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English Majors Evaporating?

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Rod Dreher links to a long column I haven't read in full, and wonders what's to become of English majors. He excerpts the thoughts of William Chase:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.

Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves--the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or "acting assistant professors." These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.'s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure.

I heard a lot of this same talk while studying Communications, with an emphasis in Film and Popular Culture, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and it's true: You won't make as much money as students who study more technical disciplines. But other than a couple of short-term layoffs, I've never been jobless. I went to school to learn about subjects that interested me, and did so on my parents' dime. Then, for my Masters degree, I paid my own way (with a little employer/continuing education assistance early on, but which soon disappeared) to study ... Religion, at seminary. Yup, another discipline with no big payoff, but something that, I like to think, made me more learned, and which scratched an itch -- the only itch I had at the time -- for further learning.

I understand why students would steer clear of a major which doesn't lead to a particular skill suited for a particular job, but I also don't think the Ph.D./teaching route is the only option for English majors. I like to think that Liberal Arts majors in general won't just disappear. Not everyone wants to be an engineer, a chemist, or a math major. Or a computer programmer.

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Well, Jeffrey was an English major, and he was looking pretty pale the last time I saw him...

I majored in journalism because I thought it presented better career prospects than music.

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Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves--the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or "acting assistant professors." These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.'s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure.

And maybe that is part of the problem--only running into one small, specific aspect of the field--teaching. Are those stats specific to English (or is literature more accurate?) or do they apply to most anyone looking to teach at the college level? I know we're told as English majors that the field is wide open. On the other hand, we're also told tenure teaching jobs are very difficult to come by.

I think the field is a lot wider-this is a list from the University of North Carolina listing career options. Just from my own limited sample of English majors (I'm in a small program), not all of them plan to go into academia.

Edited by CherylR

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I've got two English literature degrees (BA and MA). I'm planning on pursuing a third (PhD interdisciplinary with film) next year. I've had troubles with employment, but I've also worked in finance and am currently working as a High school English/ESL teacher in Thailand. I don't think I'd change much (though I might have abandoned banking/commerce earlier for English if I knew what I was missing). My long term dream is to do academic work, but high school teaching can be cool to.

My wife has an English MA, as does my brother and his fiancee. At the very least, an English degree can get you a wife. ;)

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What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.

There's undoubtedly something to this, but I would attribute it to two sources: 1. Pressure from above (adminstrators) and below (students) for majors to lead directly to obvious EMPLOYMENT, so that liberal arts departments of all stripes are constantly being asked "what can I do with this degree?" rather than "what will I learn?" This is the world we live in, evidently. And 2. The long tail of literary theory, which produced, especially in major "research" universities, a boatload of English professors who were taught to dissect literature in various ways, but in the end, didn't really like the literature itself very much. Smaller "teaching" colleges and universities tend to have more of the old-fashioned kind.But they're still pressed by the "what can I do with this major?" trend.

Meanwhile, undergraduates have become aware of this turmoil surrounding them in classrooms, hallways, and coffee lounges. They see what is happening to students only a few years older than themselves--the graduate students they encounter as teaching assistants, freshman instructors, or "acting assistant professors." These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.'s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure.

This scenario, again, is primarily found in large research universities, state universities. I'm not saying it isn't true, but it's distorted. I'm surprised to hear that "the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11"--that was more or less the case 20 years ago, and everyone said it was too much then so I heard that reputable programs were setting limits (UNC-CH says 8).

English majors at smaller schools are generally taught almost entirely by full-time professors with PhDs (or MFAs), and can (and should) get better advising on the wider job prospects. Even in large universities, graduate students should be thinking outside the teaching box. For years, The Chronicle of Higher Education has been running columns on careers for academics "Beyond the Ivory Tower" like this one: "Every PhD Needs a Plan B."

