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English majors make a comeback at Washington University

English expands as a major at Washington University

G’Ra Asim, assistant professor of English at Washington University, listens to Alessandra Heros, center, as she makes a discussion point beside classmate Sophie Devincenti in Asim’s creative nonfiction writing class on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Heros is a pursuing a double major in International and Area Studies and Spanish. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

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ST. LOUIS — It’s the ubiquitous question that dogs college English majors: What are you going to do with that?

The answer, increasingly, is coming from alumni of Washington University’s Department of English, where the number of majors has grown in the last three years despite a national downward trend.

“We’re into myth-busting about dying under the heavy engine of STEM,” said Vince Sherry, department chair. “That is just not true. The English major is eminently usable.”

Washington U. is better known for producing doctors and engineers than creative writers and critical thinkers. But the English department’s graduates can be found in boardrooms and newsrooms at Google, Knopf Doubleday Publishing and CNN. Nearly one-quarter are working in the business field, followed by law and education as the top three employers, according to the alumni directory.

Sophomore Margaret Dresselhuys of the San Francisco Bay Area said she gets a lot of comments from friends like, “This is a really expensive English major.” But her mother, a Russian literature major, tells her to “Study what you love. Read your books.”

“We’re confident that if English majors are pursuing their passion ... that it will bank out,” said professor William Maxwell.

Graduates with humanities majors in 2021 can expect an average starting salary of about $60,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s lower than computer sciences and engineering, which are closer to $72,000, but beats out business and communications majors by a couple thousand dollars.

Dresselhuys said she wrote “mounds of copy” working in a sales internship at a tech startup.

“That is where the marketable value comes from — communicating confidently and concisely,” she said. “It’s making sense of what’s happening, equipped with syntax and vocabulary.”

Nationally, the number of college students majoring in humanities took a hit after the Great Recession. Starting in the fall of 2008, students increasingly migrated to fields thought to have better job prospects, like health and computer sciences. English majors fell by one-fourth from 2009 to 2017, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The downward trend has continued on many campuses, leading to admissions moratoriums for English programs at universities including Purdue. But at Washington U., English majors have grown to 131 this year after dropping to a low of 99 in 2018.

The professors and colleagues work hard to recruit students to the department, starting with their acceptance to the university. They host an open house for incoming students who indicate an interest in literature or creative writing on their applications. Professors of freshman composition are asked to tap the most promising writers, who then get a personal invitation to take other English courses.

Being an English major at Washington U. is like attending a small liberal arts college with the resources of a major research university, Maxwell said. Classes are small, capped at 16 or so students who are expected to contribute in each meeting. The department has also boosted its social gatherings, including happy hours, bowling nights and a Halloween poetry slam.

The pandemic has increased the desire for interpersonal connections and the exchange of ideas that are a hallmark of English majors, Sherry said.

The department has expanded its course list to include diverse offerings such as “Rhetoric and Power,” “Travel Writing and Empire,” “LGBT Literature before Stonewall” and “Cultural Criticism in the Digital Age.”

In a recent session of “Creative Nonfiction: Personal Essay and Memoir,” assistant professor G’Ra Asim leads the class in a discussion of Stephen Dobyns’ poem, “How to Like It.”

The title of any work, Asim tells his six students, is the “first in a series of spirited bids for the reader’s attention.”

The students take turns reading the poem about a man and his dog trying to make sense of their daily struggles. Afterward, the students offer ideas for the meaning of “it” in the title, and eventually settle on “life.”

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