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In considering how we might revise the English major, how much thought should we give to ensuring that the major "keeps up" with changes in our culture, especially changes in the media of self-expression and critical reflection?

Some things to consider here:

  • Do we see ourselves mainly as conservators of tradition or as guides to navigating the current cultural landscape?
  • Is it worth our while to try to remain relevant to a future whose shape can't be predicted?
  • What are the risks of not remaining relevant?
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  1. Some Thoughts about our Opening MeetingA. I like the idea of reducing and simplifying the distribution checklist
    for the English major, and the proposed move from 5 to 4 courses per semester allows us
    to make a virtue of necessity. The call for us to think in terms of 10
    rather than 12 is in and of itself a bold and important step.

    B. I concur with those at the table who would argue that breadth and
    coverage are essential elements in an English literature major and, as
    such, require a structural presence within the framework of the
    curriculum. Leaving breadth and coverage to the uncertainties of
    advisor/advisee negotiations fails to satisfy important and (still)
    widely-accepted practices and expectations within the discipline. The
    importance of traditional considerations of breadth and coverage is
    readily borne out by their prominence in the BA and MA requirements
    of many leading colleges and universities, including superb graduate
    departments to whom we proclaim our students’ readiness, preparation, and
    suitability for admission.

    C. I was glad to be referred to the Amherst English department website and
    was edified to find the following information about the required senior comprehensive exam,
    which the proposal at hand  does not include or reference in its adaptation of the Amherst model English major:

    “In addition, in the fall of the senior year, majors must pass a
    comprehensive examination based upon an outside reading list. The current
    list, along with other information and announcements about the English
    major, is available on the Department’s web page.”

    The comprehensive examination list is only available online to the Amherst
    community, so I spoke with a department secretary who helps administer the
    exam. The booklist is made up entirely by the faculty; students have no
    input into the book selection and are required to prepare every book on
    the list for the exam.

    The list is not particularly long, perhaps half a dozen texts, but if this year’s
    list is any indication we might be seriously underestimating Amherst’s
    interest in traditional breadth and coverage for their majors. This year’s Amherst
    comprehensive senior English exam list includes Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Collected
    Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks. Since, as we know from graduate school, external
    booklist exams have a wonderful habit of chasing students into
    courses they might not otherwise select, the Amherst comprehensive exam (which
    consists of two parts completed over three days) might well be serving as an ad hoc
    advisement tool. (“Sure, kid, go ahead. Take ten courses in modern drama.
    Have fun with the medieval poetry on the comp.”)

    In any case, we owe it to the Amherst English department to make sure that any future
    reference we make to the Amherst “approach,” “model,” etc. will encompass course
    selection AND the senior comprehensive booklist exam. Our colleagues
    there clearly assign a great deal of importance to the comprehensive exam and apparently devote
    a considerable amount of time to its development and administration.

    See Amherst English Department sub link to senior comprehensive

    1. Tom's comment raises some important concerns about our role as faculty in guiding students' learning and guaranteeing that they come away from the major with appropriate breadth of knowledge. Let me suggest that anyone who wants to respond to Tom's comment do so on the Who's responsible? page, so that we can reserve the present page for the question of the English major's relationship to the future.

      1. "Relevance" was a hot button word in the revolutionary Sixties, but even then the undergraduate English major was a conservator of the literary and cultural-historical tradition(s). The only crystal ball we have is the past, somebody famously put it. The best way we can be relevant to the future is to seek to foster in our students skills of critical thinking and writing, esp. as these seem to be waning rather than waxing in our (media-manipulated) culture. Graham had an excellent recent post (to the English-L list) about how the English major does this for our students. Students who majors in English should have some significant breadth of knowledge about the range of English, American, and other literature(s). They should learn about some of the basic conventions of different genres, and also the literary-cultural currents (aesthetic, intellectual, political) of different centuries and periods. Having at least an exposure to such a rich date base of important writings throughout the centuries is the best way to help prepare them for the challenges of the future. And by the way (writing the day after 9/11) the future is something that nobody ever gets right: the future is what you didn't expect. But the more our majors know about their field, the better prepared they will be to deal with the challenges of the unknown future.

        1. While I agree with Gene that critical thinking and writing skills should always form the core of our major, I also think that this student at Minnesota State University has a point.

          The student's complaint is directed to MSU's department of mass communication; much of what he says is not directly relevant to us.

          But some of it is. The very nature of "writing" is changing before our eyes. So is the concept of "the book." "Scholarship" is being redefined. The revolution we're witnessing is, some believe, on the order of that brought about by the introduction of the printing press.

          This revolution won't bring the brave, new world some people claim, but it isn't the apocalypse that some people fear. In any case, I think we have an obligation to our students to help them make sense of the change and to teach them the new skills that will be necessary to succeed in a radically altered landscape of communication.

          I don't believe that the familiar skills of critical thinking and writing will ever lose their relevance; but neither do I believe that exposing our students to "important writings throughout the centuries" is enough, even when combined with those skills, to "prepare them for the challenges of the future."

          They will need some new skills. We should teach them.

          1. Yes, much of what the MSU student is venting about is not directly relevant to us: he's mostly complaining about the fact that the dept. of mass communication did not give him the state-of-the-art or "hands-on" skills required by employers in his field. He didn't get enough vocational training. His view reflects that fostered by the "corporate" university model or ideology globally promoted by government and business interests, and according to which the principal focus of higher education should be to prepare students for the increasingly hi-tech job market (so they have the kinds of skills that translate directly to the workplace). As if there were no other purpose for the university. In that model, even research is valued and measured according to the funding it can garner for the institution (mostly in the sciences, of course).

            I'm willing to grant that our majors may "need some news skills" (though I'd like to hear more about these), so long as they serve the purposes of a liberal arts education, and are not simply designed to prepare them for the workplace.

            1. I'm willing to grant that our majors may "need some news skills" (though I'd like to hear more about these), so long as they serve the purposes of a liberal arts education, and are not simply designed to prepare them for the workplace.

              The skills I have most immediately in mind (you won't be surprised to hear) are the skills necessary to navigate — as readers, as full participants in public and private discourse about our common culture, perhaps as scholars (for those who choose to pursue graduate work in English) — the world I referred to above: a world in which fundamental concepts such as "writing," "book," and "scholarship" are changing before our eyes.

              For example, our students are going to need, I believe, to know what to make of, and how to work in, the environment described in this discussion of "New Visions for the Book."

              I wouldn't consider these vocational skills, though, like many of the skills we teach in the fulfillment of our liberal arts mission, they'll probably come in quite handy in the workplace — even, maybe especially, if it's a non-profit or governmental one steering clear of, or even fending off, the interests of giant corporations.

              And by the way, in fairness to the MSU student, I suspect that his program in communication is a pre-professional one, where the teaching of very specific workplace skills is entirely appropriate, indeed essential, and doesn't in and of itself reflect the spread of a corporatist ideology.

              Moreover, when we teach our majors how to cite sources following MLA format and do other things that are done mainly by literary scholars and only rarely by other liberally-educated individuals, we, too, are teaching workplace skills.

  2. I just read something in Education Life today that I thought others might be interested in & that may be relevant to our ongoing discussion about what an English major can train students for: