by James A. Bacon
Once upon a time, the University of Virginia was known for the excellence of its English Department — one of the most highly regarded in the country. Perhaps it still is. But you wouldn’t know it from the decline in the number of students earning B.A. and graduate degrees.
The number of degrees awarded has declined by almost half — from 404 in the 1999-2000 academic year to 210 in the 2021-22 year, according data contained in the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia database.
To be sure, the precipitous decline in the number of students studying English at UVa reflects a national phenomenon. “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by seventeen per cent,” writes The New Yorker in “The End of the English Major.”
The article explores many potential causes. Declining funding for the humanities. The rise of social media and the diminution of of attention spans. The surging cost of a college degree and practical decisions by students to master disciplines with a greater financial payoff.
The author, Nathan Heller, touches briefly upon another explanation — the metamorphosis of the English programs into something very different from what they once were.
Others… suggest that the humanities’ loss of cultural capital has been hastened by the path of humanities scholarship itself. … Once, in college, you might have studied “Mansfield Park” by looking closely at its form, references, style, and special marks of authorial genius—the way Vladimir Nabokov famously taught the novel, and an intensification of the way a reader on the subway experiences the book. Now you might write a paper about how the text enacts a tension by both constructing and subtly undermining the imperial patriarchy through its descriptions of landscape. What does this have to do with how most humans read?
Once upon a time, English courses explored truth, beauty, and the human condition. Now many are devoted to deconstructing the great works of literature — and many not-so-great works — by race, sex, and gender. In a word, many courses are insufferably dense and irrelevant to anyone who isn’t a militant critic of contemporary society.
So, what does the UVa English course catalogue look like? Based on a scan of the Spring 2022 course offerings, there seems to be a mix of the traditional and the avant garde. The Bible, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austin get their due. But then there are courses like these:
Displacement and Migration. In this course we will analyze Asian-American, African-American, and Indigenous stories of displacement, (im)migration, and settlement. Through comparative analysis, we will discuss the various intersections between and divergences among these texts, paying particular attention to the shared histories the texts evidence. Our goal is to form interpretive arguments that address the ways in which the texts negotiate ideas about the nation, nation building, and national belonging.
Introduction to Modernist Fiction. this course will investigate some of the unusual qualities to be found in “modernist” fiction. We will read novels in which it is hard to tell who is speaking; with speakers who sound unlike anyone we’ve ever met; with unreal characters; and with taboo subject matter.
Resistance in Black Film and Literature. Resistance and the African American fight for equality is woven into the fabric of American history. From the very beginning it is documented that enslaved Africans stolen from their homelands resisted by refusing to eat during The Middle Passage. We see resistance in the establishment of Black towns and universities, in the speeches of the Civil Rights Movement, the films of the 1980’s and current documentaries that all work to pull the eye towards social injustices towards African Americans in American culture. In this class we will read speeches from Malcolm X, watch documentaries like High on the Hog and interact with texts that highlight that resistance, though difficult and taxing, brings about positive change.
Racial Geographies, Environmental Crisis. This research seminar explores the significance of American race and ethnicity within environmental humanities, crisis, and activism. Beginning in the mid-20th century, we will consider the emergence of contemporary U.S. environmentalism, and relationships between space, landscape, built environments, and identity formation, belonging, as well as public health, legislation, and sustainability.
Race in American Places. This interdisciplinary seminar uses the method of Critical Landscape Analysis to explore how everyday places and spaces, “landscapes,” are involved in the negotiation of power in American society. … We unearth ways in which places are planned, designed, constructed, and mythologized in the struggle to assert and enforce social (especially racial) distinctions, difference, and hierarchy.
What Is Post-Colonial Critique? What is postcolonial critique? Is it a way of reading a text? Does it refer to the processes of historical decolonization in places like Africa, India, and the Caribbean? Or is it a practice of critical thought that can be used to think across multiple spaces and times? … The final project invites students to reflect upon the themes of revolutionary thinking, the global and universal, and questions of ethics.
Plants and Empire. This course examines how botanical projects and their cultural representations shaped the material and political landscapes of empire. In particular, it focuses on the English, French, and American imperial states in global context. Combining literary analysis with environmental history and the history of science, we’ll explore the intertwined social and ecological impacts of imperialism. A wide range of sources, from poems and novels to seed catalogues, herbariums, and UVa’s gardens, will help us to see how the workings of empire in the 18th and 19th centuries shaped today’s ideas about the environment.
And last but not least…
Sally Hemings University: Connecting Threads. Sally Hemings University: CONNECTING THREADS offers a space in which to re-frame “Mr. Jefferson’s University” as a site that destabilizes the dominant narrative of the university as Jefferson’s primary property. Working in conjunction with Charlottesville artist Tobiah Mundt to examine the threads that connect UVA and the City. For many Black folks in Charlottesville, for example, the University is an extractive, dominating, and harmful institution. The work of Sally Hemings University: Connecting Threads relies upon de-centering UVA as savior or primary expert. This community-engaged course is neither service nor charity: it is solidarity.
