Building a Better Major: The Case of English

“About 75% of English Departments we surveyed say they have made changes or are going to make changes to the major–but we don’t really have evidence yet that it will increase the number of majors at all.” 

That is a statement I heard at a superb session on changing the English major hosted at MLA 2019 earlier this month in Chicago.  The session highlighted results of an excellent ADE report on that topic and was made by one of the coauthors, the brilliant Professor Sarah Chinn of Hunter College.

One recurrent strain throughout this panel was the practicality and concern for students that so many colleges and universities evince as they look at their plummeting English enrollments and evaluate the major to consider ways to make it better. 

One recurrent thought I had through all the excellent presentations:  why did it take a crisis before English Departments addressed what seem like really basic, bottom line, crucial, important, essential changes?   And thought #2:  even if it doesn’t increase the major, shouldn’t we be making these changes for the simple, clear reason that students deserve this kind of thoughtful attention… and we as faculty owe it to our students, our disciplines, and ourselves to make sure the major and the courses we deliver meet our own mission statements and our own high standards.

Here are some of the changes I heard from this session that may or may not bring English major back in droves but seem to me to be basic. 

–Sane requirements, not simply requirements designed to “force” majors to take low-enrollment courses

–Reduced requirements that make it easier to double major and to minor

–Attention to great teaching, and even help for profs who are not great, who receive poor evaluations (peer as well as student):  teaching is a skill and it can be learned and improved.

–Renumbering courses in sane ways that make immediate, clear sense to undergraduates, and that even help students chart pathways through a major.

–Teaching expository writing and literature as well as creative writing and literature, combined, in the same course and also putting writing teachers (expository and creative) in the same department on the same level, with the same status and regard and rewards, with writing integrated into the major.  (We say in our mission statement that teaching critical thinking, the ability to read complex texts, and the ability to write are what we “do.”  You wouldn’t know it from the inequality and bias in the organization of most English departments.  Change that!)

–Pathways through majors, clearly drawn courses of study around student interest areas not conventional genre, period.  “Environment studies” is an example–and might include courses across a range of periods and genres.

–Advising.  Advising. Advising.  Advising for the major. Advising on how the courses help with other majors and other courses. Advising on how an English major–and skills developed in English classes–can be represented on resumes, in job interviews, and can help with life beyond the classroom.  (We say it does in our mission statements but rarely show students how this is the case.)   (I call this supplying the “meta”: why do we do what we do? how is it important? in what ways does it apply elsewhere?)

–Social activities around literary pleasures. Sure “critical thinking” is important… so is creativity, imagination, delight, pleasure, love. We’ve mired ourselves in finger-pointing (this book isn’t as radical as it should be; you thought you learned from this essy but it has faults a, b, and c).  Does anyone buy and read a book, in these busy lives of ours, in order to say what’s wrong with it?  Really? Pleasure should be a real selling point, not something we denounce and deride and degrade. An English major should be productive-and it should be joyous.  I was pleased to learn about departments offering social hours, reading groups, discussion groups, and other activities, including several in which faculty and students come together outside the classroom.

–Student-centered departments, where students have key roles in redesigning the major, in contributing ideas, in being heard, in learning to be leaders, in learning to articulate what and why they are learning what they are learning.

–Emphasis on the deep emotional, social, intellectual growth that happens from reading and discussing complex and inspiring texts, a skill that we know (even from Google’s studies of its own workforce) is crucial to success in academe, in future careers, in every day life, in civil society.  It’s also crucial to retention. It’s hard to stay in school and loving how one is spending one’s time is a great motivator against the odds of life, work, cost, tuition, debt, and everything else.

–Go on the school tour and see what the students, staff, and faculty leading the tours are saying about our majors.  If they are making snide comments about humanities majors not getting jobs, make sure that script is change.  It is not true. But, on every campus, there are assumptions about the humanities “in the air” and that need to be countered with facts and reality.

–On the level of faculty: make sure those leading institutional change are getting rewarded for their efforts.  The tripartite division of research, teaching, and institutional leadership (“service”) needs to be equal and, in some cases, maybe it is the institutional leader who deserves the greatest reward, recognition, merit increase, and all that.  Respect must be given if the hard work of change is going to happen at our institutions.


Will these things send students back into the English major?  I have no idea.  What I do know is that we should to be doing this–we need to and must do these things–because this is what a great university/college education is, what a decent and responsible major is, because our students deserve this, and because we, as professors with high standards, deserve majors that fulfill these basic, quite minimal standards.  At the Futures Initiative, we call our lecture series “The University Worth Fighting For.”  

What I learned in this excellent MLA panel is that, all over America, people in English Departments are repairing majors that have been in disarray too long.  That’s the kind of revolution we need in higher education.  Now.  And, if we do these things, if we create responsible and inspiring courses and curriculums for our students, then we need to fight for them, fight for public support not only at our public colleges and universities but at all of our institutions. 

These simple, basic, necessary, fundamental, and foundational “revolutions” in our departments and divisions and throughout the college and university, on every level, are totally worth fighting for.  Now.


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One response to “Building a Better Major: The Case of English”

  1. I totally agree with this post! Some things that I really wanted from my English major at CUNY was better attention to the diverse fields English majors went in to. All English majors were asked by someone at some time or another, “What are you even going to do with that” or “Are you going to be a teacher?” I knew I wasn’t interested in the traditional jobs for English majors, secondary teaching, journalism, editing, or library science. What I wanted was more collaborative majors/minors with other departments, maybe a digital humanities and webdesign minor that could be done in collaboration with another (tech-y) department, or a new media concentration. Maybe making the rich inquiries that seem to be saved for graduate school like cultural studies, more available for undergraduate students. Sequestering students in one department deprives them of the rich intellectual backgrounds and expertise they will be collaborating with in the workforce. Building community activities around shared goals, problems and inquiries rather than majors, can provide meaningful and lasting connections for students. The possibilities for collaborations are endless when departments can work together and professors/staff have the freedom to be flexible. It is exciting to know that English departments are tackling and experimenting in new and compelling ways!