alys X. George, director of undergraduate studies and assistant professor of German at New York University, described an effort more focused on majors than enrollments alone at her institution.

When she took on her position as director of undergraduate studies in 2012, the department had about 150 students enrolled in language courses each semester, and only about five to seven majors graduating per year, while another 20-plus were graduating with minors. Today, there are 20 or so majors a year and 50-plus minors.

George started off by talking to those who were majors and found that hardly any of them had entered NYU planning to become a German major. So with departmental colleagues, she worked to make the introductory courses, which had been focused on language skill alone, broader. "We have to be teaching not only linguistic competency but authentic cultural content," she said.

And senior faculty members have been encouraged to visit the language courses and talk about upper-division work, study abroad and other topics, linking the introductory and advanced work.

Similarly, the department is encouraging students (and nudging academic advisers to encourage students) to take introductory courses early in their college careers. "If they wait until they are juniors or seniors, they will not become majors," George said.

She also has pushed for more partnerships with other departments. Many business students value German to advance their careers, and George said her department identifies pathways for those who want to study German (or study in Germany) while pursing the study of business.

William Nichols, a Spanish professor who is chair of the Center for Urban Language Teaching and Research at Georgia State University, spoke about building connections among business leaders and government agencies. He goes to Chamber of Commerce meetings all the time, he said, "with many business cards," and tries to build relationships.

When he first went, he found some feared he was just there to ask for internships. He now asks people he meets to give a lecture on campus, and he has attracted representatives of Amazon, the Central Intelligence Agency and others. Then he asks for internships. And he is getting internships for his students, which is important to them -- and their parents.

Some Skepticism

While the audience of professors generally applauded the ideas, some expressed concern. One professor said that she sees pressure to make courses less rigorous in the name of appealing to students. "At the end of the day, if you ask students to write even a three-page essay, they say that they don't like this class," she said.

One faculty member spoke of college leaders who seemed to be uninterested in the humanities and who only promoted preprofessional studies, suggesting that these approaches might not be enough to turn the tide.

Others spoke of partnerships with other departments being more complicated than they may sound at first.

One faculty member in the audience from an English department said that she was pleased with collaborations with criminal justice and business. There is a clear understanding of the difference between English and those departments. But she said she worried that administrators want to combine English and philosophy, "not knowing that they are different fields."

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