Theory Teacher's Blog

The Rise and Change of the English Major

It happens almost like clockwork at the end of the spring semester and beginning of the fall: the New York Times publishes another blog post lamenting something about college English education, usually by someone who only peripherally knows what they are talking about. One of my all time favorites was Stanley Fish complaining about what was wrong with freshman composition classes based on offhand comments he overheard in the hall, and most recently Verlyn Klinkenborg sheds tears at the so-called “Decline and Fall of the English Major.” Since these are opinion pieces, they aren’t required to cite any actual data, but since they parade the veneer of insider expertise, their bitter commentary becomes somewhat dangerous as their misinformation is repeated and magnified so much as to almost seem like actual fact. Fortunately, professor-by-day, superhero-by-night Michael Bérubé is on the scene to correct this misinformation by citing actual numerical data in a recent op-ed to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers.” Unlike Klinkenborg, who only teaches a few classes here and there as a “writer in residence” to various colleges, what might be analogous to having a guest-worker visa, former president of the MLA Michael Bérubé has access to real data. (Actually, all of us have access to this data; it’s just that journalists aren’t always motivated enough to go look at it.)

I pretty much agree with everything Bérubé says here, and love his article, but there are some important things missing — things important enough that I believe attending to them will change the conversation entirely, as you may have guessed from the title of my post. The upshot of Bérubé’s piece is that actually the number of English majors has neither increased nor decreased significantly since the 1970s. He notices that usually the lamentations carry with them an attack on theoretically rigorous scholarship and express some nostalgia for the olden days when we all knew which lines of poetry to quote at cocktail parties. He suggests that the real issue is neither the usefulness of the English major for the job market nor the quality of instruction (all of which are doing just fine); rather, the real issue is funding for education, the casualization of the labor force by hiring more adjunct instructors, etc. And of course, the constant specious attacks on our profession by the media and politicians aren’t so nice either.

So, what do I have to add to this conversation? Four things.

Thing one is is the rise of new interdisciplinary programs. There was a useful study done by the MLA published way back in 2003 about the declining number of English majors. Anyone can see it,  though apparently reading something more than a page long is too much work for NY Times bloggers. The strength of this study is that it surveys all colleges and universities (not just a few, as journalists tend to do), and it shows the trends for each and every year (not just the years that support some sort of dramatic conclusion that the journalists prefer to cite.) I’m guessing  Bérubé got his information from this, but what he doesn’t mention is some of the findings. There are many, but one of them that I want to draw attention to is the observation of what students started majoring in instead of English. The assumption by many is that they have shifted to business, but although the business major has seen some increase, even more significant was the emergence of entirely new interdisciplinary programs: environmental studies, peace studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, film and media, and most importantly, communications. These programs are never mentioned in the journalistic lamentations, and they are important, because people who once upon a time might have become humanities majors are now opting for these programs, and these are programs that often combine social sciences, humanities, and sometimes even a little technology or hard science. Historically, it’s also not surprising that the creation of these programs happens at about the same time as the number of English majors declines. Moreover, they affect different schools differently, depending on the size of the school. In my view, these are all great programs, and what’s more, they are programs that the English department is often involved in and supports, or even, in some cases, leads. And this is one reason why I title this blog post “The Rise and Change of the English Major,” because often it is the literature professors who have taken leadership roles in creating these new and innovative programs that then later affect the constitution of the English major itself. One of the enduring challenges for English department faculty is how to maintain the traditional major, with all the timeless classics and  literary history, at the same time it includes these new programs. It is not uncommon to find professors who have dual appointments in English and something else. In my view, English faculty need to be engaged and take leadership roles in interdisciplinary programs, but they also need to be clear about the expertise they bring.

There’s a lot more to say about this, but for the sake of keeping this blog post short, I will move on to thing two, and thing two is the fundamental importance of communications skills, analytical skills, and critical thinking skills for employers today. These skills were identified in a report made by the National Association of Colleges and Employers about what employers wanted to see in college graduates. Moreover, corporations have been very clear that the kinds of things taught in business departments do not foster much critical thinking and writing which is why a broad-based liberal arts program is important (see [here] and [here], for instance.) Point being, the English major has become even more essential to colleges and universities than ever, and this is in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of the English department that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. For instance, some schools even require their majors in other subjects to take business writing, tech writing, or something along those lines taught in the English department. Although the traditionalist may lament the fact that students aren’t walking around quoting Shakespeare and Keats on a regular basis (did they ever?), corporations may be happy to have a job candidate who has had the experience of working through the complexity of a poem because this sort of exercise carries with it a lot of transferable skills such as careful reading and original thought. And the inherent use value of English classes is another reason why I mention the rise and change of the English major.

The recent and often cited Report by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences clearly states the value of a liberal arts curriculum to employers for precisely the reasons I just stated. English majors have the skills that employers want. The report also mentions other important things such as cultural and civic awareness, which are doubly important if one considers the rapid increase in jobs that have to do with civic engagement, social responsibility, and intercultural issues. What is curious is that when NY Times pundits such as Klinkenborg cite this report, they actually say the opposite of what the report says. Klinkenborg says that the humanities faces declining enrollment because students think they can’t get a job with an English major. Actually, the report asserts the value of the humanities for employers, but notes the problem of funding and support for programs. In other words, it’s a political issue. Duh.

Related to thing two is thing three, and thing three is the growth of writing centers. For the skills identified by employers, writing centers have gained a prominent role in the college. Often they have close ties to career centers, since both help student prepare their job application materials, and often they have close ties to English departments. The relationship to English department differs depending on the school, ranging from being directly run by the department to simply having a lot of English majors on staff as tutors. The history of writing centers is long and complex, and recently I’ve done a little reading about them including such books as Neal Lerner’s The Idea of the Writing Laboratory and Michael Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead’s The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship, so I am reluctant to give a simplified history, but one of the upshots is that the role of writing centers grew considerably after the 1970s, and this was in part because a great number of Americans were now attending college, and more importantly a greater number of these college students spoke English as their second language or were first-generation college students. What this means is two things. First, far from the “decline” that the journalists moan about, English departments are actually more important, because they play a role in supporting the whole school. And second, the English department has changed a bit because scholarship on the teaching of writing has developed considerably since the creation of various journals on writing and writing centers, and much of this growth has tended away from the poetic and toward cultural analysis.

Thing four is the new emphasis in schools on “global citizenship” and leadership, cultural sensitivities, etc., and noticeably, these are all skills that employers value, too. They are also skills that English departments excel at. Afterall, English is where postcolonial studies was invented, way back in the 1970s, to better address the new global situation of newly independent African, Asian, and Caribbean countries. Before college administrations became aware of the “global,” literature departments were already there.

So, in conclusion, my argument is that we have not seen a decline in English, but rather an expansion and a change. Good changes in my opinion, though growing pains are always par for the course. The challenge is how to make our case to administrations and the general public who don’t always seem to understand the importance of English departments or even understand what it is that we do.

Why is this? Why are English departments the discipline that the media loves to cry about, and why are English departments uniquely misunderstood? Now I move from the practical and the factual into the realm of theory. What’s also interesting to me is the ways English professors are represented in Hollywood cinema, either as Shakespeare quoting, bow-tie wearing, obsessive, anti-social freaks or as lazy, lecherous alcoholics who sleep with their students. I’m not saying such colorful characters do not exist at all in real life, but they are the exception, not the rule. One possible explanation for all this misunderstanding and media hype is that unlike other disciplines, everyone thinks they know something about our discipline. I remember going to the doctor because I was sick and finding myself listening to the doctor through a haze of fever and congestion tell me about his favorite books and his view of literature. I was waiting for him to talk to me about my health, but he never did. I can’t imagine the opposite case of me lecturing the doctor about epidemiology if he came to my office to ask my advice about books. The fact is, most people don’t continue to study algebra, chemistry, and sociology after college, but they do continue to read books and even have strong feelings about them. Hence, history and English professors are often in the awkward position of talking to someone who thinks they know as much as we do about what we do, a position rarely experienced by the chemical engineer. This difference creates a psychological tension. Possibly the aspects of pure fantasy and irrational fear that we sometimes notice in the rhetoric about English departments that we find in the mainstream media or in the speeches of politicians is an effect of the  uncanny difference.

Note too the clear contradictory nature of the lamentations about English. The same individual might complain first that English departments need to return to the classics by dead white males and stop teaching all this new-fangled theory and politically correct stuff, and then proceed to complain that English departments need to become more relevant to the “real world” (i.e., jobs and whatnot.) That these two desires contradict each other often goes unnoticed. That the English department has for a long time actually been doing both of those things — both the classics and the real world stuff, and continues to do both those things — also goes unnoticed. Sigh.

Still another disconnect is the strange notion that because English professors study metaphor and rhetoric then they must somehow be silly lovers of fanciful idioms rather than practical realists. To my way of thinking, it seems obvious that someone good at analyzing the use of metaphors and symbols would be expert at cutting through bullshit and seeing the facts for what they are. For instance, Bérubé’s article is a perfect example of such skills (as is, I hope, my own blog) in which he cites actual statistics and wonders why journalists keep repeating factually unsupported narratives.  An English major would likewise quickly see through the rhetoric of those NY Times celebrity bloggers who seem to follow a rhetorical formula — the author relaying some cute anecdote which is supposed to make them sound like they know what they are talking about and then coming to all sorts of unsupported conclusions. Columns by the NY Times superstar pundit Thomas Friedman are typical in this regard. Reading Friedman talk about the economy is like reading someone who tells about a nice time they had rowing a boat on the pond and then launching into opinions about the chemical composition of various plants he saw there as if the one experience gave him the expertise for the analysis. There is a formal consistency to these op-ed pieces that is rather amusing and isn’t too hard to analyze.

However, I wonder if the fact of the growing importance and expansion of English for employers and colleges might be, paradoxically, the reason why they receive the sort of critical attention in the media. English departments are monstrous and scary — freakishly adaptable — the skills they teach lend themselves to almost every other discipline, since all disciplines require some sort of critical thinking and culturally situated communication. We are monstrous, and that is our strength.


July 4, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on The Adaptive Humanist and commented:
    A thoughtful post by a friend and colleague….

    Comment by Lissette Lopez Szwydky | December 20, 2015 | Reply

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