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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: The end of the English major -- or is it?
Sharp declines in the English major (as well as in other majors across the humanities) have occasioned a great deal of coverage in recent years; Nathan Heller’s widely read New Yorker essay, “The End of the English Major,” published in February, read like a monumental epitaph to the discipline. The big picture is undeniably bleak: “During the past decade,” Heller writes, “the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third.” But American higher education is vast, and sectorwide statistics might mask local successes. That was one of the points of Sarah Blackwood’s essay in
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Sharp declines in the English major (as well as in other majors across the humanities) have occasioned a great deal of coverage in recent years; Nathan Heller’s widely read New Yorker essay, “The End of the English Major,” published in February, read like a monumental epitaph to the discipline. The big picture is undeniably bleak: “During the past decade,” Heller writes, “the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third.” But American higher education is vast, and sectorwide statistics might mask local successes. That was one of the points of Sarah Blackwood’s essay in The New York Review of Books, “Letter From an English Department on the Brink.” Blackwood, who teaches English at Pace University, in New York City, reports rising enrollments despite systematic underfunding.
I spoke with Blackwood and with Joseph Rezek, an associate professor of English at Boston University, about the future of the major. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah, I want to begin with a practical question. You refer to a 40-percent increase in English majors over the past couple of years. What’s the secret sauce in your department?
Sarah Blackwood: The first thing to say is that our department has always had steady enrollments in the English major. We have never seen a significant drop in majors, at least since I arrived in 2009, other than the pandemic 2020-21 year, when the whole university’s enrollment took a dive. More recently, we’re up over our pre-pandemic numbers in an unusual way.
Most of that is driven culturally. I think the pandemic has had an effect — it has given people a moment to reassess what their goals in life are. I also sense a growing recognition — from the parents and students I talk to — that English majors are wildly employable and really always have been.
But I don’t totally know. I put a lot of effort into creating a nice, warm community. Students feel lost at most institutions. We do department newsletters — whenever anyone declares as a major, I send them a personal note. I think that’s unusual for students. They get really lost in these big bureaucracies. For anyone looking to increase enrollments, I feel like: Forget the branding. Build a real community. Don’t underestimate the power of remembering to be human inside these institutions!
We also have a lot of creative teachers doing interesting, experiential learning in the classroom. We emphasize civic engagement, activism, and arts organizing — which we do alongside, or as an integral part of, literary, linguistic, and creative-writing study. So once the students are here, they’re psyched. We also have fun! We’re taking a big group to the Seaport Museum to do some letter pressing in a couple of weeks — we take advantage of what we have here in NYC.
Joe, I know that you’re involved right now in revising the curriculum at BU.
Joseph Rezek: Yes, the English major was redone in 2021, but the fall of 2022 was the first semester when new majors could declare under the new curriculum. The biggest change is that our English curriculum had formerly required historical surveys as gateway courses to the major, and for us at BU, that was three semesters of survey: one semester of classical literature from Homer to Dante, and then two semesters of British literature that only gets up to 1900. The surveys did not cover the 20th century, and they did not cover any American literature.
That was a wall to becoming English majors that some students didn’t want to climb over.
We decided not to require historical surveys anymore. We’ve kept those as electives and instead launched a new 101 course, “Encounters: Reading Across Time and Space.” It’s a one-semester course, team-taught — one faculty member in the early period, one in the later period. We enter into canonical works through modern rewritings or engagements, and the syllabus is racially diverse. When I launched the course last fall with a medievalist colleague, we started with Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant, and we read Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ishiguro is returning to the medieval period and engaging with these canonical texts in a really exciting way. That’s the way we get students to go back in time to the canon. We also taught Louise Erdrich on Mary Rowlandson, and Lucille Clifton on William Blake, among many other pairings.
The canon is not something that’s solemnly to be marched through century by century, stuck in the past. The canon is alive, today.
This is the first year we’ve taught it, but students seem to like the class, and I really like teaching it. The course is portable and adaptable for any professor’s area of expertise (the syllabus is not fixed, and we will rotate teaching it). We’re hoping that that reduction of the number of required courses to enter into the English major will make the major more inviting. And then if they love Sir Gawain, they take a medieval course.
So it tilts the frame into the present and works backward.
