Because I’m a fan of the Laura Moriarty’s novel The Chaperone, I “liked” her author page. That’s how I entered a drawing and got my hands on an ARC of American Heart; Moriarity asked if anyone wanted to take a look at her new novel, and I said, sure, why not? Please note that I’ve never met the author. We’re not even Facebook friends.
This essay in Vox, “The subtle ways colleges discriminate against poor students,” rang so many bells for me.
A little backstory
I’m from a long line of working-class people. My grandpa’s a fireman. My grandmas are homemakers—one didn’t graduate from high school until she was in her 60’s, the other never learned to drive.
My mom and dad are high school sweethearts who married when they were 20 and had me when they were 21. My dad works for the railroad, and my mom’s been a bank clerk, a homemaker, a babysitter, a secretary. (Later, she’ll get a degree in nursing, but that hasn’t happened yet.)
Understand: I’m a working-class girl from a small town who’s never met a professional. My dad’s friends are all cops and railroaders. My mom’s friends are all secretaries and homemakers.
How do you imagine the life you want when you’ve never even met anyone who lives anything approximating that life?
I’ll graduate from high school first in my class, but I’ll only apply to three colleges: Indiana University, Butler University, and DePauw University (which is where I’ll go).
Why only these schools?
Because I can’t imagine going to college farther than 2 or 3 hours from home. How will my parents get me there? Will any of our cars be able to make the drive? Will I fly home for Christmas? How can we possibly afford that?
Why these three colleges in particular?
IU because I’ve been there. And Butler and DePauw because that’s where my boyfriend (who goes to Wabash) and his mom (a teacher at my school) suggest that I apply.
I’m being groomed for something, but I’m not sure what.
Boyfriend’s Mom likes to take me shopping and show me things. This kind of purse. That kind of dress. She talks me into entering the Junior Miss pageant because she says it will help me get into a sorority in college.
A sorority? Really? Me?
I let myself be talked into this (and other things).
When I tell the guidance counselor where I’m applying, she nods her head approvingly. But she doesn’t encourage me to apply to more schools or to different ones.
I’ll never know if I could have gotten into, say, Princeton.
My alma mater is a great, great college, but it once had a reputation as a school that offered the M.R.S. degree, and years later, I’ll wonder if that’s why my teachers and guidance counselor thought I should go there: Cathy Day has a chance to marry an important kind of Midwestern fellow, and that’s pretty good for the granddaughter of a fireman and the daughter of a railroader.
If you want to understand the kind of girl I am in 1987, know this: I don’t have a way to articulate or even understand my heart’s desire—that I want to be someone important, not marry someone important.
When I arrive on campus, my parents are 40 years old, wearing t-shirts and tennis shoes. I look around at all the other kids and wonder why they brought their grandparents to move-in day—and why are the parents so dressed up?
I go the restroom to wash my face before bed and pump some soap out of the dispensers. And the girls hold out these light green tubes and ask me why don’t I use Clinique, and I ask, “What’s Clinique?”
I’m in a car with friends. “What’s this on the radio?” NPR, they say. “What’s that?” I ask.
My favorite class is English, and sometimes I talk to the girls who sit in front of me. Then one night they walk into the Noble Romans where I wait tables. They look up at me and say, “You work? Here?” And they never talk to me in class again.
I can go on and on, all the comments I get (“Were you born in a barn?”), all the small indignities and slights I suffer. Someday they’ll call these “micro-aggressions,” but it’s 1987, 1988, 1989, and they aren’t using that word in Indiana yet.
I don’t know how to describe what it feels like to live in a place where every day I’m reminded that people like my family have always worked for—not with—the families of my classmates.
But I’m stubborn. I don’t transfer. I don’t even think about transferring. I don’t even understand that transferring is an option, that I might actually be happier at a different kind of school. I just keep trying because I’m a very determined girl and I assume this is the kind of crap you have to put up with in order to get somewhere in life.
Everyone’s heading to the Career Center. They’re going to live with their parents and do an unpaid internship for a family friend.
Me? I’m waiting tables, I guess. I can’t afford to work for free.
Then somebody tells me about this internship stipend that I can apply for. I can go out and get a cool unpaid internship and this magical fund will pay me what I’d make waiting tables! How is this possible? So I spend one summer working for a newspaper and another editing a scholarly monograph—experiences I can’t afford otherwise.
See, at the time, I think I want to be a Rolling Stone reporter.
Why do I want this?
Because I love Rolling Stone, and so surely that must mean I’m supposed to work there.
