“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled …” — Robert Frost
If all had gone according to plan, Tove Conway would be applying to veterinary school by now.
But something unexpected happened during her freshman year at the University of St. Thomas.
She took an English class and loved it. “That’s what changed my mind,” says Conway, a 21-year-old senior from Mason City, Iowa. “It was the highlight of my week.”
Conway decided to give up chemistry and major in English — much to the surprise of her friends. “Their reaction was the same,” she recalled. “ ‘What do you want to do with that?’ ”
These days, English majors are an increasingly rare breed on college campuses.
Nationally, their numbers have been in a free-fall, plunging to their lowest levels in 30 years, according to a July report by the Association of Departments of English. The drop-off has been so dramatic that some schools — such as the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point — have proposed dropping the English major entirely (along with history, philosophy and a few other humanities degrees).
But in Minnesota and elsewhere, many college English departments are experimenting with fresh ways to appeal to a new generation of students like Conway. That includes a new emphasis on how to turn an affinity for reading and writing into real-world careers.
“This idea that if you did an English major, you’re going to be flipping burgers and fries, you’re going to be serving the economics majors — that’s not really true,” said David Todd Lawrence, an associate professor of English at St. Thomas. But parents and students are understandably skeptical. “We do end up having to do a lot of convincing and telling people, ‘Oh, it’s not what you think.’ ”
Talk to English professors, and they’ll tell you that their students historically have thrived across a wide swath of professions, from law to advertising and public relations to politics and beyond.
But they say the message has been drowned out amid mounting worries about student debt and the sheer cost of college.
“I know it’s a hard sell, particularly to first-generation students, that a degree that doesn’t have a direct job connected to it is going to be worth the money and time,” said Robert Cowgill, chairman of the English department at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. But experience proves it is, he said. “If you can come out of college with a degree that shows you can write, read, tell stories, the world is open for you. Corporations need people who can do this.”
A career in English?
At the University of Minnesota, the number of English majors on the Twin Cities campus fell 46 percent in 15 years — from 766 in 2003 to 412 students this spring, according to John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “You’d have a similar story to tell,” he added, for almost all the humanities.
The shift, he points out, mirrored what has been happening nationwide and coincided with a surge in interest in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
Andrew Elfenbein, chairman of the U’s English department, said the ski slope-like trends have gotten everyone’s attention. “I would love to see the numbers back where they were,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to make that happen.”
Among other things, his department has ramped up efforts to give students a chance to put their writing and analytical skills to use beyond the ivory tower.
Last year, for example, the U announced a new internship program just for English majors. In return for a $500 stipend (funded by a U donor), the students get to work with nonprofits such as Mixed Blood Theatre, the Museum of Russian Art and the Zenon Dance Company on their marketing, social media and other projects.
“It really is perfect for our students,” said Elfenbein. “They’ll be able to use skills that they get as English majors and see how those skills have direct application in the real world.”
The message seems to be getting through, as liberal arts colleges have supercharged their efforts to steer students onto career paths.
“More and more, the modern English major is just about how to connect to people,” said Franki Hanke, 21, of White Bear Lake, who is majoring in English at Hamline University in St. Paul.
As English departments have adapted, the courses are just as likely to cover business and technical writing as Shakespeare and literary criticism. And Hanke says she’s building a portfolio — through internships and freelance writing — that she believes will speak for itself.
“Even science companies need somebody to take the heavy science and make it digestible to people on the outside,” she said. “Every single company has a duty to be able to communicate what they’re doing.”
That’s a point that those who mock English, and the humanities in general, seem to forget, defenders say.
“It’s frustrating,” said Karena Schrempp, 20, of Eagan, who is majoring in English at St. Thomas. “I 100 percent think people underestimate our abilities.” She notes that her science-major friends, when faced with a writing assignment, often turn to her for help. “Just having that English writing background helps with everything,” she said.
‘Desire for a story’
At the U and other schools, English departments say they have found other ways to fill their classes, even as the number of majors has dipped.
One is through creative writing programs, which have proved surprisingly popular.
“We started a creative writing undergraduate minor two or three years ago, and that is going great guns,” said Prof. Julie Schumacher, head of the creative writing program at the U.
It just shows, she added, “that even though students and maybe their parents are leery of ‘soft’ majors,” the subject itself has enduring appeal.
“There is still, I think, that really elemental human desire for a story, to turn our experiences into a narrative,” said Schumacher. “Students still really want that. I think they crave it.”
Elfenbein, the department chairman, agrees.
“There is not a single culture on the planet that does not have stories, that does not have works of the imagination,” he said. “It seems to be hard-wired into us.” And as long as that’s true, he said, “there’s going to be a place for the study of literature.”
Conway, the St. Thomas student, has reason to hope so. Her goal now, she says, is to become an English professor herself. And she has no regrets about switching majors.
“I’d say it’s the best decision I’ve made at college,” she said. “I’m so happy that I chose what makes me happy and what I’m passionate about.”