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An English Professor on the Demise of English Departments

An English Professor on the Demise of English Departments

“This is a topic that is little discussed by English professors.”

Adam Ellwanger teaches English at University of Houston-Downtown.

He writes at Quillette:

The Real Reasons Why the English Department Died

I’ve worked as a professor in an English department for the last 15 years, and I spent the 10 years prior to that as a student in English. Over the course of that time there was never a period when the English major wasn’t in decline. For the first half of the 20th century, English departments occupied a critical and celebrated position in the American university. But by the time of Sputnik and the beginning of the space race, the field had begun a long slide into obscurity.

Today, most people who take English departments seriously are English professors and the handful of students who still choose the major. Current university administrators see the English department as serving a gatekeeping role: the required freshman-level courses generate massive enrollment, mostly from students who are not prepared for the demands of college writing. Thus, in the eyes of the administration, the job of the English department is remedial—getting those students “up to speed” so that they can do the writing required by their majors (which are overwhelmingly housed in other departments). Liberally educated professors in other disciplines often have a nostalgic reverence for the humanities and humanistic knowledge, but they know that English professors no longer serve as guardians of that tradition. In fact, it’s common knowledge that the vast majority of English faculty are resolutely opposed to traditional notions of humanistic inquiry. For that reason, they have become a parody of the erudition that used to be synonymous with literary study.

But why are students rejecting what English departments have to offer? This is a topic that is little discussed by English professors. It’s not unlike visiting an old friend who is in a losing battle against cancer: to the extent that you even address the gravity of the situation, you do so briefly and obliquely. Recently though, there’s been some semi-serious discussion of the causes of the English department’s poor health. The title of an article in the New Yorker (“The End of the English Major”) acknowledged that the case might be terminal. This piece was followed by a somewhat sunnier Substack post by journalist Andrew Boryga called “The English Department Has a Marketing Problem.”

Read the whole thing.


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Morning Sunshine | April 9, 2023 at 12:10 pm

The article linked was correct in a lot of ways, but I think they miss the foundation of the problem.

my opinion – English should be the study of GRAMMAR first and foremost.
Study the WAY it works, WHY it works, HOW it works. When grammar is learned, THEN use literature as examples of good grammar, and why the literature moves us.
We study Hamlet, not to decide if Hamlet was crazy or Ophelia was oppressed; we study Hamlet because his soliloquy SPEAKS to the human experience in times “unending trouble” and the choice we have to “end them.”
Grammar is not racist. Not really. Grammar is the rules by which we communicate. If you want others to understand you, you need to be able to communicate your needs, your wants, your desires. That is the reason all the great thinkers of the Renaissance wrote in Latin – they needed a way to communicate their ideas across language barriers. When we surrender our *lingua franca* of English rules, we cannot communicate, and are therefore easier to fragment among (real and imagined) lines.

    henrybowman in reply to Morning Sunshine. | April 9, 2023 at 10:14 pm

    “my opinion – English should be the study of GRAMMAR first and foremost.”
    Well, yes. That’s supposed to happen in schools that used to be called “grammar schools.” That’s ages 5 through 14 — not 18-21.
    By the time you get to college, if you still want to pursue “English,” it’s supposed to be at some advanced level, like poetic composition, cultural literature, or the like. Not stationary/stationery.

    bullhubbard in reply to Morning Sunshine. | April 10, 2023 at 10:18 am

    Understanding English grammar is extremely helpful in the revision and editing of writing, and this can translate into one’s spoken English, but obviously nobody thinks specifically of grammar when speaking extemporaneously or spontaneously, and correcting someone’s spoken English in a conversation is rightly considered rude.

    While one might suppose that a study of grammar would necessarily precede intelligible writing, it works the other way around, at least with native speakers–one writes whatever it is one intends to say and through revision (re-writing and rearranging sentences/paragraphs for coherence) gets it as close as possible to one’s intended meaning. Editing as one goes along is where knowledge of grammar comes in handy. After learning the alphabet and handwriting, it becomes and remains a matter of trial-and-error.

    But fluency and an ear for idiom doesn’t depend on knowledge of grammar terminology; the rules of grammar are mostly internalized. It’s when we involve others in examining a piece of writing or go to the handbook for self-help that the terminology and internal logic of English grammar becomes important, so what’s actually happening in the editing process can be clearly understood and communicated. This is why studying grammar early on is extremely useful in gaining control of the process. Still, it is less important than extensive reading–this is what solidly internalizes the SOUND of English, where styles/voices in one’s mind compete for application. (I frequently find myself unconsciously imitating the voice of someone I have just read.)

    Learning the logic and nomenclature of English grammar is quite useful. Once it becomes familiar it is possible to read anything with an eye toward what makes it engaging and interesting–or not–and gives one a toolkit useful in refining one’s ear.

    Writing is a lot like playing music–but everyone plays by ear and learns grammar (the equivalent of musical notation) to discuss details of composition with others for criticism and improvement.

That is the reason all the great thinkers of the Renaissance wrote in Latin

I always thought it was snobbery, the translation of works like the Bible into English (and other local languages) was seen as terrible by the intelligentsia of the period. They would no longer be the gatekeepers, the unwashed masses could (if they were literate) read and understand for themselves.

