Explaining the Decline in English Majors

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 diminishing attention spans; and 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?