Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Save the English Major

by J J Cohen

Lifted from a FB status update I made this morning (after ten hours of sleep following zero sleep at #MLA16).

Go Mary K. Ramsey!! From this morning's Inside HigherEd piece on an ‪#‎MLA16‬ session that explored the decline of the English major and what departments might do to reverse the trend:
Mary K. Ramsey, chair of English at Eastern Michigan University, said that, a generation ago, a department like hers might have created a brochure promoting study of English by showing a student sitting under a tree, reading a book. Today, she quipped, such an image would prompt parents to tell their children that if they study English, "You will be living in our basement forever." 
But at the same time, Ramsey said it was important that English professors confront their own fear of discussing "less tangible reasons" for studying literature. Many worry, she said, that simply admitting that reading literature gives them great pleasure would lead administrators or parents to view them as hedonists or narcissists ... Ramsey argued for a mix of talking about the joy of literature in ways that don't hide that pleasure, but also show positive qualities that relate to students' later careers. Professors need to remind others that the Internet is basically "a limitless array of texts."
The whole essay is well worth your time. I agree with Mary that as an enticement to the major, the image of the student reading beneath a tree won't cut it any more: we are productivity-focused not pleasure focused! no one sits still! Later in the essay Tarshia Stanley (chair at Spelman College) is quoted as arguing that the best strategy is to refocus the major so that its emphasis on writing -- of all kinds -- is intensified. It's not the cultural or historical breadth of the literature we teach that is going to save the major. Yet the forms of writing and analysis this communal study enables will draw students who are thinking about their future careers. I hope.

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