Building a Better Major

By David Read
University of Missouri

There are many external challenges to English departments these days, and these challenges figure in many of the discussions at ADE summer seminars. I am going to take a somewhat different tack here, however, and talk about some of the internal challenges that our departments face. The title of the plenary session for which this piece originated was “Building a Better Major.” Many of you will have probably already noted that this title has a double sense: a major is a program of required and elective courses, but it is also a person enrolled in the program. We can talk about building a better major, and we can also talk about building better majors.

It might be presumptuous to think that we can make make our students better (than they already are, of course). It is no big stretch, though, to say that we want to have both programs that suit our students and students that suit our programs. There is always a felt tension in these programs between accommodation and prescription: we want to meet the current interests of our majors with appropriate curricular options while instituting requirements that we feel will give them the knowledge and set of skills that we would like them to have. In thinking about the major as as a program, then, we also have to consider the nature of our majors. Whether or not we can build better English majors, we at least need to think about the qualities and quirks of the majors that we have.

What I will offer here are local observations about a change in the profile of English majors at my institution—a large public university. They will not apply everywhere, and the facts on the ground will vary depending on the size and character of the institution, but I believe that they will resonate to some degree in many situations. Like a lot of departments we tend to aim our programming at a type of student that I will call (borrowing loosely from a famous moment in the history of the Coca-Cola Company) the Classic Major. If we are aiming to develop both depth and breadth of knowledge in our students, this is the kind of student that we are looking for. We feel very comfortable with her or him because this is the kind of major that most of us were before going on to grad school and entering the profession. The Classic Major may have specific interests but is open to, and usually enthusiastic about, studying texts, authors, and topics through the entire range of the courses that departments are able to offer. He or she views literary interpretation and critical writing as the main tasks associated with “doing” English, and generally enjoys doing both of these tasks. When we reconsider our program requirements for whatever reason, we are usually trying either to meet the needs of the Classic Major or to correct perceived deficiencies in what we are able to provide so that we can attract and cultivate more such majors.

However, these majors are now in the minority, at least at my institution. We have many more of what I will call the New Major. At a place as big as ours, we get majors from many different directions: refugees from other departments and academic units, transfers from other schools, and students who could be said to have drifted into the major and sometimes have trouble explaining why they are here. If there is a unifying principle to the category of the New Major, it is that many of these students identify their main interest as creative writing.

This identification became more noticeable in the mid-oughts. To be sure, there have always been plenty of aspiring writers in English Departments, and students bemoaning the fact that they could not take more courses in creative writing. I remember complaining about the lack of such courses when I was an undergraduate. What we are seeing now, though, is a difference in magnitude. We were surprised to learn a couple of years ago that upward of 60% of our majors viewed creative writing as their main area of emphasis. As has happened recently in many other English departments, our total number of majors has declined, but based on my own interactions with undergraduate students I would venture to guess that the 60% figure still holds true today.

My colleagues and I have speculated about the reasons for this upsurge, and surely there are factors in the broader culture that have led us to this point. Obviously one important factor is that the formal structures are in place at the institution to support the undergraduates’ interest. We are one of nineteen or so schools in the United States with a doctoral program in creative writing; thus we have an ample number of graduate students to staff lower-division creative writing courses, and our majors move from beginning to advanced workshops largely under the supervision of these graduate students. Our “depth of study” requirement, which enables students to specialize to an extent by taking three courses in a particular area, includes creative writing as an option. The option entails taking one additional creative writing course for a 33- rather than 30-credit major; most of the students who pursue this course of study are more than happy to add that extra course. In practical terms, this means that four of the eleven courses required for these students to finish the major are workshops that may or may not have substantial reading assignments in addition to substantial writing assignments. Another practical consequence is that we have many more of the students in our departmental honors sequence wanting to do a “creative” honors thesis rather than a traditional, research-oriented one.

The bigger issue, however,  has to do with a narrowing of the students’ frame of reference. These students primarily want to study contemporary literature—and by contemporary literature I mainly mean fiction written during the last forty years—because these texts seem most relevant to their identities as writers. I once remarked to a colleague that the mid-twentieth-century was rapidly becoming the Edwardian era; it may be that most of the twentieth century now seems pretty Edwardian to the New Major, and her or his resistance to studying other literary periods tends to rise with the distance of those periods from the present day. This creates challenges if our goal is (still) to build the Classic Major—that is, the student who graduates with both a wide knowledge base and a set of skills that will transfer readily into the marketplace after graduation. It become especially challenging in the current environment, with so much concern about the practical value of a degree in English.

I go back to the tension between accommodation and prescription—fitting the program to our students versus fitting our students to the program. In practice we do some of both, but finding the right balance is always the question. How we go about building our majors (in both senses) to achieve this balance is a conundrum, and I will not try to offer an easy solution, because I do not have one. But I will be interested to read comments here on how other departments are dealing with issues like those that I have outlined, and in how they are dealing with them.

The author is professor of English and former chair of the English department at the University of Missouri. A version of the essay was presented at the 2015 ADE Summer Seminar Midwest.

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