Why are #bsuenglish enrollments up, despite national trends?
I’m sitting in the Indianapolis airport, waiting for a flight that will take me to Arizona, where I’ll be attending the Association of Departments of English Summer Seminar. Basically, it’s for English department administrators: chairs, directors of undergraduate studies (basically my job), and directors of graduate study.
I’ve attended the AWP Conference for many years, but this is the first time that I’m going to a professional conference that isn’t connected to my identity as a writer, but rather my identity as an administrator.
I’m going early to attend an all-day workshop for Directors of Undergraduate Studies (DUSs). This is the reading were assigned to do ahead of time. Honestly, I’d already read most of it! Because I’m a geek that way. And when you see these topics, I think you’ll understand why I jumped at the chance to go to this conference:
The 21st-Century Curriculum
Recruitment, Retention, and Enrollment Trends
Professionalization, Careers, and the English Majors
Our topics seem to be coming out of an alarming (to me) trend in higher education: the national decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities (an almost 9% drop in the last two years) and in English; the University of Maryland, for instance, has experienced a 40% decline in English majors in the last three years.
Holy crap, that’s a lot. And I’ve got to hand it to the leadership of that department for openly discussing the problem rather than trying to hide it. Sharing the steps they’ve taken to combat the problem with a national audience and with those in their discipline benefits us all.
But I want to brag for minute here, because I work in an English department that hasn’t been affected by these national trends. In fact, we’ve seen mostly growth (with a few dips).
Because I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be asked about how we managed to avoid these declines, I’ve been asking my colleagues (all of whom have been department administrators off and on for about ten years, a lot longer than me): Why do you think the Ball State English department has been holding steady or growing instead of declining?
This is what I’ve got so far.
We made it easier to major and minor in English
- About 7 years ago, right around the time the economy tanked and higher ed started tightening its fiscal belt, we changed our major from 48 to 36 credits (except for the English Ed major, which is still 48), and we changed our minors from 21 to 15-18 credits.
- We (well, not me, I wasn’t here yet) responded to the university’s call to improve “time to graduation” proactively instead of reactively.
- Almost every week, I get a student in my office who started off in TCOM or Journalism or Marketing (other “story” majors) and sometimes even “practical” majors like Business or the hard sciences. Often they wanted to major in English, but didn’t know what they’d “do” with it or their parents/friends/guidance counselors encouraged them to look elsewhere. If they make the switch early enough, I can sometimes keep them on track for graduation AND help them pick up one of our majors.
We have strong teachers in lower-level classes where recruitment happens
- Sometimes these teachers are TT faculty. More often, these teachers are what Ball State refers to as “contract faculty.” They are NTT positions, but the job comes with a 4/4 load, benefits, rank (Assistant Professor), and contract faculty are enfranchised, voting members of the department. Despite a recent raise, they are still not paid as much as they should be, but it is NOT adjunct work. We work very very hard not to hire adjuncts unless it’s an emergency.
- One of my biggest jobs in the department is making our master schedule, and we do what we can to improve the quality of life for our contract faculty, such as scheduling them around their individual needs (travel from out of town, childcare, writing/research time, etc.) I can’t give them their first choice all the time, but my assistant and I try, and I think that this effort pays dividends that are both tangible and intangible.
- Many of them teach first-year writing, but we also work hard to give them a chance to vary that by scheduling them to teach in our Honors Program and giving those with MFAs a chance to teach creative writing and those with PhDs in Lit a chance to teach lower-level literature courses.
- I believe that there is nothing more important for your self-esteem and your professional identity than the ability to have at least some say in WHEN you teach and WHAT you teach. And if that makes people better teachers, and you have the resources to try and make it happen, why not do it? (I have a full-time assistant named Katie, without whom none of these things would happen.)
- But consider, too, that we schedule courses for 32 TT faculty, 36 contract faculty, and 40+ graduate students, and hoo boy, you can see why it’s hard. I’ve taught in departments where I was simply given a schedule, no negotiations, and if I did that, just handed out schedules, then I’d have time to do any number of things–create an Alumni Speaker’s Bureau! run an internship program!–but perhaps it’s just as well to keep faculty thriving.
We introduced a concentration in creative writing.
- Rather than fight the explosion of interest in creative writing among college students, our department embraced it.
- Today, creative writing majors outnumber all the other concentrations, even English Education (a close second), but CW majors take a healthy dose of literature courses, which keeps our classes full to bursting.
- Notably, our CW major includes four genres: fiction and poetry, sure, but also creative nonfiction and best of all, screenwriting–important because Ball State is David Letterman’s alma mater and is very interested in all things visual, media, etc.
We introduced and marketed our highly appealing minors both inside and outside the department.
- Creative writing is a very popular minor for many majors.
- So is our Professional Writing and Emerging Media minor.
- So is our Film/Screenwriting minor.
- I think our new minor in TESOL will be very popular as well.
We are visible and have a lot of community IRL and online
- We don’t have a huge programming budget, like say Butler University. But we do have lively co-curricular programming that’s well attended by students all over campus.
- In the spring, that’s our In Print Festival of First Books (created by Jill Christman).
- We have a student-run writing group called the Writer’s Community where students read, write, organize readings, and support each other.
- My predecessor Dr. Adam Beach started a department blog and social media for the department in 2010, and he figured out a way to leverage our work-study student secretaries to work on public relations when they aren’t answering phones or making copies.
- When I took over in 2014, I tried to grow our digital community so that students and faculty might feel more part of an IRL community. I talked about those initiatives here.
We address our students’ concerns about “What am I going to do with this degree?”
- We feature alumni success stories on our blog, which are then archived on our “Life After Ball State” webpage.
- For the last two years, we’ve sponsored a Career Week.
- We’ve made it easier for our students to see the professional opportunities we offer.
We partner with popular majors at our institution.
- TCOM is one of the most popular majors at Ball State, and all Video Production majors there must take some of our “storytelling” classes in creative writing.
- Many of them stick around to pick up minors with us, and that has been a very good thing for us.
- In addition, their “hard skills” are augmented by our soft ones.
There’s much more to say. In my next post, I’ll share some other strategies.