    Morning Sunshine in reply to randian. | April 9, 2023 at 2:51 pm

    Learning one foreign language – Latin – was easier than learning to read & write English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, not to mention all the various dialects of the regions within those languages. So when Galileo published his ideas, or Newton, or Luther, or Henri the Navigator, in Latin, it was so other thinkers across the continent could read and comment and discuss back and forth. Their letters between each other were in Latin as well.

    The English Bible was a controversy but was kind of a snobbery thing; but at the time of Henry VIII and William Tyndale’s translation into English, Anne Boleyn had French translations in her possession. So I do not think that Bibles in the common tongues of Europe was an across-the-board prohibition so much as it was an English prohibition; possibly based on the 14th century peasant uprising that was (loosely) based AND BLAMED on the English translation by Wycliffe.

    but any reading would have been restricted to the upper classes just by basis of having the leisure time to LEARN to read in any language, much less several. So it BECAME a gate keeper of the intelligentsia, but wasn’t MADE as the gatekeeper, if that makes sense.

    – at least, that is my thoughts on the subject 🙂

      drednicolson in reply to Morning Sunshine. | April 9, 2023 at 7:42 pm

      Even in Roman times, Latin was primarily a secretarial language. Your average Roman citizen in the days of the Caesars was speaking Greek or whatever was local to the province.

        Working in Saudi Arabia, it was interesting to learn that, across the Arabic speaking world of North Africa, auto mechanics in Algeria learned the car parts from the French, while the auto mechanics in Saudi learned them from the Americans. This extended to many things beyond just auto mechanics. While the various Ministers of State could speak among themselves, the man-in-the-street had some difficulty in communicating across the countries.

    bullhubbard in reply to randian. | April 10, 2023 at 10:34 am

    Not snobbery–social and political control . . . “gatekeeping.”

    Latin was the language of the European educated–the priesthood and the nobility–the vernacular was read and spoken by a minority of the more well-heeled “illiterate” peasants.

    The printing press eroded this control by printing bibles in the vernacular in England (Wycliffe) and Germany (Luther).

henrybowman | April 9, 2023 at 5:02 pm

The study of English Literature is the study of the majority American branch of western civilization and culture — that is, “white culture,” the original culture of America, the one that made it efficient, prosperous, and eventually a world power.
And that’s why it’s dying.

    bullhubbard in reply to henrybowman. | April 10, 2023 at 10:56 am

    That’s true. The worship of Foucault and deconstruction fad of the ’80’s and ’90s made the situation worse by equating fluency and literacy with “power.”

    Add that to the overall absorption by many English literature academics of atheism in the form of half-digested Existentialism, and you get the end of English literature as art and the beginning of English literature as political indoctrination, with “schools” of criticism teaching people how to read through a lens of oppression (read as a gay, black, woman, alphabet sex, or whatever).

    Democratizing art and literature in the academy has brought it to this new low, where politics is everything and the human condition is reduced to a stupid widget in the identity game, with “oppression” and juvenile notions of “justice” the only concern. As a result, the academic study of literature has become a sham and reading literature as art, through an esthetic lens, is becoming an avocation again, something done by interested amateurs, which is how it began and how it should remain.

    Libraries are free.

English, like several of the colleges, shouldn’t be colleges. They are not like Computer science, physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering etc.

Someone who gets a chemistry degree is a chemist. What is a person with an English degree? Englist?

It should be a base teaching department that classes to support what a chemist would need to write. Have an English teacher degree. An degree for those who want to become authors.

    artichoke in reply to 1073. | April 10, 2023 at 3:55 am

    At Cornell I think they renamed the department to “Literatures in English” so it’s about Literature, and it’s about all that one can read in English, including translations from other languages. And those translations can be much different from the original!

    On the other hand, what it’s not is English teaching. If you want to be an English teacher, you would still need some other training in pedagogy. It would be great if English teachers were also well-read in the great works of literature, but it’s hard to mandate that these days when there are also “teaching standards”.

    Those teaching standards don’t stop disastrous results in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, where many of the “graduates” can’t read. Maybe some inspiration by literature, instead of all the “teaching standards”, would do better with those kids. Because what we’re doing now is failing, and we are spending too much money on it too.

It seems to me that many, if not most, of the books available as Kindle downloads were written by eighth graders who never passed a test in the English language. A writer with a great story ruins the book with terrible grammar and spelling. Poor paragraphing, starting sentences with numbers and lowercase letters, mismatched quotation marks, and misuse of commas are a few of the glaring errors. It’s a joke when the author thanks someone who was the proofreader when both of them obviously didn’t do the job.

Add to that the offense generated when those errors are pointed out. The name calling begins (“Are you a grammar nazi?”) which only makes the mistakes more obvious by offering excuses for failing to do the job properly in the first place.

Shameless plug: Years ago I wrote a little novel, An Official Family, and didn’t put it on Kindle until I had gone over it at least a dozen times. I’m no Shakespeare but that modest act of self publishing was a goal to finally reach. Kindle did something mysterious to destroy the formatting after it was uploaded but it’s still there.

English departments are all critical theory. The only thing they agree on is that it doesn’t matter what Shakespeare actually thought.