But I’m so determined, see, that I almost achieve this!
My senior year, I intern at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine (not Rolling Stone, but close) thanks to a domestic internship program, and wow, I realize that I don’t want to work in magazine journalism at all, so I apply to graduate school in creative writing, and become a different kind of writer.
Later, I will thank God for these opportunities—the internship stipend and the domestic internship program in New York City—because I have no financial safety net. I don’t have the time nor the money to “find out what I really want to do.” I get to try on different careers while I’m still in college to see what fits.
This saves me years. This saves me money that I don’t have anyway and keeps me from taking on needless debt.
I also thank God that I receive this scholarship, which pays all of my tuition. My parents take on debt to pay for my room and board, and I graduate from college with no debt. None. Not a dime.
If I hadn’t gone to DePauw, as hard as it was sometimes, I might not have gotten those opportunities. I might not have been able to afford graduate school or the 12 years it took me write my first book.
If I hadn’t gone to DePauw, I wouldn’t have met the man I’d marry 17 years later, a Wabash gentleman (just a different one), the son of a doctor. Only I’m the breadwinner, and he’s the breadmaker.
(This post is getting long, and I haven’t gotten to what I want to say about what all of this–my upbringing, my college experience–has to do with my recent interest in professionalization giving students “stars to steer by,” so I’ll write about that another time…thanks for reading.)
My #AWP17 panel was at 4:30 PM on the second day of the conference, just at the point where all the introverts need to escape to their rooms and the extroverts need happy hour.
I was also competing with a reading and Q&A with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This was the line waiting to get in. So incredible. I would have been there, too. Believe me.
In the end, turnout was light, so I’m sharing my opening remarks here.
Stars to Steer By:
Rethinking CW Curriculum for the 21st Century
The 50th birthday of the AWP Conference is a perfect time to reflect. I’ve been a part of our discipline (as a creative writing student, then teacher, then administrator) for 30 of those 50 years. And these are the questions that have brought me here.
Question 1: Why do so many of my students believe that unless they become published writers and/or college professors, they have somehow failed?
Question 2: Have we built creative writing programs that (intentionally or not) funnel undergrads into graduate programs? and graduate students into academia? A revolving door?
Question 3: If so, why does this happen, and should we do something about it
Thousands of people earn graduate degrees in creative writing every year, but there are typically only about 100 tenure-track jobs to which they can apply.
[This is where I asked my fellow panelists this question: In all your years of teaching CW, how many of your students have ended up in tenure-track positions? For me, the answer is: 1, and she was actually in the audience, which was cool. For Mary Biddinger, the answer is: 1. For Terry Kennedy, the answer is: around 10. For Porter Shreve, the answer is: around 10]
Instead of tenure-track jobs, my students’ post-MFA choices include:
- contingent faculty positions (some with health insurance, some not, some full time, some not, some well-paying, some not) or
- a non-academic career they often feel unprepared to pursue.
Remember too: many more thousands earn undergraduate degrees in creative writing each year.
Based on my own experience, the number of undergraduate creative writing majors and minors is high. That’s the good news. The bad news is that undergraduate creative writing majors feel just as clueless about what to “do” with their degrees.
I put this panel together because I want to advocate for a paradigm shift in which we are more deliberate about showing students a variety of ways they can lead writing lives–rather than just hoping that they’ll figure it out for themselves.
I want to talk about how new curricular models could facilitate such a paradigm shift–both specific courses that can be added to a creative writing degree and completely new configurations with new requirements.
Putting this panel together was easy. I just thought about writers I know who have administrative experience. People like:
She is Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Akron, where she is on the faculty of the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Since 2008 she has edited the Akron Series in Poetry at the University of Akron Press.
He is Associate Director of the MFA Writing Program at UNC Greensboro, Editor of the online journal storySouth and Associate Editor of The Greensboro Review. In addition to coordinating the visiting writers series, he teaches the undergraduate poetry workshop and a course on entrepreneurship & independent press publishing.
He directed the CW program at Purdue and then moved to California and created a new kind of writing program which he now directs: MA in Professional Communication at the University of San Francisco.
But I also invited:
Ashley Mack Jackson
She was my student at Ball State’s MA program in CW. She represents, I think, the next generation of CW students, the ones who will enter a different landscape than the one I entered in 1995. She studied at Howard University, earned a BA in CW at IUPUI, an MS at University of Maryland in Non-Profit Management, and an MA in CW with us. She adjuncted in Indy for awhile, then returned to Ball State as a full-time academic advisor, and then got a full-time teaching position at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.
