digital rhetoric Higher Education Professional Writing

the future of the English major, or “Hey Mister, where do you want these deck chairs?”

The Association of Departments of English (ADE) released a report today on the changing English major. As those who tuned into the last episode (or the last 1000 episodes) of this program will remember, there has been a steady decline in English majors (going back to the early 90s when measured as a share of the total degrees granted) and a sharp decline in recent years (in both share and raw number). So that’s the impetus for the report, which mostly focuses on how departments have responded to this through curricular changes.

Before I get to that though, there’s an important topic to address. Many will argue, and I believe with merit, that the plight of English majors and departments is largely a product of the rise of neoliberalism over the last 40 years. Higher education overall has been adversely affected by a sharp decline in public support (which is why college costs students so much more than it used to), but also English and the other humanities have been devalued in that context. College has been redefined as a means to an end in a career and majors oriented in very specific ways to specific careers have proliferated. There are far more majors now than 30 years ago. The extent of these neoliberal effects vary from institution to institution as it’s partly a reflection of local institutional choices, state governments, etc.

What that means to me is that the historical contexts that benefited English and attracted majors in the 50s-70s changed. Part of those changes are very specific neoliberal strategies. Part is changing demographics of students and their changing attitudes regarding college education. As I always argue here when this topic comes up, a significant part is the shift in literacy practices. It is not mere coincidence that these declines follow developments in digital media and culture. Whatever argument anyone wants to make about the continuing value of the traditional literacy practices at the heart of English curricula, it is self-evident that students do not agree.  And of course the fact that most students don’t agree isn’t really an argument for changing our discipline… But if that’s where we’re headed (and it is always where we are headed when this topic is raised) then really what was the point in doing this study?

But anyway, to the report…

So I’ll just focus on the recommendations. Here’s a snippet:

Media studies, including digital work, has begun to find its way into many English programs, although to a degree less than one might expect. We recommend that, where appropriate, departmental curricular discussion expand its attention to media and digital studies.

Rhetoric and composition continues to be an important component of the English major, and enhanced opportunities for advanced study in writing and areas such as technical and professional writing are becoming well established. We recommend that departments give continued attention to writing studies and to its connection to other parts of the major.

There are a couple other paragraphs in that report about these fields (which tend to make up nearly 50% of the tenure-track jobs every year), which is roughly about the same amount of space as the report spends wringing its hands over the “Place of Shakespeare.” Most of the report is about literary history. Why is that? Well, not to confuse the deck chair metaphor in the title but it’s because literary history is the anchor dragging English departments down, and the literary scholars driving departments seemingly have no choice but to hold onto it.

Now I’m not saying there is no role for literary history, but the report clues one into the problem. For example “One trend among departments is to think of the English program not just as a program in literature but more expansively as one in English studies, a term intended to show self-aware hospitability to media, composition, rhetoric, film, cultural studies, and other interests that reside in English departments at all types of institutions” (my emphasis). WTF is hospitability? What kind of relationship does this presume among faculty within a department? Is this meant to suggest that there’s a breathable atmosphere? Or that someone’s going to offer me a drink while I’m visiting my own department?

But don’t worry. It gets worse. In fostering this “hospitability,” “Accordingly, tracks and concentrations within the major are becoming increasingly common… The track and concentration models have appeal, since they respond to the shape of the profession as it exists. Yet these structures are not without risks. Specialization may be forced prematurely on students, or the major may balkanize and conflicts may harden between the fields.” Conflicts may harden? If the hardening doesn’t subside after four hours, should we consult a physician? Imagine being in a department where there’s simply no role for you in the major. Ultimately the report recommends the consideration of tracks, but it remains worried.

I don’t really mean to blame the report writers. I think they’re accurately describing English departments. The recommendations they make strike me as sound but unimaginative and probably 20 years too late. They cannot get outside of the idea that literary studies is the foundation of English. As they write at one point “The literary (creative works, authors, periods, movements, genres, tropes and figures, and the like) remains a defining feature of the English curriculum that distinguishes the discipline from other textually oriented fields in the humanities, such as history or philosophy.” They can’t get outside the literary, printcentric condition. Either they can’t get there in their minds or they are just helplessly constrained by what is. I can’t tell.

Anyway, the real thing that has English screwed isn’t this lit/writing division anyway. It’s its total failure to address digital media and culture 20 years ago. And I’ll end on the funniest line in the whole report. “For digital studies, skepticism still lingers in some quarters about the field’s usefulness.” OK. Meanwhile on the topic of the “usefulness” of literary studies… I think I feel some hardening.


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