The English Major in Peril & What the English Professor/Instructor Can Do About It
Why study literature? Why major in English at all these days? These were questions that teachers, friends, and family asked me during my undergraduate studies ten years ago, but now, undergrads who love literature face an even harder decision; they feel they must choose in most cases whether to study what they love and face the prospect of few job opportunities and low wages or whether to pick a different major that will pay the bills. What this means of course is that the study of literature on the college level is in peril. In a faculty meeting last year at LSU, the department chair strongly encouraged the professors and instructors to look for strong students with aptitudes for reading and writing and convince those students to consider majoring in English. “We’re hemorrhaging English majors” is how the dilemma was put. Without students, there wouldn’t be a need for English departments or English professors. Therefore, a primary goal of the English professor in today’s world has got to be the preservation of the study of literature and writing and all fields and sub-fields therein. In order to preserve what we know to be a vital and relevant course of study, we must carefully consider how we approach our literature and writing curriculums.
How does the literature professor or instructor compete with today’s buzzing and ringing world? As Roger Kuin notes, “we should never forget that in today’s undergraduate teaching we are dealing with the vulnerable, the open, the intellectually virginal, the easily bewildered, the preoccupied, who have little background, little time, and little money. We should ask ourselves continually, what our goal is in teaching them the Renaissance. What do we want to accomplish” (qtd. in Showalter 25). In addition to clearly defining what we want to accomplish, we have to figure out how to accomplish it. A highly effective method of teaching canonical literature is to pair close reading with Prezi presentations, social media platforms, websites, movies, and memes. The traditional students in today’s college lecture halls have birth years just before the year 2000. They were born into a world already addicted to the Internet and social media. It’s no surprise then that pairing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) might mean more to some students than the text alone. The possibilities for incorporating technology and popular culture into the literature classroom are endless, and we shouldn’t shy away from these opportunities or brush off them off as silly or extraneous.
When it comes to teaching theories, I believe in a combination of both subject-centered and student-centered methods. Without a structured emphasis on a “subject,” the class loses its focus and can begin to seem superfluous to the students. However, assuming that a course is focused on a subject and taught by a knowledgeable teacher, the focus should then be on the students and fostering whenever possible opportunities for hands-on, active learning that will lead to some kind of tangible skills applicable to life outside the classroom. Close reading is a very real skill, and we shouldn’t forget to emphasize to our literature students that learning to read well and analyze what is read is one of the most important, real-world applicable skills a student learns in college.
A staple of the literature classroom is the ever-dreaded student essay (dreaded by the students but sometimes the teachers, as well). A traditional model for assigning essays in many literature courses is a short paper before midterms and a longer, final paper near the end of the course. Though, another method is assigning short, weekly essays. Regardless of which model a teacher adapts, Paul Ramsden has a point when he says “there ought to be a definite educational justification for every activity, every piece of content, that is present in a course of study. Tradition and habit are not satisfactory educational reasons” (qtd. in Showalter 25). First and foremost, an essay shouldn’t be assigned if it’s not somehow beneficial practice for the student. Assigning essays as a form of “busy work” is a waste of time for both students and teachers alike. Furthermore, in the literature classroom, we can’t assume that our students have taken Composition I and II or that they know anything at all about writing an essay, which is why I think all literature courses would benefit from the instructor giving a tutorial on paper writing in order to prepare both undergraduate and graduate students for the kind of essay (both in terms of quality and genre) that the instructor expects of the students. This kind of preparation is especially effective when paired with useful and timely feedback, though timely isn’t always easy when there are 100 essays to grade.
But, are two longer papers really needed? Some instructors definitely think so. Don’t get me wrong: I think that it’s highly important for students to have experience reading, researching texts, and composing arguable, original essays, but the average English major is going to write dozens of these papers throughout his or her college career. Why not give our students assignments in which we ask them how would you teach this text or how would you have written this chapter differently, allowing the students an opportunity to explore their own pedagogical or creative interests. In graduate classes, why not allow more time for discussions on professionalism, like how to submit to journals and how to write a seminar paper? Why not workshop seminar papers in graduate classes instead of assuming that all graduate students have already learned the skills of scholarly academic writing?
Last and perhaps most importantly, the teaching of literature on the college level needs to be talked about, researched, workshopped, written on – how to teach literature needs to be taught, a topic discussed by Elaine Showalter in her book Teaching Literature. The instruction of college writing (Composition and Rhetoric) is well researched and continues to be researched. Graduate teaching assistants in English are taught how to instruct college writing in classes aptly called “Teaching College Writing,” but rarely if ever do we come across a class titled “Teaching Early American Literature” taught within an English Department. The idea has seemed to be that the student learns how to teach literature from taking numerous literature courses, but this does not always translate. If you’ve learned from a talented literature professor, you know that there’s a definite skill – something beyond mere passion alone – that makes these professors so effective in their teaching. Talent like this needs to be shared with and fostered in the next generation of professors and instructors. It is the responsibility of today’s tenured professors to teach graduate students and young instructors 1) how to effectively teach canonical and contemporary literature to today’s youth, 2) how to bring the world of technology into the classroom, 3) and how to preserve our field of study for generations to come.
What can we say to our students when they ask us why they should major in English or why they should sign up for a literature course? Maybe we should be candid and open in our response. Are there higher paying jobs or courses that require fewer essays? Yes. But there’s more to consider. There ARE job opportunities in English and literature. I know because I have one. In any field of study, there are jobs available for those who work hard and excel. Maybe too we should get back to the basics of the literature academic. In Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton writes, “English [is] not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit […] English [is] an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence – what it mean[s] to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values – [are] thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny” (qtd. in Showalter 22-23). Literature academics, we should tell our inquiring students, are not simply reading dusty books in their dark offices. They’re examining the greatest writing of the ages and life and culture, and since most universities don’t have Epistemology departments, studying literature is one of the closest ways of studying the meaning of… well … everything.
Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. Print.