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The English major sells itself

The English major sells itself

From liberal arts institutions to sprawling state schools to elite Ivy Leagues, English is in trouble. The Washington Post reported in October 2019 that the number of majors in the country has gone down by more than 25 percent since the Great Recession. The trend is no different at LMU.

At a Wellness Wednesday last month, English professors manned a table promoting among other things the department’s new Instagram. Days later, they hosted an open house complete with snacks, raffles, and cardboard cutouts of famous writers surrounding students while professors pitched the benefits of the major. One of the department’s new slogan’s: “English Majors Get Lit.”

But they may not be English majors for much longer. Last semester, one professor revealed in a class that there has been talk of changing the name of the department to “Literature,” which is something departments at other universities have done. Much of the major involves reading and analyzing literature — and naming that discipline “English” is problematic for a variety of reasons.

Associate English Prof. Alexandra Neel talked about these concerns in her “At the Edge of the World” course earlier this semester. She compared the aims of the major to the Jesuit values upon which LMU rests, noting that the major’s emphasis on literary analysis involves a mental muscle — that of empathy — crucial to a Jesuit education.

Prof. K.J. Peters, the new chair of the English department, says that the major is a layered entity that “needs to tell its story” in a way that resonates with college students today. Just a handful of years ago English was the largest major in the college, Peters said, in part because its root in language meant it leant itself to a wide range of graduate pursuits from law to marketing. Increased remote working means that workplaces rely more than ever on written communication.

“Being the biggest [major] is not an ambition,” he said. “[If] the value of a discipline is based on the number of students that study it, that market-driven view would condemn a great many majors.”

Peters outlined some unorthodox ideas the department may consider in future classes, like Freestyle Shakespeare, in which students go up and rip a personal soliloquy in the style of the Bard. Or inviting an F.B.I. forensics expert to talk to students about textual analysis. The department is eager to bring in new students and embrace new ways — and new texts.

English is multifaceted, Peters emphasized. Poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction, historical literary analysis, rhetorical arts — the list goes on. That eclectic nature is part of what Peters calls the English Major’s “untold story.”

Shortly after the department’s Oct. 26 open house, the department’s new Instagram account uploaded a video featuring a raffle winner — and Peters made clear that the push to make certain students know about the major will continue.

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“Keep in mind there’s more exciting events coming up,” he said before pointing students toward the English QR codes found “all over the university” for more info.

The department signed up several majors and minors during and after the event, and free t-shirts bearing the “English Majors Get Lit” slogan were gone in a flash. A sign out front of the gathering bore a different slogan, however: “The English Dept. Is Trouble.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine some jerk — or as Shakespeare might call them, a dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, or stock-fish — were to write the word “in” before the word trouble?

“We are not in trouble,” Peters said. “Literature is disruptive, which is why conservatives ban literature and not books about math. We teach banned books, by imprisoned writers, as well as books that cause empathy, sympathy, and humanism —  values many find threatening.”

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