That’s why it makes people nervous when the number of English majors at the University of Maryland, a public flagship, drops 39 percent over five years. An article upcoming Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine explores how faculty at College Park are mobilizing to reverse that trend.
Context is critical. English is hardly the only major with a dwindling share of students. And U-Md. is just one of many universities grappling with how the humanities can compete for students who are increasingly focused on preparing for careers.
“It’s a concern that we’re all beginning to actively address,” said Cynthia Wall, chair of the English department at the University of Virginia. Like her peers at College Park, Wall said faculty are redoubling efforts to promote English to students (and parents) as a major that provides skills of inherent value in the working world. Strong writers and creative analysts, they say, are always in high demand.
Of course, Wall said, such fields as English are also “essential for the whole human being.” That’s why they are called the humanities. Too often, she said, the public views the choice of a major within a false frame: those that are considered “useful” for careers and those that aren’t.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or,” Wall said. “But it’s being put that way. The onus is on us to remind students, parents — and even more so, the politicians — that it’s not either/or, that what we do is both/and.” Wall, a specialist in 18th century literature, spoke with The Washington Post one day last month before teaching a class on novelist Henry Fielding.
Amanda Bailey, a Shakespeare specialist, taught English at Guilford College and the University of Connecticut before joining the U-Md. faculty. She and her peers have intensified efforts in the past year to recruit students to the subject. What’s her method? Bailey said that she might begin an introductory course with a little joke: “You’ll learn a lot about literature, and by the end of the semester, you’ll all be double majors.” Their first major could be in business or computer science. Their second, she hopes, would be in English.
Bailey said that when she talks up the English major with students, she emphasizes the career possibilities: It could help them in business school, medical school and countless other fields. “What are your plans?” she asks them. “What’s your major right now? Where do you see yourself going?”
She is mindful, of course, that there are countless non-career reasons for majoring in the humanities. But she knows that today’s students are worried about the bottom line after graduation: finding a job. Without a paycheck, she said, no bachelor’s degree in any subject is going to “pay my rent and buy me a gallon of milk.”