J.R. Yes. I was chair of the curriculum committee when we passed this revision, and I have a lot of colleagues who teach canonical literature from centuries past. My argument was: This is an exciting revision, and it’s also fairly conservative, in that the focus is on how the canon is alive now. Instead of telling students that the canon is important for literary history, we are showing them.
And there’s a creative-writing element in the new class. Students get to write their own encounters. They can write poetry or fiction, but it doesn’t have to be a work of literature — someone did a film, someone did a screenplay, someone did a quilt of Sir Gawain when the Green Knight comes into Arthur’s court.
S.B. Our curriculum is very similar, in that almost everybody’s approach is very mixed between historically canonical texts and contemporary texts. We also use a lot of creative assignments. In my own classes, I tend to do the research/academic-writing assignment in the middle of the semester. Then for a final project, students can either extend what they did there or do a creative project. I have many treasured objects in my office that students create.
Are the traditional goals of the English major — empirical knowledge of the canon and the development of close-reading skills, and skills in literary analysis — changing?
J.R. We kept one required course from the old structure — EN 220. It’s a small, genre-based methods and literary-criticism seminar. You learn how to close-read poetry, prose, and drama, and perhaps some new-media genres, through argumentation and analysis. The major still has historical distribution requirements and other guided electives.
And in the new course, we have analytical assignments along with the creative ones. So I don’t see analytical literary criticism falling out — that’s one of the learning outcomes of the major. In our new curriculum, students will still be responsible to the argumentative essay, which I remain attached to pedagogically — although I know others have moved even further away from it.
It’s just that we’re not afraid of creative engagement. Some scholars probably think it trivializes literary criticism or literary history to cater to students’ desires to be creative. That it’s anachronistic. We’re not afraid of that. We’re not afraid of anachronism. We are embracing the enthusiasm and excitement that students have about literature through their own creative engagements. I believe such enthusiasm could fuel the future of the English major. Anachronism, in any case, is not that hard to teach. Students can easily understand the difference between engaging a canonical work from our own perspective (or Ishiguro engaging medieval literature from his), and considering it rigorously in historical context — as the majority of courses in our department still do.
S.B. I can’t tell you how much better research and academic writing have gotten since we’ve also gotten students doing this creative work, because incorporating creativity helps students see that what they are doing is making something new. They’re not only in pursuit of empirical knowledge and regurgitating facts in a way where they have to be afraid of getting something wrong in the face of authority. I’m really happy to see students interested in understanding what they’re doing in their English classes as learning how to make new things, a kind of plasticity that they can bring out into the world.
We have a graduating senior who’s been doing work with our early modernist, a Shakespeare scholar and a drama scholar; they’ve been working on this huge research project on the Black theater community that worked in downtown NYC in the 1820s. There’s an underknown and an underresearched aspect of one of the theater companies that was around the corner from where our campus is. She’s also a playwright, and this year she’s writing a play, drawing on the original research she’s done at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and NYPL and other archives. Her research and creative work are intertwined, at a really high level.
It seems like some of what you’re describing is bringing the English major closer to something like a creative-writing or arts major.
S.B. What happens at every institution is so idiosyncratic. We have no resources. We haven’t gotten a tenure-track line in a decade. So we can’t do historical coverage. We built a curriculum around what we have. We have a department split equally between faculty who do literary studies, faculty who are experts in linguistics, and faculty who are creative writers.
Students choose one track to specialize in, but along the way, they take classes in all the different tracks. So any given student will have two intro classes in literary studies, language and linguistics, and creative writing.
I like Joe’s phrasing: “I’m not afraid.” I’m not afraid of creative writing!
There’s a narrative that students just want to do creative writing, and the creative-writing programs are going to take over, and literary studies is going to cease to exist. At least at Pace, these areas are complementary. I have never been a very territorial person. As a chair, I want to protect my faculty from administrative nonsense — that’s my main goal — and help everybody have time and space to do what they’re good at. It is a little bit random, who we have, but what we are doing locally is strong, because we are building up from what we have, we are not overly focused on abstract ideas of what the English major should be. I tend to think of this in terms of valuing the actual people in the immediate community first (faculty and students), more than an allegiance to a set of methods, texts, etc.
But the other thing is that every institution has an impenetrable set of local contexts — and so much reporting on “the English Major” treats it as some kind of From Time Immemorial Thing, which I don’t think is a particularly useful way to think about it. What do we gain by collapsing the distinctions between what we each uniquely do?
