As a recently retired faculty member at the University of Minnesota, I was pleased to read the Sept. 4 article “For English departments, not the best of times.” English majors or not, many of us will recognize the headline’s witty play on the opening line of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” — a tribute in itself to the power of literature and its enduring appeal.
Over the last year, I have been clearing out my office, a repository of my entire history at the U, beginning in 1971 and ending in 2017. In addition to my teaching notes, comments on students’ work, professional correspondence and service to the university, I have unearthed many documents that chart our progress as a department over time. I discovered, for instance, that we had a faculty of 52 members in 1982, whereas we numbered 33 in 2015-16 and have recently been “capped” at 31. Over the last 36 years, we have lost 40 percent of our faculty. However these statistics may be explained, I would describe this as a near-catastrophic loss.
I also found documents relating to the number of majors we have served, although they do not stretch back that far. Our high point of 855 was achieved in 2001-02. If you take that as your starting point, you would describe our current number of 412 as a stunning drop. If you look a little further back, however, you will see that our low point before 2003 (where the chart accompanying the Sept. 4 article begins) was 505 in 1994, long before the financial meltdown of 2008. A loss of 93 majors seems far less disastrous.
It pays to take a long view. Our high point before 1994 was 752 in 1990 (the earliest date for which I have statistics). There was a steady decline from that number to the 1994 nadir of 505, then a gradual rise until 2001. In the meantime, we have served a steady 5,500 to 5,700 students annually from 2012 until the present — an enviable number for any department.
I agree that the emphasis on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as offering a better guarantee of employment post-2008 has eroded enrollments across departments in the liberal arts, affecting the humanities disproportionately. However, I perceive waves and trends in popularity across time. If the economy remains strong, I predict a resurgence of interest in English, the humanities and the liberal arts.
But what I wish to emphasize here is why English (and other humanities disciplines) hold appeal. The students and professors interviewed for the Sept. 4 article spoke eloquently to this question. I want to elaborate on one of them, prompted by my memory of Prof. Robert Cowgill, chair of the Department of English at Augsburg University.
I recalled him as a graduate student in English (when I was an associate professor) who asked to submit a novel as his doctoral dissertation. His request sparked a lively debate among our graduate faculty, with the result that we created a special option: the Ph.D. Dissertation with a Creative Component. I wrote to Prof. Cowgill to verify my memory, and he confirmed it: “I am the very graduate student you are remembering,” he said.
I recalled Cowgill’s request for several reasons. It allowed a new kind of flexibility in the doctoral requirement, which served many students who followed his example, but it also fostered the development of our undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs. Over a period of years, we established the master of arts in writing with a focus on creative writing and later the full master of fine arts degree. Recently, the department inaugurated a creative writing minor in English. This is a powerful growth area for undergraduates and may lead to a major in time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was especially interested in the article’s comments on the elemental attraction of story and the desire to create a story of one’s own. As Julie Schumacher, award-winning author of “Dear Committee Members” and its sequel, “The Shakespeare Requirement,” states: “There is still, I think, that fundamental desire for a story, to turn our experiences into a narrative.” As a writer of poetry and memoir, I agree. But I want to take her argument one step further.
Narrative, which is at the heart of literary study, is also the basis of economic (think Paul Krugman), historical, political, psychological and sociological discourse. The art of narrative, which English majors study, analyze and practice, is fundamental to all of the disciplines that inform civic life.
We live in a democracy that requires vigorous public debate, with high stakes in terms of local and national elections — hence also the role of our nation in the world. In order to make your case as an individual you need the following skills: the ability to argue your position coherently; the capacity to do the relevant research and to present evidence that backs what you have to say; a persuasive rhetoric or power of expression; a coherent “story” or sense of meaning and consequence. Without ever seeking public office, I learned all of these skills by studying and teaching English. I tried, over the course of 49 years in my profession, to convey them to my students.
I would like to conclude not with a polemic but with a statement by Prof. Cowgill in response to my e-mail query to him. “As I age, I see us all as a circle of writers and teachers in this city who have kept a certain flame of sensibility alive in our students. I think we matter. What we keep alive matters.”
Charles Dickens could not have said it better.
Madelon Sprengnether is a Regents Professor emerita in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent book is “Mourning Freud.”