Payscale.com reported last month that employers' most requested job skill was "writing":

In even better news for English majors, according to PayScale

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Ah, the eternal debate. I am first and foremost an English major (Creative Writing, but that's English with some writing courses tacked on). I value what I learned as an English major. I would do it again, I think. It's certainly the closest fit to my gifts and interests. But I've also been back to school three more times since then, essentially trying to make myself more employable. And I will tell you the current reality of employment when your current focus is not teaching. That technical writing career, with an average salary of $65K per year? Best of luck. Check on monster.com. Go ahead. There are six current openings in the United States. Six. And you may have earned $65K or more in the past, but these days, if you happen to be fortunate enough to secure a job in that field, you'll earn between $35K and $40K per year. That's because corporate America has jettisoned its English majors by the thousands. After all, anyone can write. It's just typing. And in any economic downturn, where certain skills are absolutely valued more than others, the common "wisdom" is that engineers and computer programmers can type as well as English majors.

Frankly, I don't blame anyone these days for focusing on an education that will lead directly to a career. That's because careers outside of Wal-Mart greeters and Starbucks barristas are hard to come by. And as nice as the old adages are -- you'll be a more well-rounded person, a better thinker, a more persuasive communicator -- they don't put food on the table. I have to speak (for free, naturally) at one my four alma maters in a couple weeks. I'm addressing the assembled subset of journalism students who are about to launch their careers in print journalism. Heh. I'm honestly struggling with what I could possibly say to them. Do I think their pursuit is valid, interesting, worthwhile? Of course I do. Do I think they should reconsider and perhaps major in accounting instead, even though most of them have no interest or aptitude in accounting, and would probably make lousy accountants? Maybe. It depends on which day you ask me. It really comes down to whether they are independently wealthy. If they are, then English/Journalism/Creative Writing are wonderful majors, and well worth pursuing. If they are not, then, alas, they are probably preparing themselves for careers at Starbucks. Perhaps things will change. But given the non-value that the corporate world assigns to communication, it's hard for me to be too optimistic. There's always teaching, I guess.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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While it may not be the most practical degree right out of college, I do think that an English major (or really, almost any liberal arts or humanities major) would be a great foundation from which to start an MBA. I have a friend doing an MBA right now, and he tells me that the most important skill in his course work is writing.

Of course, this is just an extension of the "What can I *do* with this major?" mindset that's gotten us into trouble to begin with. I read the Chase article a week or so ago and completely agreed with his assessment of university English programs. There really does seem to be a lack of affection for literature in many programs. It's not something to love or learn from, but something to dissect and test out your latest theory on.

This was one great thing about getting my English degree from Texas A&M. The school didn't really expect much from their English department, so the profs didn't have to get caught up in the latest theories and could just teach the books.

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Eric G. Wilson has an essay that is simply an enjoyable read at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

... I simply tell my disgruntled students about the first time I read, as an undergraduate, these lines:

There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons—

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes—

I had often witnessed beams of dull December light with a melancholy I didn't understand. Dickinson's flash clarified my feelings: In the impoverished glow of the cold time were heavy reminders of brightness I desired but couldn't possess. But this affliction had fever, intimations of future heat that was luminous, like hymns.

Dickinson's verse spelled out the abstruse, made the strange familiar. In this new intimacy, however, was a novel astonishment: The chilly light from that day onward exposed the enigmas of longing, both tormenting and radiant. Her poetry left me amazed—caught in wonderment as well as labyrinth.

Other epiphanies followed. What I had taken for granted was shattered; the marvelous erupted amid the fragments. In Whitman I saw ordinary grass morph into the "uncut hair of graves." In Eliot's "Prufrock," I watched twilight transmogrify into "a patient etherized upon a table." The grass, the evening—in these metaphors, they grew more lucid than before, and more cryptic.

Shelley articulates literature's invigorating disorientation: "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." But the result of that alienation is not only an aesthetic rush; it is also a moral life. In shocking us into awareness, poetry urges us to relate to the world in fresh ways. The problem is, How do I connect my own mind, relatively familiar, with what is before me, enticingly bizarre? ...

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