Opinion: The self-inflicted death of the English department

Caleb Owens Headshot Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Caleb Owens on the demise of English departments.

Development Officer

Last year, in a past, more glamorous life, I was conscripted to help pitch the journalism program at a Blue and Gold recruiting day. I happily appeared, battling a rare but vicious hangover with a large coffee from Pete’s, effusing that familiar stench of coffee and booze and struggling to stay awake — appropriate, perhaps, given that I was playing journalist (and representing this university) for the day.

Somehow it worked out and, head throbbing, trying desperately to maintain a distance and not embarrass myself, I became a figure of wider authority. Along with journalism, history, English and philosophy — my three majors — were all represented in the room, me being the manic embodiment of all four departments. During the Q&A, a parent asked about my most memorable course in each respective major. History? Easy ― Early Christianity, proof that Catholic history, well-lectured, can leave one sweating. Modern Philosophy was where I became aware of my own stupidity, the discipline’s most important lesson.

At English, I paused, at first contemplatively and then uncomfortably. And it wasn’t the hangover. I recall letting out a faint “shit” and asking for the next question. Afterwards, I couldn’t bear to look at the English faculty representative.

Each semester, as I’ve considered dropping my English major, I’ve reflected on this moment. Could I — I, the self-proclaimed brand ambassador for the humanities at Delaware, the insufferable defender of literature, the STEM exterminator, the son of an English teacher, never at a loss for words — really find nothing good to say about the English department? Looking at the course listings each semester, hoping for that class on Dickens and instead seeing words like “Digital Rhetoric” and “Harry Potter,” the questions answered themselves.

I’ve ultimately decided to finish the major, and am now glad for it, if for no other reason than to become a piece of living history. According to a recent collection of essays, aptly titled “Endgame,” released by the Chronicle of Higher Education, I might be among the last ever to put “English, B.A.” on a resume.

As the collection’s introduction puts it, “The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.” The essays discuss recent transformations in the field: How Columbia’s English department can’t place grad students (raising the implicit question of why places like Delaware are even still accepting them); how lightweight hybrids like “environmental” and “digital humanities” are replacing old-fashioned English, the major’s enrollment plummeting; the pathetic hilarity of the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) conference, as academics in literal purgatory self-parodize themselves with jargon more dead than their jobs.

It all contributes to a thoroughly bleak picture. Some of it was deliciously vindicating — I have myself been harsh on English department jargon. I’ve also noted the self-cannibalizing trends of “interdisciplinary” programs like digital and environmental humanities, little more than short-term justifications for prolonged faculty existence and 3-credit hits of moral speed for the STEM curriculum.

Yet in reading the 60-page eulogy, I cried, twice, sensing the loss of something wonderful. And I thought about my ongoing ambivalence toward my English degree, an ambivalence I know that many English majors share. On the one hand, we love our English courses — the professors, the texts, the discussions, the classmates. Yet we feel our English education has left us incomplete, knowing what’s missing but unable to fill it.

It became clear to me that, in addition to the long-cited economic and political factors ruining the humanities, the decline of the English department has just as much to do with its having failed its students.

Because many of us declared English majors not, as our department website suggests, to be “practical.” We did not declare the major to learn to “market” our “writing skills,” or “adapt” to “digital media,” becoming experts in “technical writing.” Nor to learn the language of postmodernism, to have our worlds reimagined through the lens of ideology, reducing literature from an aesthetic category to a political tool.

The field’s vain efforts to professionalize itself — either by theorizing things beyond absurdity or technocratizing degree tracks to serve the market’s whims — have only guaranteed its obsolescence, leaving its own students, should they even decide to complete their degrees, unenthusiastic about it all.

Many of us arrive seeking merely to become better readers and more creative writers, wanting to read books and write stories, finding few opportunities to do either.

It’s this simple, obvious fact that both sides of the debate on how to justify the humanities — whether they should teach substance or method, works or practices — miss entirely. As Simon During’s essay in “Endgame” notes, many of the available arguments fail utterly. One cannot tenably claim that our literary canon contains transcendent truth, nor can one argue defensibly that it cultivates democratic habits of mind, nor is there a case with wide appeal for its personal, existential merit. I have argued forcefully for the latter two, and a weakened version of the first, but their appeal is obviously thin.

That these arguments are even made, however, only reflects how far the profession has strayed from its original, humbler aims — teaching people how to read and write, plain and simple — its mistake lying in ever thinking itself a profession apart from teaching at all.

Of course, we English majors enter with basic literacy, but also aware of our shortcomings. We want to learn how to read better — by bringing history to bear on the subject, context and nuance to novels and poems, accessing their deeper morals, learning to communicate our findings. It’s this facilitatory role — of mentorship, of sharing knowledge, of offering unsparing and constructive criticism — that the English professor must play and so often does not.

And it’s this argument, this original mission of the study of English, that is at once unimpeachable and more urgent than ever. Because if you just teach people to read and write, you simply will send smarter, more critical, more empathetic people into the world, people who can read both novels and the world around them, able to both tell and listen to others’ stories. The field’s justification will take care of itself. But this approach is today more distant from the minds of English faculty than ever, convinced that their academic work, inaccessible and unread, has greater value than their undergraduate teaching, which they do only begrudgingly.

In a perverse irony — something I’d have loved to learn more about as an English major — the very people who get off to daily lamentations about capitalism have, to their own peril, failed to understand one of its most central tenets: That you must appease the consumers, even just minimally, in order for your class to survive.

Caleb Owens is the current development officer and former editor in chief of The Review. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Review staff. Caleb can be reached at calowens@udel.edu.

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    Jonah 1 week

    Caleb, I’ve left critical comments on a couple of your previous columns, but this one is right on the money—best thing I’ve seen you write. It’s not very interesting to see college journalists write the same predictable pieces about national politics, but in this piece, you’ve done a ton of your own thinking, and it shows. Criticizing the direction English departments have taken has become almost taboo, and questioning the emphasis on politics and identity brings accusations of being “right wing,” which is foolish.

    The university dumbed down the English curriculum several years ago, removing much of the structure and really making the whole degree a little too easy. You’re right to find the English major in 2020 a disappointing experience. Find other students who agree with you and let the university know you expect more for your tuition dollar. In the long run, fostering the humanities in the world is going to be more important and more lasting than whatever forgettable political nonsense is in the news.

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