Feeding English Majors in the 21st Century

A new course teaches undergraduates in the humanities how to market themselves for the new economic normal


January 25, 2016

What if, rather than offer platitudes about the value of the liberal arts to students who are justifiably anxious about their economic future, we actually taught them to market themselves and their degrees with integrity? What if, alongside teaching our disciplines, we taught students to identify and articulate the usefulness of their educational choices?

Those questions led me to offer a new course this past fall called "Novel English Majors." I developed it because I want to make sure that my students can literally feed themselves and their loved ones without starving their souls.

The idea was to analyze the representation of literary types in contemporary fiction and learn how the skills associated with that analysis can lead to fulfilling and economically viable lives for nonfictional English majors — i.e., my students. Throughout the semester, they demonstrated not only their hunger for, but also their creative uses of, such an education. The experiment has become my modest proposal for how we can recast the crisis in the humanities as an opportunity to show the real-world value of non-STEM disciplines.

I know the phrase "real-world value" is anathema to many humanities professors. After all, once we start talking about real-world value, aren’t we conceding that education is primarily vocational training? And accepting that students are really a particular species of consumer, and that English (or philosophy or history) really can’t be expected to compete on the open market with, say, business or computer science or engineering?

Perhaps. But I prefer to think that we are being responsible teachers who understand that education and vocation, students and consumers, English and engineering need not be mutually exclusive. We should be preparing students to cherish — rather than regret — their seemingly impractical choice of a college major.

We all want students not only to learn an academic discipline but also to make it their own.
My own sense of responsibility on this front has been growing over the past decade, in part because of a stagnant and profoundly competitive economy. In the past, I could be assured that even my slacker students — who were often quite smart and engaged, though a bit absent-minded (like too many of their professors) — would land on their feet and be gainfully employed. However, over the past decade or so, I watched some of my very best students spend their last semester writing brilliant essays and then have to take dead-end jobs and live with their parents because they couldn’t afford rent of their own.

Our least economically privileged students are most at risk. Their safety net is minimal to nonexistent, and many of them face loan debt soon after graduation. Unless we start acknowledging that many students and their parents literally cannot afford to oppose education as vocation, we will see the humanities become an exclusive province of economic elites. While encouraging our students to be intellectual and academic explorers, we also need to instruct them on how to think about their postgraduate lives — and sooner rather than later.

All of which led to "Novel English Majors." The learning goals for the course include the decidely unsexy "connecting the skills and mindsets of literary analysis to diverse career paths."

We began the semester with David Lodge’s Nice Work, a novel in which a feminist English professor shadows a captain of industry and both find their stereotypes of the other upended. Some savvy students noted that in fiction and reality, factories and universities alike consider the bottom line extensively, despite their different vocabularies for such concerns. (Lodge has much fun with administrative memos in his novel.)

Later in the semester, students had to organize their own shadow schemes — by first spending time with someone in a field or job they were interested in, and then writing up the experience and presenting it in class. Grant writers, archivists, translators, food bloggers, bookmobile librarians, stockbrokers, and restaurant managers generously provided their time and professional stories to students, who not only learned about jobs that many never knew existed, but also worked through their fear of cold-calling and cold-emailing strangers. Students also learned not to take research skills for granted, as their shadowees noticed and were favorably impressed by high levels of pre-meeting preparation.

Not taking skills for granted became a mantra for the course, spurred in part by Katharine Brooks’s guide, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career. Former English majors gave talks — through class visits or via Skype — on their careers, which helped associate the major with a narrative of professional plenitude rather than scarcity.

We had real-world examples in class, too. The director of a local nonprofit health foundation talked about the challenges of getting social-service agencies to collaborate, and credited her literary training with teaching her to locate seemingly "disparate, unrelated stories within a larger story."

We can continue to offer professorial platitude, or we can update the curriculum.
Late in the semester, students collectively mapped their experiences from their major and came up with an impressive list of skills. It included the usual suspects — writing and research — as well as the ability to connect the small with the big picture, to manage a project and meet deadlines, to both listen and speak, and to create and innovate. When I asked students what surprised them most about the list, one of them excitedly blurted out, "These are all marketable skills." We all want students not only to learn an academic discipline but also to make it their own. That happened in novel ways during the course of the semester.

Students also recognized the need to develop digital skills in order to succeed in the 21st century. A class visit from a digital humanist caused more than a few students to admit their own technophobia, derived in part from their fear that the digital world will replace the printed words that they hold dear. In the discussion that ensued, one student said she had come to realize that — just as film adaptations can complement rather than supersede their literary predecessors — digital skills can coexist with other forms of literacy.

An assigned article from Forbes, "That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket," drove home the point that if students have learned to connect diverse texts and traditions, they very likely have developed the skills needed to be liaisons between software creators and end users. In short, the course bridged a particular form of the digital divide for some English majors.

Those of us who profess culturally beleaguered subjects are rightly concerned about the educational zeitgeist. The real or imagined perception that students (and parents and administrators) are voting against the humanities with their feet and their tuition dollars is galvanizing us.

Yet it seems to me that our first outreach needs to be to those students who are voting for us with their feet. They are following their passions and their instincts, but they are also buffeted by the culture, by their parents, and by their peers. Even as they resist a STEM-centered party line, they cannot help internalizing the worry expressed by a character in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot that English majors "were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they had done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in."

We as faculty can continue to outsource our students’ futures to other offices on the campus. We can continue to offer professorial platitudes, which arguably function as a contemporary version of "let them eat cake," about the value of the liberal arts. Or we can update the curriculum to include specific narratives to help prepare humanities majors for the new economic normal.

As I had hoped, "Novel English Majors" enriched students’ notions about the possible lives open to them. As a result, some relinquished the idea of graduate school in English as an attractive default option. To be sure, Rachel Kadish’s Tolstoy Lied, a novel that depicts a bitter tenure battle and an emotionally vulnerable graduate student caught in the academic crossfire, played its part in that outcome.

However, tales from alumni who earned a master’s and then decided that the Ph.D. would be their road not taken, were also powerful narratives for these undergraduates to hear. Since I am a graduate adviser who has increasingly become the voice of doom, I was relieved to be able to provide an undergraduate version of the alt-ac narrative. And the fact that so many alumni expressed how helpful this course would have been to them made me wish that I had seen the need for it earlier in my career.

Helene Meyers is a professor of English and holds an endowed chair at Southwestern University, in Texas.