The Future of the Literature Curriculum

I just came back from Calvin University, where I had a great couple days visiting classes and discussing the curriculum with the faculty there. Like many programs in literature, they have been losing majors (the creative writing and linguistics majors are strong or stronger). The question is, of course, what individual departments can do to respond to a crises whose causes are largely national and international in origin.

As part of our conversation I ended up producing an outline of some remarks and ideas that I wanted to share. I’ve pasted it below.

Hayot / After the Deluge Handout

  1. The enrollment decline in the humanities is not your fault. It does not result from anything that you or your colleagues have been doing in the classroom. I am happy to discuss causes!
  2. Nonetheless it is something that is worth trying to change, especially if one believes that humanistic learning is crucial to creating a better society.
  3. Will things maybe just go back to the way they were? Maybe they will! And then you would get to feel good about having done nothing. On the other hand, Pascal’s wager…

Above the department level

  • Fight like hell for the liberal arts mission. If we do not have the liberal arts, we are just a set of job training programs. This requires also fighting to stay in the Gen Ed/core requirements. These are the centerpiece of the mission.
  • Don’t give away, and resist at all cost any attempt to give away, your writing programs (fiction, journalism, nonfiction).
  • Find allies in other departments and programs, both in likely places (history, women’s studies) but also in places farther afield that will also be affected by the slow turning of the university into job training (the hard sciences).
  • Educate your Dean (see below) and help your Dean/fundraising group educate donors.

Marketing Issues

  • Education as an opportunity to develop “receptors.” The world is full of information/stuff/pleasure! How much of it will you get to see?
  • You don’t just want to get ready to do a job; you want to get ready for the world
  • Collect data to counter myths about humanities job outcomes and salary outcomes. Widley available (MLA developing some of these resources, too)
  • Collect articles that speak to value of humanities/liberal arts degrees in all kinds of careers; start here and click on all the links. Publicize widely to your faculty (who often unwittingly reproduce myths), students, and administration. Pick select quotes/facts/charts and put them up around your department.
  • Give your students the support/ammunition they need to feel good about their choice of course/minor/major. Remember that they need help to convince their parents.
  • Integrate (formally, in an organized way) an introduction to the value and meaning of a humanities degree into every single one of your classes, not just for 5m, but for a good discussion (even a whole class): what are the humanities? Why are they valuable? What do they study? How do you think like a humanist? Why would you want?

Curricular reform

  • Content opportunities: enrollments are up in (1) creative writing (2) film/television/manga/pop culture/YA etc. (This is not a betrayal of our mission!). (3) ethnic studies
  • Teach courses around big ideas; students still care about these (because they’re people and people have always cared about them).
  • Rename your course, or rethink your course, around the most important idea in it. Teach that course. (These last two almost certainly involve giving up on teaching literature exclusively.)
  • Think across the humanities; the problem is not how to move majors from French to German but how to retain what’s most valuable in the humanities, and how to make it visible to others. Consider making a new program or minor in the  humanities or liberal arts; what would it look like? Look at Purdue’s Cornerstone program
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