Make Humanities Fun Again

From Publishers Weekly:

Majoring in English as undergrads in the early 1990s, Gen Xers like me hid our passions from the professors. We were literary trash huffers, believing that books like Interview with the VampireNeuromancer, and Kindred merited classroom discussion. But our instructors had invested years eschewing contemporary commercial literature. They presented conference papers on pre-industrial artists like Shakespeare, popular domestic stories by Jane Austen, or modernist and postmodernist experimentalisms penned by authors who, for the most part, enjoyed meager success in their lifetimes.

So, we deferred to elder, established academics and took up the study of texts we hoped would edify us: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and maybe Toni Morrison’s Beloved. We wrote dissertations that only mildly interested us, and secretly continued reading books by Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi. We waited for our turn to—well, to do what, exactly? Did we think we’d eventually bend the system, corrupt the process enough to finally teach the stuff that we loved?

It was too late. We’d already devised terms like “guilty pleasure,” “genre literature,” “graphic novel,” and “prestige TV” to assuage the shame we were supposed to feel for loving something we shouldn’t love.

The dearth and death of fun are precisely the reasons students are now turning away in droves from the humanities, resulting in a precipitous drop in liberals arts majors, as described by Nathan Heller in his New Yorker piece “The End of the English Major.” According to Heller, the humanities are collapsing under a multitude of pressures: reading literature is passé; STEM and Big Tech are luring away students; tuitions costs are rising; the professors themselves have lost faith. But the obvious and biggest issue glows smack-dab in the middle of Heller’s opening paragraph: “It’s hard for students like me, who are pursuing an English major, to find joy in what they’re doing.”

Fun has been bleached from the humanities in favor of identity and representation. Instead of demonstrating how these concepts can be enacted and imaginatively employed, we encourage students to talk and write about these ideas within a limited framework of texts no one really wants to read. Set foot inside a Barnes & Noble today or peruse your kid’s high school library. YA fiction, specifically of the dystopian-adventure stripe, is everywhere. These are books awash in identity and representation, ignored by professors yet inhaled by readers of all ages. These books serve as examples of the very things we discuss in our college classrooms, and yet we prop up the same canonized authors instead.

I’ll spell it out: students want to read Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Twilight, and anything by Brandon Sanderson, as well as engage with stories through manga, anime, and video games. Not only are English majors absorbing this stuff but they’re producing it, too, in the form of fan fiction, fan art, and cosplay.

This is why I set out to write a YA dystopian-adventure novel with my students, bringing a new 1,500-word chapter to every class every week—whether it was a writing workshop or a literature class. At the end of a 15-week semester, I had 22,000 words, or a third of my first novel. I wrote the novel my students wanted to read and published it with a respectable publisher and acknowledged them in the book.

But the real fun came when students started submitting their own work to class. I published some of it in anthologies I edit, and helped others get their works published in local and regional journals and magazines.

My classes have long waiting lists. It’s not because I push my students to distinguish between American literary realism and naturalism, or to examine Bartleby through the lens of disability studies. It’s because I encourage them to write characters based on their own experiences and identities. A little joy attracts students and encourages them to challenge themselves as writers and communicators.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG was long out of college in the 1990s, but remembers believing that English majors were pretty much gone from serious academia. He doesn’t know if “English majors” have been renamed into something that sounds more trendy.

PG did a little research on English Majors and found that likely job opportunities existed in “grant writing, public relations, content editing, and technical writing”. He was interested that neither teaching nor law was mentioned.

PG doesn’t know whether someone who has developed a passion for 18th Century English Literature or 20th Century British and American Poetry in college will find fulfillment in grant writing, but he could be wrong. He’ll be happy to be enlightened by more knowledgable commenters to this post.

6 thoughts on “Make Humanities Fun Again”

  1. Part of my day job in Canada is looking at the labour market and what people need to get JOB A, figuring out what they already have, and thus identifying the GAP between what they have and what the labour market demands. I am not doing it for individuals, but large pockets of the economy as a whole.

