A decline in English majors affects senior seminar

There will be no senior seminar class offered for English majors next year because there are too few English majors at Norwich, according to Professor Kathleen McDonald.

Ideally the capstone course is the final class for a major, however, because of the low number of English majors, the junior class English majors have been moved into the current class and it will not be offered next year.

Spencer Duhamel, 20, an English major from Manchester, N.H., is one of the five students attending the senior seminar class that is a combination of senior and junior English majors.

“I found out they weren’t offering senior seminar for English majors next year and joined into this one expecting it to be a bit larger class but its surprisingly small. I was surprised there were only five of us in two years expecting to graduate with an English degree,” said Duhamel.

Across the nation universities are experiencing a drastic decline in English majoring students from the numbers they had in years past. Norwich is no exception to what other universities are noticing and calling “the decline of the English major,” said Professor McDonald.

“At Pomona College this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number,” wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg, a teacher of literature at Pomona and a columnist in the New York Times.

Schools like Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona and even those close to Norwich, such as UVM and Goddard, all have some of the lowest numbers of students majoring in English they have ever had, according to a new study conducted by The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Norwich is no exception.

“Norwich is facing the same decline as the other institutions around the country but because we have a smaller department to begin with it has become very evident here,” said Professor McDonald.

“When I began teaching there were many more students getting English degrees than there are now,” she said. Before the school moved its campus to Northfield from Norwich, English and Latin were two of the most common degrees students pursued. Today, it is engineering, criminal justice, and nursing. Students are more concerned with studying majors that will land them a career straight out of school.

“These concerns have caused some to question the liberal arts tradition itself, on the grounds that its elements do not all contribute visibly and directly to near-term employment,” wrote Klinkenborg.

After accruing great debt to attend college, students are more concerned with finding an immediate job to begin to dig themselves out of the debt of student loans,according to Professor McDonald and Professor Klinkenborg.

“I can understand it as a practical concern, however, it makes me worried that the value of art, literature, and humanistic inquiry has become so devalued as people get concerned about, well, paying their rent and paying off their student loans. I’m not dismissing the importance of financial security however life should be more than that,” said Professor Lea Williams, the instructor for the English senior seminar class.

Although one does not graduate with an English degree to acquire a specific job in a specific field as a criminal justice major does or a nursing major, understanding literature and being able to write well are valued highly in every field of work, notes Professor Williams.

“For example, there is no reason to be doing a criminal justice program if you want to go to law school; there is no direct link between the two and, in fact, students who do best in law school are those with the best analytical ability and who are the strongest writers and that’s our specialty,” she said.

“If you’re a police officer you have to write reports, and those reports will end up in court,” noted McDonald, being able to write well could be the difference between a criminal going to prison or being allowed to walk free. “Even in the last couple of years the largest-held degree on Wall Street was a degree in English.”

“One of the biggest things businesses, when you read all of the material from the corporate world complain about from their new hires – especially college graduates – is that they cannot write. Having an English or writing major or minor shows them that you can write effectively and read critically,” Professor McDonald said.

“The benefits are that, theoretically, students that major in English learn how to be strong readers, which helps them become stronger thinkers capable of analyzing dense material,” a skill that McDonald said most graduate schools expect students to excel in upon enrollment.

“I do not plan on becoming a teacher with my English degree but I think it will be very valuable with what I choose to do with the future. It shows I am very capable of learning, understanding, and working with new ideas,” said Duhamel.

The senior seminar class for the English majors has a variety of outside-the-classroom skill-building experiences students are required to take on, in order to prepare themselves for the adult world, according to Professor Williams.

“The students of the course will be writing an article related to the topic of war, testimonial literature, and traumatic experience and the goal is to identify a journal in advance of writing an article,” she said, including finding a journal to specifically publish a scholarly work of literature in and, in turn, learning how to go about publishing their own works of writing.

A major focus of the department is to help students pursue their passions and teach them how to achieve it. “If you can bring the skills, while being a flexible thinker, knowing how to analyze, and can write well, then you can pretty much do well in whatever job you decide on,” said Professor Williams.

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