Dear Friends and Alums,
My first months as chair of the English Department have coincided with intensified debates on the national stage about the value of a degree in the Humanities. Recent reports from the Academy of Arts and Sciences (see the Commissions Report The Heart of the Matter) and Harvard University show a precipitous decline of humanities majors since the mid 1960s, and suggest that the Humanities are in a serious, and perhaps irreversible, decline. Yet a newly released study from the Modern Language Association tells a slightly different story: that English and foreign language degrees, in particular, have held steady at between 9 and 11% of all University degrees granted over the last several decades. Our educational institutions do face challenges, yes; but has the English degree really lost its value in the current economic climate? It’s a conversation worth having because it keeps us thinking about the relationship between what we do in our classrooms and what is happening in the workplace and beyond.
At a recent retreat, the English department faculty re-dedicated itself to just such a conversation as we continue to revise our curriculum, develop our use of technology, and improve our communication with future students and their parents. For we do all believe that an English degree has value in the “real world.”
Proficiency in reading, writing, and communicating effectively are fundamental skills upon which any more specialized knowledge can be built. Employers are well aware of this fact: many are looking for graduates with sharp critical, analytic, and research skills to address challenges that cannot be predicted and to fill jobs that may not have existed even a few years ago. English majors also tend to be more informed and politically engaged citizens; they have a broader and more nuanced understanding of global literatures, cultures, and history.
For doubters, here are some facts: last year, our PhD students had the highest graduate placement rate in the entire University. The undergraduate program in Technical Writing and Composition has placed 100% of its students in industry jobs over the last several years. Our MFA students and undergraduate creative writers get published all the time. And our UMASS English department alums continue to impress: they come back as museum curators, lawyers, editors, educational administrators, teachers, small business owners, web designers, and corporate consultants.
In short, it’s an exciting time to be chair of the English department. And I look forward to meeting and communicating with many of you over the next three years. We deeply appreciate your interest and support.