J.B. Nathan Heller’s article was really good in general, because he did do a lot of interviews with students. There was an attempt to have two different institutions represented, a major private and a major public. It did leave out, though, as Sarah pointed out in her NYRB essay, a lot of smaller institutions, regional institutions, historically Black institutions, and so on. At BU, we have a very strong creative-writing program, a graduate program. It’s housed within the English department, but its curriculum is separate and is not part of our major. So in order to add creative elements to the English curriculum, we’ve emphasized assignments like the one I mentioned. But our course catalog is still mostly literary history or what I would call media history —it goes all the way from medieval manuscripts to film, video games, all of the new media that are being incorporated into English departments now. We are a large research faculty and do have wide historical coverage. As Sarah said, these local stories give the lie to the big grand narratives that get a lot of attention in the media — of how the English major is at the end. It’s not. A lot of us are working to adapt. The English major has never been just one thing.
Now, our enrollments did decline significantly beginning in 2010 — after the 2008 financial crisis — although in the last 10 years it has remained pretty steady. It’s leveled off. So our goal now is to increase it.
Let me ask about something that seems to stir up a lot of controversy. It’s the question of student attention span when it comes to longer books, what Sarah in her NYRB piece calls the “Middlemarch is too long for the TikTok generation” thesis. You’re skeptical of it. But I’ve heard some version of this thesis from so many people — college faculty, but also high-school and middle-school teachers. They do perceive a real sharp drop in the capacity of students to read a certain number of pages per week.
S.B. I don’t want to say there’s no problem and that students have plenty of time to read these books. A lot of my students are working full-time jobs and taking a truly bananas number of courses. So they have a more compressed time schedule. I tend to think of the explanation in a materialist way rather than an existential way.
But I’m hearing it from faculty at institutions of every type, including where most students aren’t working full-time jobs. It’s not a nonmaterialist claim to say that media, TikTok, whatever, has affected attention spans.
S.B. To the extent that it’s true, I think it’s in large part because it is one place where students can have some agency. These students have no agency in their lives. I see it all the time. I see it in my own kids — in their own experiences in public schools. They have no agency over their time. So when students aren’t reading the books for class — I’m telling you, they read books on their own. They read thousands of pages of fan fiction, of whatever they pick up. It could be canonical literature that they have a fan relationship to. But when they come into your classroom and they don’t want to read, they’re telling you something. They’re communicating something real about their experience in the world.
J.R. I think probably attention spans have shortened across the board because of our phones, in terms of our patience with the long novel. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English major when every student in the class has done all of the reading.
S.B. I never even did all the reading!
J.R. Long novels are more of a new thing for students than they used to be. But I have had success teaching extraordinarily long novels. I teach Vanity Fair when I do the Brit Lit survey. I teach 200 pages every Tuesday for four weeks (interspersed with short Victorian lyric poems on Thursdays), to mimic the rhythm of serialization. I know I lose a few students. The theme of the class is vanity — from Pilgrim’s Progress through “The Vanity of Human Wishes” to Vanity Fair. To get them to do a long novel like that, you might have to do a little more work to interest them in the themes that make it important.
I do the Pride and Prejudice lecture every year for BU’s core curriculum. The first thing I tell everyone is how much I love Jane Austen. I got a note from one of the instructors saying one of his students had never before heard a professor declare love for the object. And it really made her enter into it in a new and exciting way.
So for these longer works, the approach to the text might need to be different than it was twenty years ago, when it might have been self-evident that these objects are beloved and interesting.
- “Holding up The Pound Era as a model for critics is like holding up Ulysses as a model for novelists. The book is too virtuosic, too idiosyncratic — too good.” In nonsite, Joshua Kotin’s FAQ on Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, one of several essays in the journal’s “The Pound Era at 50.”
- “Punk rock, of course, doesn’t seem much like birdwatching.” In Psyche, Joseph M. Keegin on splendid uselessness, by way of John Alec Baker’s The Peregrine and the California punk band the Minutemen. And check out Keegin’s essay from last summer in our pages, “The Hysterical Style in American Academe.”
- “Why did anyone ever like this?” In Vulture, Andrea Long Chu’s essay about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, coming to the end of its 35-year run on Broadway, doubles as an amusing history of musical theater.
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