I teach at a university that made a big commitment to experiential learning about 10-15 years ago. Our department now offers five experiential-learning courses that count towards the English major:
- Book Arts Collaborative: year-long course in which students learn book binding and letter-press printing, as well as how to sell creative products and offer classes to the community.
- Broken Plate: year-long course in which undergraduate students edit a national literary magazine
- Digital Literature Review: year-long course in which undergraduate students edit an online scholarly journal of undergraduate research, led by members of our Lit faculty.
- Jacket Copy Creative: year-long course in which undergraduate students staff a creative agency (design, social media, professional writing) serving their primary client, the English department. This is taught by our Rhetoric faculty.
- Creative Writing in the Community: semester-long course in which undergraduate students teach kids in underserved communities how to write their own stories and poems (akin to the 826 model) taught by CW and English Ed faculty.
The problem is that at the moment, only some of these classes are “on the books.” We offer them using various special topics course numbers. Which means that not all of these classes are “visible.
What if we required students to take one of those classes as their “bridge” class? It could serve creative writing majors in a different way than it does now: Instead of asking CW majors to decide their genre (fiction, poetry, CNF, or screenwriting), our curriculum would prompt them to think about what kind of writing life they envision for themselves— entrepreneurial endeavors (book arts), literary publishing (Broken Plate), academic publishing (DLR), professional writing/marketing (Jacket Copy), or non-profit/literary advocacy (CWiC).
STARS TO STEER BY
I started using that phrase “Stars to Steer By” when I became the Director of Undergraduate Studies in my department. It’s how I’ve come to describe the connection between the English major and career outcomes.
The prospective students and their parents ask: So: Creative Writing? English? What can you do with that?
“Just about anything,” I always say. “There are as many potential careers as stars in the sky.”
It’s like the poem “Sea Fever” by John Masefield, which says, “…And all I ask is a tall ship and star to steer her by.”
(I wish I could say I got the idea for this phrase from an English class. No. I got it from an episode of Star Trek.)
What are those “stars,” those potential careers for creative writers?
Here are a few: archivist, social media strategist, communications director, publicist, content manager, librarian, high school teacher, non-profits, alt-ac positions at universities in student affairs and career centers, fundraising, event planning, law, legal assistant, tech writer, editor, literary agent, author, public relations, human resources, marketing, advertising, journalism, corporate communications, creative agencies…I could go on, but I’ll stop.
But here’s the thing: We don’t ever point out those stars to our students. The only stars they see are us–especially if they’re first generation college students, as I was. CW faculty aren’t “stars” as in “celebrities.” We are “stars” as in “examples of what you can do with a degree in CW.”
So is it really any surprise that, lacking other navigation coordinates, students follow the exact routes we ourselves took when we were their age? I must admit that this is exactly what I did. Unconsciously. My college professors were the first writers I ever met. Is it any wonder that I followed in their footsteps?
WHAT I’VE LEARNED AS AN ADMINISTRATOR
If the name of the major doesn’t imply the career outcome, students won’t choose it.
For example, our Rhetoric and Writing major is very small, but if we changed it to Professional Writing or Professional Communications, it would get larger. All we’d have to do is forsake the word rhetoric, which has been the foundation of a classical, liberal arts education for thousands of years. You know. No biggie!
Many students (in my department) choose creative writing as a major because they think it implies the career outcome.
Creative Writing seems more practical to them. Egads! And to make matters worse, they often feel as if they have failed to “use their major” if they don’t become authors. Conversely, they believe that unless they have a creative writing major on their transcript, they can’t be a writer, or unless they have our Film/Screenwriting minor on their transcript, they can’t be a screenwriter.
College is not an identity store.
Students want to know what they’re supposed to “be.” Everyone’s been asking them for years and years, and they desperately want an answer. They choose majors that will provide an identity from the outside in. You major in journalism; you’re a journalist. You major in marketing; you’re a marketer. But creative writing, English, the arts, the humanities don’t work that way.
A year ago, I met a young woman at a small liberal arts college who was majoring in German. A friend asked her, “Why are you majoring in that? Do you want to be German?”
College can be an identity machine.
At other schools where I’ve taught, the first question creative writing students are asked is “Which genre are you?” Their friends and professors ask, but so does the curriculum itself. But at Ball State, we require students to work in two or three genres. There’s no opportunity to specialize at the undergraduate or graduate level. I really like this approach, but one of its flaws is that when a student wants to apply to an MFA program, and you ask them, “So what genre are you?” they don’t know how to answer the question—because the curriculum never asked them to choose a star to steer by.