It is difficult to see how some of these courses can be classified as “teaching English” at all. Indoctrination might be a better word for the kind of instruction they offer. As for “English,” I suppose it can be said that the course content is conveyed in the English language. This is where UVa’s intellectual conformity has brought us. How can anyone be surprised that a declining number of students find any of this engaging?
interesting angle. that could be part of it. I took “Land and Labor in American Fiction” over a decade ago during my first semester at UVA. While the novels and stories we read were quite good (Steinbeck, Norris, some new ones I wasn’t familiar with), the course was taught by a PhD student and it was heavy on literary theory. Marxist criticism et al. It was a good challenging class (prob one of the harder ones I had), but it was super dense. the idea of reading criticism on another’s criticism of a work seemed over done and stuffy. I suppose he was trying to cut his teeth and prove himself in a new way to differentiate himself and earn his keep and secure his future in a tough job market. English literature went from my favorite subject in high school to I never took another English class after that. I am still reading fiction often, however.
Pathetic. This stuff is not scholarship. It’s baloney. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Given the tenor of the times and the U’s attempt at plowing under the American culture evident in its literature, I was more than a little surprised to find William Faulkner’s name among those recited as authors considered in the course description for English. 2599-004, Introduction to Modernist Fiction.
(Faulkner was the still U’s Writer in Residence my first year there.)(This link is to a picture of Faulkner on the Lawn. I post it because I know it will turn woke buttercups apoplectic. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/faulkner-william-1897-1962/ )
Aside from that, the expression “Black folk” (in that course description) is not a flattering way of referring to people, but is, at best, considered condescending. Its inclusion in that course description seems inconsistent with the jihad to purge the language of words that might offend someone.
I have a degree in English, among others. I will tell you during my entire adult life, the most valuable asset I have is what I learned while obtaining my degree in English. I am deadly serious. UVA was actually one the best schools teaching English at one point.
One the most valuable skills I acquired was learned to type. I, today, can type 168 words per minute. I cannot tell you how much have an knowledge of grammar and literature and punctuation have served me. That combined with the ability to type super fast has gotten me so many options, especially while changing careers, and when needing to make some extra income by editing financial client newsletters from Hedge Fund Managers. Knowing something of the subject was important but what I provided was what they never learned, writing proper English. Why would anyone invest significant funds in your investment if you cannot communicate that well?
My first year at UVA, my English teacher gave me a straight A. We were asked to pick up our blue books in person and speak with her. She looked at me and told me she was giving me an A. I thanked her. She told me I was not understanding her. She proceeded to admonish me that I was given a talent and gift. In her scolding voice she said to me that if I did not pursue at least one major in English while I was at UVA I would have failed because I had an obligation to develop that gift. I was rather shocked that I was being chastised. But that was so impactful. I did major in English. She was correct. I cannot extol how great it is to have the ability to write and communicate no matter what the job, task, or profession.
The decision to move away from what actually serves a person across career spheres and positions to odd catering of trendy interests and calling those majors has been a tremendous downfall in the American College Education. These schools should understand how awful it is to hire people with expensive degrees who cannot write a correctly punctuated effective sentence. Having people who know a bunch of talking points stating with arrogance and disdain that “nothing good ever came from Microsoft,” while babbling how fantastic they feel Apple is, etc. Exactly how does something like that help a person with getting a job in sales? It doesn’t unless they want to work in the Apple store.
Progressives are destroying our heritage.
Most recently they are re-writing Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. They have even been busy re-writing Shakespeare “for diverse audiences.”.
See: University Rewrites Shakespeare for “Diverse” Audience, Wonders Why English Majors Vanishedhttps://www.frontpagemag.com/university-rewrites-shakespeare-for-diverse-audience-wonders-why-english-majors-vanished/
They are not only destroying our heritage but channeling young minds into ideological thought. There is so much beauty in great literature that appeals to our humanity if we look at it honestly instead of trying to fit it into a narrow and often political, limited way of thinking.
It is no surprise the left has targeted English, a vital major as it centers on communication, to turn it into a propaganda major. And like everything else the left touches it is thereby destroyed and is made unattractive to prospective major for current students.
Nonsensical gibberish in many aspects – I suppose a full suite of Gender Studies is buried somewhere as well.
While some of these courses sound interesting they seem more appropriate for an interdisciplinary program in social sciences than English.
Still, I cannot help but feel that the decline in the number of English majors, and other liberal arts ones, is more closely related attributed to the perception that these are not wise choices in terms of future careers or employment.
Recall something I once saw, don’t recall all the details, but the punch line was that all an English major would be doing is saying “do you want fries with that?” More recently saw an ad contrasting a college grad with a degree in philosophy and no job in the field and a huge loan debt with a young man who entered a two year trades apprenticeship after high school. No debt and in fact paid during his apprenticeship with a job waiting afterwards. The point here being is that he is the one who made the right, sensible choice.
Note the incessant promotion of the STEM program in schools, beginning even in the elementary years. Those of us who believe in the innate value of the classical liberal arts educatiin( think St John’s of Annapolis with its Great Books curriculum,which Stringfelllow Barr from UVa played a large part in founding). are avoice crying in the wilderness.
Between the attitude of the only value of a major is how much money you can make with it and the view that all the great minds of past like Thomas Jefferson are horrid, bigoted people who belong in the garbage ignorance appears to be in the ascendancy.
My English degree (81) was a great foundation for a lifelong appreciation of the written word. The analytic skills I learned translated into computer programming – which launched a 40+ year career in tech. Physics, calc, chem (which I also took at UVA) were not as valuable.