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“Why Study English?” A New Report Urges Departments to Examine the Major

As the number of students majoring in English continues to decline nationally, colleges and universities are taking stock and looking for ways to reshape their English programs to recruit new students and recoup some of the losses their departments have experienced. A recently released report by the Association of Departments of English (ADE), under the auspices of the Modern Language Association (MLA), examines the current state of the English major and how English departments are responding to economic pressures and intellectual and cultural trends. Looking at how the major is changing and how those changes are being showcased in 539 departments at four-year institutions, the report is a resource meant to help English departments work toward reenvisioning and creatively reshaping their curriculum, department structure, and outreach.

The authors of the report, members of an ADE ad hoc committee, attribute the declining numbers of English majors to

  • the radical downturn in the United States economy beginning in 2007–08,  which created anxiety around how college will or will not lead to good jobs and salaries;
  • the rising personal cost of (and declining public support for) higher education;
  • the devaluing of the humanities in favor of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and applied programs (in health sciences, for example) designed to prepare graduates for specific jobs and careers;
  • a national decline in leisure reading; and
  • the saturation of culture by electronic media (including its reshaping of reading practices).

Based on these trends, the report presents its findings as an exploration of the question “Why study English?” and examines how English departments are asking and answering that question on their Web sites and in other recruitment presentations. It identifies three categories being considered by the English departments surveyed in response to changes in student interests, perspectives, and concerns: skills, career prospects, and disciplinary content. As the report states, “The English major must now justify itself to students in terms of employment prospects, find its way in the new media landscape, integrate works into the curriculum beyond those of the British and American national traditions, and acknowledge a range of methodological approaches and historical and social interests.”

While the report describes the state of the English major in four-year colleges today, in the report’s preface Paula Krebs, the MLA’s executive director, urges faculty members and administrators to be proactive in using the data. She encourages them to ask important questions about how their departments are addressing cultural and economic changes that influence students’ academic choices. For example, Krebs asks, “How are we recruiting students who want to study literature and to write but who worry that they should be business majors instead?” Regarding the decline in leisure reading and  the reshaping of reading practices by electronic media: “How are you changing your courses, your recruiting, and your public programming to acknowledge that the ways in which students approach narrative, poetry, and performance have changed since we were English majors?” The bottom line, suggests Krebs, is that English departments must make extensive and meaningful changes to meet the needs of students and to help them become the citizens and community members they aspire to be. She encourages departments to use the ADE and MLA, including this report, as tools for accomplishing those goals.


Photo: pixabay





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