Articles about “The End of the English Major” and “The Death of the English Major” might give the impression that my field is in a state of crisis. The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller and Marketwatch’s Jillian Berman correctly point out that universities and colleges across North America are seeing declining student enrolments in traditional humanities majors in general, and in English in particular, and that philanthropists are less likely to provide endowed chairs for the study of classical literature.
The picture painted by these stories is, however, incomplete. They miss that the point of teaching English classes is building relationships with students as individuals. It is about helping them to flourish as readers and writers. It is about giving students our time and attention in the form of individualized feedback that is honest about where they are as writers and hopeful about the kinds of writers and storytellers they might become.
When I came to university in the late 1990’s as a first-generation student from a low-income background, I had no idea what an English major was. I thought that humanities majors like English were for wealthy white kids from the suburbs who didn’t have to worry about money and could afford to take the time and energy to study Literature with a capital “L.” What I wanted was a safe bet and a clear return on my investment of time and tuition.
I stayed in English because I found smart and engaging professors who taught me how to take myself seriously. They showed me that I had something to say and that my voice mattered. These professors became trustworthy readers of my work, and soon my writing improved. My instructors forged relationships with me, took the time to get to know me, to mark my words, and to mentor me.
English instructors as good relatives and ladders
In his beautiful book, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice argues that stories can be “good medicine” that remind us about “who we are and where we’re going, on our own and in relation to those with whom we share this world. They remind us about the relationships that make a good life possible.” Through studying and teaching English literature, I am learning how to be in a good relationship with myself, with my students, and with the broader storytelling community. Studying English is a process of learning how to become a good – relative to yourself – writer and a reader, with a wider community of scholars. It is a process, and there are no shortcuts. Nobody can do it for you. You can Google facts about fiction, but healthy relationships with your community, works of literature, and with yourself have to be built over time.
If we want to have more English majors, we must become good relatives to our students, teaching them in a way that is honest and kind, while encouraging them to believe in their potential as readers, writers and storytellers. My job as an instructor is to be a ladder, and to help students climb up, not a gatekeeper who decides who is not worthy of telling their stories and critically engaging with the stories of others.
Literature and stories are not just in English departments
English departments will continue to matter as long as they remain places where our students’ ideas matter. They need instructors who want to mentor our students to become the best writers and storytellers they can be. When you talk to students about why they became English majors, the stories almost always include instructors who helped them learn how to read more closely and carefully, or instructors who helped them learn how to express themselves more effectively. The stories, in other words, are about positive and life-affirming relationships. Our students have ideas to share, stories to tell and relationships to develop. Our job is to help them. If we can do this within an English department, cool. If not, then we need to do it elsewhere.
The kind of relationship-building work I am proposing takes time and job security to turn into a reality. If we want the English major to live, we need to hire more full-time faculty who will have the time to mentor students. This kind of relational work is almost impossible to do without having stable and secure employment. Relationships are best built over time, in brave spaces, where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
Jamie Paris is an English instructor at the University of Manitoba.