    As such, it is quite interesting to see various pundits interpret things. For example, there is a recurring theme throughout the last century on a sporadic but stead basis where pundit X or Y along with business leaders A and B lament that the educational system is broken because it is not training people to be factory workers (early to mid 1900s), problem solvers (mid 1900s), leaders (1980s), entrepreneurs (1990s), etc.

    Somewhere around 2010, I think, there was this great fanfare that humanities would “save” us as because that was the group who emphasized the “soft skills” that business said they needed. But then when the humanities people applied, they got no jobs. Or at least no good jobs.

    They were offered entry level positions based on their lack of business or STEM training, and expected to work crazy hours with limited PTO and low salaries. Most of them said “Forget you”, or the other version of Cee Lo’s song, and moved on. Who did business hire instead? All the STEM crowd, prioritizing IT skills over anything else, while complaining that everyone they hired were a**hats who couldn’t communicate with anyone except other geeks/nerds.

    There is a giant but delusionary belief that the “solution” is going to be micro-credentials or soft skills or bullet M or matrices or whatever. But it’s almost always crap. Populations don’t get hired, individuals do by individual employers. Individual decisions. And that comes down to need, skills sets, and synergistic matches between employers and workers.

    Some English majors do well, most do not. Not unlike the 1000s of lawyers freshly minted every year who are now suing their universities for somehow “forcing” them into law where there weren’t enough good jobs.

    • A pair of friends of mine graduated University with solid english Masters credentials. Their long term goal was to be writers. For starters, they tried NYC and Toronto. NYC loved them…as unpaid interns.

      Recalibrating, they took IT support coursework at a technical college which got them decent albeit boring user support call center jobs. Paid the bills. With that on the resumé they got in at a big tech company in the documentation area and moved up to full tech writer leads. And today, with all the focus on LLMs, they are the go-to’s for the coders.

      And, on the side, they’re ramping up solid Indie careers with a dozen well-reviewed titles on KDP, and doing masterworks courses on the business of publishing. A small press, ala WMG, might be next.

      Three of my friends got a band together (yes, rocking engineers) with some regional success and even cut a CD that sold reasonably well. (Then life, spouses, and progeny had their say.)

      Another friend with an MS ME at a producion facility took night courses in law, eventually getting his degree and license. I suspect PG can point out the value of such a combo.

      Another was also an MS ME, in research. She was intrigued by bionics and human factors. Added biomedical expertise. Another strong career.

      (I move in interesting circles.)

      Life, and careers, are what you make for yourself.
      Trends are to be navigated, not surrendered to.

      STEM opens many doors but it needn’t be all your life or the endpoints.

      • I remember asking a guy pushing a pipeline job in Alaska what his major was. Zoology. He was hired because he had a record of getting things done on time, under budget, and on spec. Nobody cared about college.

  2. Every literature major I knew who has had any satisfaction in life (let alone just the job market) ensured that he/she/they wasn’t “just a lit major” as an undergrad — even those who later went to grad school (including the three professors). The biology minor (which is a lot harder to accomplish than it sounds); the dual-major in French language and literature and in math, and the dual-major in English literature and physics; the philosophy minor, who went to grad school and got his Doctor of Philosophy in philosophy (followed by an academic career and eventual endowed chair). In contrast, the monomaniacal literature major whose only activities were the student literary magazine, the not-quite-monomaniacal literature major who spent every waking minute writing The (Not-so) Great American Novel, published by a small press a few years after graduation to harsh reviews, including a lukewarm paid review; and a few other examples I won’t describe but could.

  3. I was an English major back in the 80s. I knew I didn’t want to go into academia, and I had no expectation that wherever I ended up would be directly related to my degree. But I also looked around and understood that his is normal.

    Oh, and the department offered electives in stuff like science fiction. The idea that such things were thought beneath notice was at least a decade out of date even then.

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