In February, The New Yorker published “The End of the English Major,” a virtual eulogy to the discipline and the humanities. In April, faculty members from Stony Brook University’s Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences provided their take in a forum titled “Reflecting on the End of the English Major.”
Presented by Stony Brook University Libraries and moderated by Karim Boughida, dean of University Libraries, the discussion was held in the Special Collections Seminar Room in the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library. Five faculty members were given five minutes each to share their thoughts.
“This panicky feeling has been a feature of the English major’s life for decades,” said Andrew Newman, a professor and chair in the Department of English. “Every year we have a commencement speaker at our graduation, they’re always a former English major, and the typical speech references a family conversation where a parent or uncle says, ‘How practical is it to major in English? How are you going to get a job?’”
Newman said that The New Yorker article diagnoses the recent decline in the humanities, and noted the impact of the 2008 financial crisis.
“A lot of students had that reckoning where they were attracted to the humanities, but the ‘what are you going to do with that’ question came up, pushing them to more seemingly pragmatic courses of study like business or the STEM fields,” he said.
Newman added that English fosters critical thinking, humanity, empathy and the skills to deal with indeterminacy, and with questions that don’t have right and wrong answers — a point Eric Wertheimer, a professor of English and American studies, carried further.
“I was drawn to a tweet from an educational tech consultant that said, ‘Once we start talking about the end of the humanities, we’re engaging in the very questions that animate the humanities in the first place,’” he said. “You can’t end humanities for that very reason. We in English, as in philosophy, are always replacing our subject matter and our methods.”
Wertheimer pointed to a lack of investment in the humanities.
“While the discipline is not dying, we can improve our condition, particularly here at Stony Brook,” he said. “Arizona State University, which is featured in the article and where I taught for 20 years, has invested heavily in the department. They’ve hired young superstars, poured resources into their Humanities Research Institute, and as a result it has become a powerful engine of thought and ideas and even solutions. We at Stony Brook can follow that model in our own way, with our own unique initiatives.”
Celia Marshik, an English professor, dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for graduate and professional education, elaborated on the value of thoughtful and creative curriculum.
“All English departments are not created equal, nor are all curriculums,” said Marshik. “There is some amazing teaching going on in Stony Brook’s English department, especially regarding interdisciplinary work.”
She cited the work of associate professor Ken Weitzman, who teaches interdisciplinary classes about playwriting and documentary theater, and Heidi Hutner, an associate professor of English and sustainability, who teaches about nuclear energy and climate change through the lens of literature and film. “We have to think about how to present English in ways that are exciting and engaging,” Marshik said.
English professor Ken Lindblom spoke of how past behavior has brought the major to its current point.
“When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, we talked about the death of the book,” said Lindblom. “Well, books are still around, students still love them. So I’m not too worried about the end of the English major. It’s just another way of talking about mortality.”
Lindblom said that many of the problems the field is confronting have been brought on by the field itself.
“We’re not good at explaining the practicality of our field,” said Lindblom. “I remember a discussion where I said that one of our goals should be to help students become professionals, and somebody took great umbrage at that. They said, ‘I am not a professional. I’m an intellectual.’ I like to think I’m an intellectual, too, but I’m also a professional. I like to make a living. And our students are also very much looking to make a living.”
Lindblom noted a political turn fueled by postcolonial, nonwestern efforts in the second half of the 20th century that changed the direction of the field. “That’s when we started to talk about things like feminist theory, Marxist theory, queer theory, gender studies and postcolonial theory,” he said. “In many ways, our field has become a means to challenge and problematize tradition. In that context, you can see why the larger culture would have problems with that.”
Associate professor E.K. Tan, chair of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies, addressed the importance of diversity. “Asian students have told me that they were glad to be able to take English classes with a faculty member who looks like them,” he said. “Representation matters. Our English department is conscious of that and will continue to advocate for that.”
Tan also offered that students today want to study postcolonial texts over the works of the “dead white men” who represent a disproportionate academic focus of contributions to Western civilization.
The speakers noted the importance of the humanities and the life skills they provide. “When humanities students talk about feeling pressured to switch to another major, it’s to something concrete,” Marshik said. “It’s always something like statistics or engineering. So to me the end of the English major is really the end of everything but the applied sciences. What we are talking about here in general is what happens to fields that pursue knowledge that doesn’t lead to one very specific career?”
To that end, Marshik said, the humanities offer skills that are critical to leadership.
“If you look at leadership in companies, it’s often English majors who are running things,” she said. “The skills you learn about analyzing and communicating, those skills are integral to leadership positions. So if you want to be on that trajectory, English is the place to be.”
Marshik added that data shows the humanities lead to greater job and life satisfaction. “The career path might not be straightforward,” she said, “but in the long run, you’re going to be fine, and you’re going to be happier.”
“English majors are everywhere, which makes it seem like English majors are nowhere,” said Lindblom. “Leaders need to be adaptable, confident, and they need the ability to be abstract. They need to be self-driven and they need to know how and when to apply critical analysis and creativity. Guess what you learn as an English major? All those things.”
— Robert Emproto