Decline Of The English Department

My path through college was neither straight nor narrow. I switched majors a couple of times—a practice strongly discouraged at the University of Florida—from accounting to computer engineering to English, Each switch felt like an upgrade. I didn’t take my first business class on a campus until my third semester, since classes were mostly online or broadcast via cable. I never met any of my professors in person until I switched to computer engineering, but even then all of my classes were in an auditorium of hundreds.

Then I switched to English.

In English, classes held a no more than 30 students. I even got into one department seminar which was limited to ten. I was shocked during my first semester as an English major when I was slow to pack up my stuff after class one day, and the professor starting asking me questions about what I had thought about the lecture and even asked questions about myself. As a person! Professors knew my name, and could remember it a couple of semesters after I took their courses. This was what college was supposed to be.

At the time, I thought smaller classes and incredible professors were just a testament to the English department’s ability to schedule a sensible number of classes per student. Perhaps it was also because discussion is more important to the humanities than to calculus or financial accounting. However, as I started noticing the same students in most of my classes, I realized that there were simply fewer of us than there were Business majors.

William M. Chace calls this “The Decline of the English Department” and explains there are so many business students and so few liberal arts students. He recalls the boom of the humanities in the 1950s:

“Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one’s future. In comparison with the pre-professional ambitions that dominate the lives of American undergraduates today, the psychological condition of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.”

Chace believes that cost of education, the comparative youth of English as a discipline, the lack of external grants and sources of income compared to the sciences, and the lack of definition as a discipline have all contributed to the fall of the English department.

And, indeed, there is a prejudice against “soft” degrees. My parents were furious when I decided to abandon a stable future as a programmer to pursue English. Luckily, that programming background has served me well in the pursuit of electronic literature, and these days I’m proud that I ended up with an English degree.