The English major is Dead. Long live the English major.

August 5, 2014 — 7 Comments

I already hate myself for the impulse to write this post. I find few things more annoying than a short op-ed or whatever in the New York Times or whatever about the English Major or the Humanities or whatever and how they are disappearing or dwindling or whatever and how we should keep them around because they preserve our highest values and make us better people or whatever and how everyone (“everyone” here is defined as a bunch of sappy humanities people) weighs in with treacly, cliched supports or refutations or whatever.

But I’m an English professor; I just read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker; I can hardly help myself.

Gopnik’s final sentences: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” Does this make anyone else throw up a little in their mouth? And then swallow it again, which is actually the worst part throwing up in the mouth. We’re human! How very profound!

Last month I met with my Dean, who, having reviewed The Numbers, observes that students are hot on Creative Writing. Writing of all sorts – creative writing, business writing, writing for the web – is where it’s at. Duh, I think. My creative writing colleagues (none of them tenure-track, btw) and I have been making this claim for years, begging for more money, more support, more staff. Students want to create, whether it’s stories, poems, or friggin’ web content. Some of them even want to write literary analyses, which is also creation, the creation of ideas and arguments and insights.

[Side note: Eminem is playing on my Pandora. Yes.]

The Dean seems to think that, just like at Pomona (where English majors are down to 1% of the student body), the English Major is dying. That everything is trending toward Writing.

One would think that I, as a creative writing prof, would be super excited to have the Dean seeing what I have been trying to tell the Dean since it was a different Dean I was talking to. And yes I am. Except I’m not saying that the English Major is irrelevant or dying. I’m just saying we need more support for writing, which is a growing component of the discipline. The problem, at least as I see, at least in my department, is that we have a disproportionate number of faculty teaching literature to faculty teaching writing.

But that doesn’t make the Literature classes irrelevant. One of my colleagues occasionally laments that our English Department, in terms of curriculum and staff, looks exactly like his undergraduate program in the 70s. I can see his point, and I do think English Departments can be shockingly conservative in their structures, especially when people are fighting for their jobs. But I’d argue that what happens INSIDE the classroom is WAYYYY (sorry, I’m shouting) different than what happened in the 70s, especially at Regional Campuses of State Universities, like ours.

[Now it’s Amy Winehouse “Back to Black.”]

My literature colleagues are pretty much all from Research One graduate schools (or, you know, Yale), and they all engage in complex, 50-shades-of-gray literary analysis, and they demand rigorous thinking and writing from our students. Thinking about things they (the students from small-town, northern Indiana) have experienced but not necessarily reflected on. Or about things they’ve not experienced, but that other people have. Or about things that other people have imagined and that suggest alternative ways about thinking about what the students have experienced. Then they have to analyze those textual representations, make connections to both experiences and other texts, make arguments about their relationship, and support those arguments with evidence.

Which is why I regularly make this claim: that English Majors are the smartest kids on campus.

I know it’s not new in the realm of defenses-of-the-English-Major to cite critical thinking as an important skill and outcome. And I know that some of this happened in the 70s in the wake of the radical 60s; it wasn’t all Literary Appreciation. And I know, as the Dean suggests, that most of our students don’t want to go on to graduate school; they just want a degree. I also know that, as everyone else suggests, it is stupid to go to grad school in English in this economy. But I also know, because I teach these students, because I WAS one of these students, that they have NO IDEA what they want to do or can do or what might be available to them if they pursue what they are passionate about.

[Lana del Ray on the Pandora now. “Blue Jeans” remix.]

I remember taking my daughter, who is now 17 but who was actually, impossibly, at one time 2 years old, to the park. Mt. Storm Park at the top of a hill overlooking the west side of Cincinnati. I was pushing her on the swing and she was squealing with glee or whatever. Then she met a friend at the park and they ran off to climb the jungle gym and throw mulch at each other. So I started talking to the mother of the other kid, who turned out to be the wife of an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, where I had just been accepted to grad school.

“Don’t do it,” she told me, referring to grad school. “It’s miserable and there are no jobs.”

This was 1999. They say the same thing today.

I had just quit my job and was so excited to start grad school I could hardly stand it. Who wanted a job? I was going to get to read and write and talk about reading and writing and meet other people who loved the same thing? I remember thinking, “Whatever, lady. Nothing can stop me.”

And nothing did. Not my family, who would have preferred that I have a ‘job’; not the lack of money; not the limited job prospects. And when I finished my MA and PhD and applied for jobs, I got offered not one but two. Even my friends who didn’t get them right away, eventually got jobs. I’m not saying academia always works like this, or that I don’t know people who got exploited on the adjunct track. And I’m certainly not saying that any of my mom-friends understood what the hell I was doing in grad school when my daughter clearly needed me to get from soccer practice to violin lessons. I’m just saying it’s Life, who the hell knows what will happen?

Dammit. I’ve lost track. I was surely going to say something profound about English Majors. Something even more profound than “We’re human.” But now I’ve gone on too long for a blog post. And I don’t even have any pictures!

[And now, no joke, on Pandora is a commercial for an online degree. The University is dead. Long live the Online University.]

 

7 responses to The English major is Dead. Long live the English major.

  1. 

    Well, I loved this. Retired, I now write, ( taught Kindergarten to Grade 4 and also Drama in a variety of ways), English Major back in the day (1970’s). Wanted to be a writer in high school. Spent my teaching career turning little kids into lovers of books and stories. Had a blast with drama. My son works in theatre. As a little kid myself I had little exposure to books, stories and drama but craved it. Listening to Celtic stuff here but I could go for some Peter, Paul and Mary. English Major comes full circle and yes, those assignments back in the day took some very creative writing skills because just how would anyone know what else to do with them.

    • 

      Thanks for your comment! I love what you say about having little exposure to books but craving them nonetheless, and then how you made your life around stories and drama, passing it on to your students and son. And I love that you shared your music status.🙂

  2. 
    thewannabebonvivant August 13, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    “The problem, at least as I see, at least in my department, is that we have a disproportionate number of faculty teaching literature to faculty teaching writing.”

    I love literature, but, as I continued through survey after survey, I realized that I was interested in professional and expository writing while at IU South Bend. I always felt that writing (my concentration) was not a major focus in the department. Actually, by graduation, I realized that I probably should have majored in English and picked up a minor in Journalism, as it, I’m embarrassed to say, had more of what I wanted to study.

    About the “humanities majors can’t get jobs” thing, I never cared about that. I started off as a business major, and ended up going deeper and deeper into the humanities. University isn’t trade school. (Though I do wish there were classes preparing us for the job market.)

    For yet another perspective on the state of the English major, there’s this: http://theamericanscholar.org/the-decline-of-the-english-department/#.U-qb3mNeKrw

    Oh, and I’m listening to “My Sharona” (The Knack).

  3. 

    Teaching literature is different from teaching writing? Maybe I’ve just had weird lit professors then.because I’ve learned just as much about writing as I’ve learned about literature from them.

    And lolz at the reaction you had to the Adam Gopkin’s final sentences; my reaction was the same.

  4. 

    We need more support for writing, which is a growing component of the discipline.Very creative writing skills and i love it. Thank you so much for posting.

  5. 

    Awesome! Loved reading this and your music interjections🙂 You are the reason I chose to be an English grad and I’m so happy I did!

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