This video is going around under the title of “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?” It probably has some relevance across the liberal arts, but the piece is more narrowly about the declining role of traditional literary scholarship in English studies, a topic I’ve written about before.
I’m particularly interested because I’m heading my (English) department’s curriculum committee this year and surveying student reaction to concentrations we’re considering. We haven’t even finished collecting responses, but it seems clear that many students from a wide variety of majors remain interested in at least some areas of traditional literary study for personal interest, or to fulfill a distribution requirement.
But when you ask what interests might lead students to make the larger commitment to a minor in English, or a major, the picture tilts. So far, science, business and other humanities majors say they are most likely to consider a minor in English in a diverse set of fields that I would characterize as either a) involving the production of texts, ie, writing or b) the intersection of disciplines.
I think we often miss the forest for the trees when we look at student interests: unless they’re an English major, we see our other students under labels that seem to clearly parcel them out into different camps: creative writer, business communications student, first-year student in composition.
But when we strand those various interests together under a single heading–writing or textual production, we start to see that these groups are often the same people–just with a writerly orientation to English, rather than a readerly one.
It’s actually quite common for non-majors, including business and science students, to take creative writing classes. But what offerings would lead them toward the further commitment of a minor in English?
As it turns out, these generally also involve textual production: writing in digital environments; business, scientific, legal, and medical writing; communication for advocacy, public discourse and social change.
Not surprisingly: students whose primary interests are science, business, or another humanities field are less likely to name literature and cultural studies concentrations as an incentive to consider an English minor or major.
When they do, however, so far in this limited study, the most popular seem to involve interdisciplinary subjects: film, women’s studies, spirituality and literature, digital culture.
I’m just starting to think through this particular survey and what it might mean for just one department.
One working hypothesis might be that we can count on a certain, slowly declining level of enrollments in individual classes and the major based on the love of literature. Students still find literature interesting, some passionately enough to major in it, pursue graduate study, etc–only fewer and fewer every year.
One strategy to build enrollments might be, as the MLA has–in my view, rather ridiculously–to sell literary studies as a nostrum for all that ails you. My guess would be that this approach won’t work (because it’s been tried, and usually fails, except where it serves as the justification for a set of requirements). In any event, it lacks intellectual credibility, at least in the form MLA has tried.
A better approach might begin by acknowledging that “literature” is an increasingly poor description of the interests of faculty and students in English.
Much of the most interesting faculty work for decades has been on writing that doesn’t easily fit within the traditional meaning of literary studies per se. As I wrote in the earlier piece, some of the most interesting work in my own department is being done on economic writers; Pacific revolutionary discourse; nineteenth-century elocution and reform; contemporary management theory; self-help, leadership, and spirituality; eighteenth-century sermons and other religious speech, and headmistress memoir—and evidently headmistresses with the souls of accountants, not poets.
In practical terms, this could mean that the figure of writing plays a larger role in the way we present and organize our curriculum, with less and less privileging of a specifically literary history.
Getting to the point where an English department can comfortably say “we’re all interested in writers and writing” might make a big difference in how we value each other, how we distribute resources, and in our reception on campus and beyond.
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