Dear English Dept., Stop being so damn dull! How to save the major.

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Oh, woe is the English major – but, frankly, I’m sick of seeing essays in higher-ed newspapers by disillusioned faculty that read like obituaries for the field. How does such griping inspire students — who may love books and creative writing — feel better about this major? How does the whining make parents feel about shelling out $50,000 a year for such study; will they instead steer their children into other fields?

Because English can be a great major – just it has lost its way in recent years. Here’s what went wrong, and how to fix the major – before it’s too late.

First a little explanation – around the turn of the last century, English departments, facing shrinkage, brought writing courses into their realm. By the free-love 1960s, these courses grew to become more creative in nature. A schism occurred – English departments became a mix of introverted booklovers with a Literature concentration, and their less academically inclined distant cousins, Creative Writing concentrators, who aspire to be on the Bestsellers List.

The only real connection Lit and Writing concentrators have is that the latter group should be exposed to classic books. However, what are the odds some 22-year-old is going to write a classic? Why not put the creative writers, instead, in the Business Division, then; because if not critical acclaim, maybe at least they’ll learn to market their work until – decades from now – their genius is discovered by the Lit concentrators of tomorrow.

And that’s the reality English departments need to face – neither Lit nor Creative Writing offers immediate rewards. Studies say these majors start to kick in salary wise around “mid-career.” But what are they doing for their 22-year-old graduates? Students who have piles of educational loan debt?

When I was a BA in English (Writing concentration) student back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I took elective courses in Journalism, PR Writing, Technical Writing and other practical forms. I also wrote for the school paper.

At the turn of this century, Communications Departments at most colleges started becoming serious – they no longer were satisfied providing a soft, generic major for the football team – and they took over these practical courses. English departments started to shrivel, to the point where only about 4 percent of graduates today earn an English degree (the number was twice as high last century).

Students in Communications are not only learning Journalism and PR Writing – they also are learning how to present their work via New Media. They also run the school paper now – school papers used to be a staple of English departments, who dropped the ball with these practical writing laboratories.

The typical professional novelist doesn’t hit until age 40 or so. They certainly don’t hit at age 22. How does the young English grad buy time until then? If he or she has practical training, there’s nothing wrong with being a newspaper reporter, technical writer, copywriter or PR flack until that novel finally finds an audience. But English Departments, largely, no longer are teaching such real-world skills. They used to, once.

Another issue is the homogeneity of English faculty. The basic requirement to teach full-time in the field now is a Ph.D. in English. I’ve noticed this trend scanning help wanted ads over the years. (I later earned an MFA in Writing and Literature, which used to be billed as a “terminal degree” on par with a doctorate. It’s not usually treated that way, in reality, when it comes to faculty searches.)

Someone who has a Ph.D. in English – God bless them – may be a great student. He or she may have come from a middle- or upper middle-class background. He or she may be white. At the very least, such a graduate is a “type,” but more types of teachers are needed. Perhaps some gritty instructors who weren’t typical students, who feel the words they write. Who know how difficult the business really is. MFA students are more often like that – acceptance into such programs is based more on one’s creative portfolio than academic conscientiousness. The MFA needs to again be treated as an equal to the Ph.D., just to help diversify departments.

I see movies where an English/Writing professor is the protagonist, say Hugh Grant in “The Rewrite” or Michael Douglas in “Wonder Boys,” and they are portrayed as a bit degenerate, though very passionate about their fields. The archetype of the nonconformist writing instructor used to ring true, more so last century. But such people usually aren’t going to come out of a Ph.D. program. They’d be bored silly in such surroundings.

As far as subject matter goes, we need to read more books from the 20th century and less from previous centuries; just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than books that came after it. The 20th century has spectacular, relatable works that need to be more fully explored.

English as a discipline began as the study of entertainment. That’s what books and plays and poems are meant to be – entertaining. But somehow so many departments got stuffy and boring and dry. It seems English no longer is a celebration of quality, exciting writing but, instead, a joyless critical dissection of such works.

English as an academic major can save itself by, once again, becoming interesting.

Students can make the most of this major by taking practical writing courses as electives. Read and write, read and write – that’s the only way to get better. And write in all styles. And write on deadline. And write for New Media.

English should be the study of interesting works of writing – and about you, as a student, being inspired by such works and perhaps attempting to create even better works of your own. The major can be all that; but, meanwhile you should also take some practical writing courses – to pay the bills, in a practical way, 9-to-5, as you read and write creatively nights and weekends. Because there are lots of practical writing jobs out there, for those properly trained.