For the time being, this will be a space for checking myself against reality. I want to make sure I have the story straight, that I’m not finally losing my mind eighteen months into the pandemic.
So, yesterday, my new department chair emailed all faculty members about the agenda for an upcoming meeting. The message ended with the following question: “Can your discipline realistically complete its deliberations about a program revision in time to meet the October 29 deadline?”
I anticipated this prompt in comments I made during an English department meeting in late April as well as emails I sent in early May. My anticipation arrived in the form of concern over colleagues’ capacity to do the work of curricular development amid whatever new efforts arose as a result of the College’s reorganization.
At present, there is a call for volunteers to serve on four different ad hoc committees at the department level. Faculty are also managing another semester of uncomfortable teaching, whether they returned to in-person instruction or not. And program revision is no small task, particularly when accounting for three different specializations among more than a dozen faculty members.
This is why I pushed for proceeding with program work in May. At that time, I was engaged, invested, and ready to get shit done. I took the liberty of completing both official and unofficial documents on the department’s behalf. I suggested that we have an initial proposal and market analysis information ready for review by June 30th. Assuming a positive outcome in our final action as the English department, we could then signal our new program to the College and request that the appropriate associate provost begin work on the market analysis. Through July and August, we could work on the program proposal proper with the intent to provide our new department with that document as well as the market analysis in early September. We’d therefore be well in advance of the October deadline and likely prepared to announce a new or revised major in Winter 2022 and months before the sunsetting of our current programs.
But none of that happened.
At this point, I’m no longer interested in program revision. Beyond my summer bitterness, here’s why: I have six students in my business communications class that expressed a love for reading and writing but all of them are majoring in finance or management. I also have a dozen students in my first year writing class that are “English intolerant,” as one put it. There are, of course, a number of factors at play here, but the elements are so interrelated as to comprise an intractable issue. I think now that declining enrollments in English constitute a sociocultural problem that cannot be adequately addressed by a handful of faculty at a regional campus of one of the top universities in the country. No matter the amount of effort we commit, the problem persists because a career-oriented narrative remains dominant. And students are either too stubborn or too scared to be persuaded otherwise.
I can’t and won’t blame the younger generations, though. There will always be students who buck the trend, but I doubt their numbers have ever been sufficient to maintain a program anywhere but the most prestigious institutions. Given the discipline’s origins as well as its resistance to change, perhaps English was always destined to be a program for the elites.
But maybe the week I spend on how the descriptions of whaling in Moby Dick contribute to the overall story will stay with my technical writing students. Maybe the selections from Frankenstein I assign to engineering and entrepreneurship majors will keep their future hubris in check. Maybe that will be enough for them, and for me.