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Can English Departments Be Relevant Again?

There is no greater asset for a graduate than the ability to write and communicate.

By Burt Wallerstein

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April 25, 2013

English departments were once considered a core component of every college. But for over 40 years they have been in decline. In an influential 2009 American Scholar essay William M. Chace noted that from 1970 to 2003 the number of students majoring in English fell by nearly half, from 7.6 percent of all majors to 3.9 percent.  Meanwhile business zoomed to almost 22 percent of all majors.

Yet there is no greater asset for a graduate than the ability to write and communicate.

English departments can be restored to prominence if they re-focus, re-brand, and re-market their curricula to adapt to the needs of their students and meet the demands of the marketplace. I say that as a business consultant who mentors many new graduates, but my views are not that different from those of Chace, an emeritus English professor and former president of Emory University.

Now, English department faculty may not like this advice. I understand that English departments are focused more on theory than on literature  itself—some say they have shifted from love of English literature to deconstructing it. Yet they remain the natural place for teaching how to communicate.

As Chace wrote, English departments “should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression.”

The need for communication skills is obvious. Employers responding to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Outlook 2007 Survey put communications skills at the top of the skills they want most from college graduates. These skills have headed the list for eight consecutive years, according to Mimi Collins, director of communications for the association, who says, “Many specifically cited writing skills being weak and noted lack of verbal, listening and presentation skills among new college graduates.”

Chace also cited a reason why English departments should welcome this task. He quoted Marjorie Perloff, then president of the Modern Language Association, who said in 2006, that while economists or physicians “must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice, we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise.”

With such lack of self-confidence, it is clear that English departments have not created a marketable distinction. Consequently, they cannot brand, market or sell their products—their courses—to students, other faculty, or administrators. If they can identify and market their expertise, however, they will gain credibility and a larger audience. That will allow them to develop and re-market other courses—even literary ones.

Here are the skills that English departments should teach in order to become a vital part of the education of young people today.

Writing. Learning to write well to a targeted audience in language that the audience finds comfortable involves the following:

Storytelling. When we try to explain or persuade, effective stories are the key. We must connect with the people we are talking to, and narrative is the best way.

Mechanics. Students can’t tell clear and arresting stories unless they master the building blocks of all communications—sentences, paragraphs, word choices, grammar, punctuation, and editing.

Conversation. The transactional nature of conversation makes it a tool for learning, understanding, and persuading. Thus, the following skills must be learned:

Listening.  Students must learn to listen hard to what the other person is saying and follow up to broaden the conversation and uncover fruitful information. You learn more by listening than talking. "I have learned a great deal from listening carefully,” said Ernest Hemingway. “Most people never listen.”

Responding. Being able to respond to others’ ideas and build them into your narrative creates rapport and enables you to match concerns, expressions, and body language. Your response becomes an effective tool for leading conversations and influencing discussions.

Concluding. You establish and maintain control of a discussion by asking relevant questions, seeking clarification, and summarizing key points and arguments.

Communication. Public speaking falls into this category. Learning to understand and respond to the needs and values of others in order to make persuasive arguments requires the following:

Gathering and formatting ideas. You must use information and insights to build your narrative and demonstrate a sympathetic understanding of the other side’s point of view.

Understanding communication patterns. You must learn to avoid talking past each other and how to focus on communicating clearly, effectively, and directly, whether you’re in or out of your own comfort zone.

Graduates with these skills will be able to better communicate (on or off-line), project confidence, market themselves or their products and ideas, and network.

If English departments could be the locus of this learning, they would have that “definable expertise” that they lack now. They would create an emotional connection with incoming students, increase synergy with other departments within the college, and establish a foundation to create a brand within the college and grow exponentially through extensions within the department. Since most students would study this curriculum (in my view, it should be required), the English department’s gravitas would dramatically increase. 

If English professors are so devoted to "theory" that they don't see themselves doing anything so mundane as teaching composition, then someone else may sieze the opportunity. That someone may not be in the university at all. As higher education begins to change, there will be more chances for entrepreneurs (inside and outside universities) to offer education in unconventional ways.

English departments: This is your opportunity, but it may be the last one.

        

 


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