I started thinking: If a curriculum can be constructed in such a way to help students identify their preferred genre, could it also be constructed in such a way to help students find their stars to steer by? their direction after college?
I’ll stop there for now and share the comments and ideas of panelists in a later post! The plane is getting ready to board…
But I want to say this to conclude: I don’t think I’m going to use the AWP panel as a way to create a conversation about curricular/higher ed/writing program matters anymore. Panels like this don’t fare well against the competition. And that’s fine. Everybody goes to AWP for slightly different reasons, and my reason is probably only shared by a small percentage of attendees. Maybe there’s a better way to spark a conversation about how structural change can be accomplished? I will keep thinking about that, and I welcome your ideas.
2016 is Indiana’s bicentennial year, and I’m really honored to have work in two projects that celebrate my home state.
This week, the Munsonians (people from Muncie!) in that anthology are giving a reading and selling books, so you if you live close by, please come! Here’s the Facebook event for the reading. Continue reading
Less than a quarter of the people who start NaNoWriMo actually finish the challenge and write 50,000 words. Your chances of finishing a crappy first draft of a novel in November are greatly improved if you prepare in October.
That’s what my class for Midwest Writers Workshop, “It’s Time to Start Your Novel,” is all about.
Registration is now available!
Starts October 1.
A few years ago, I offered a version of this course via my blog, and I’m so pleased that my friend Gail Werner challenged herself to dive in. I think it really changed her life.
Here’s her story of how it happened.
This course is for everyone who ever thought, “I think I might have a novel inside me.” Understand though: you will not “write a novel” in this course–you will prepare yourself to start (or re-start) one. Think of it as a cooking course in which you spend the first class cleaning the kitchen and prepping the ingredients. Think of it as a marathon-running course in which you spend the first class buying a good pair of shoes.
Your chances of drafting an entire novel increase exponentially when you spend some time preparing yourself for the journey ahead.
You’ll learn a great deal about your process without having to fret about the quality of your work. You’ll generate a lot of writing about the novel you want to write, get to know your characters, learn to think in terms of scenes not sentences, and make some crucial early decisions about point of view and structure that will save you a lot of time down the road.
At the end of the course, you’ll be ready and excited and poised to start writing your novel.
- intense focus on the writing process and on developing a writing regimenwriting assignments which will help you gather material, develop your plot, and get to know your characters
- practice creating an outline or storyboard of your book
- analysis of a novel that will serve as a model
The course is broken down into four big-picture units. Each unit offers a series of mini-lessons (about 10 minutes each) that build on each other. It will take you about five full hours to go through all of the instruction. You can pause to write when inspired and review the material on your own. Lessons are presented as audio-visual lectures that you can watch on any device (video/screencast).
What the Course Includes
- Four hours of instructional lectures that you can listen to or watch on your own time, at your own convenience
- Weekly assignments for completion at your own pace—designed to help you put what you learn into action.
- Connection and community with others—including me.
Week 1: Preparing Yourself
First, you’ll develop a writing regimen and come up with a concrete plan about how to fit writing time into your life. Second, you’ll figure out how to hold yourself accountable by sharing your writing goals with others. Third, you’ll assess your writing process (everyone’s different) and what circumstances make you more likely to get the writing done. And last, you’ll read the short novel Election by Tom Perrotta, paying special attention to how novels are structured and what keeps us turning pages.
Week 2: Characters
Eudora Welty said that in order to enter into your characters, you have to love them. In this unit, we’ll begin that process by getting to know our characters. They drive the plot—not you. Otherwise, a novel reads like a puppet show in which the reader sees you pulling the strings. You’ll complete a series of writing exercises to flesh out and get inside your characters.
Week 3: Through-lines
A novel isn’t just one story. It’s the skillful weaving together of multiple stories, what I call “through-lines.” Other names include character arcs, plot layers, and subplots. A through-line is the rope that the audience uses to pull itself through your novel. How you decide to structure them determines the form of your novel. You’ll identify the possible through-lines of your novel, assign each one a different color, and create a storyboard of your novel.
Week 4: Scene
The scene is the building block of all novels, and a good one enriches the characters, provides necessary information, and moves the plot forward. A scene paints a picture and brings us into what John Gardner called “the vivid, continuous fictional dream.” What novel readers want is to be so caught up in a novel that they forget they’re reading. You’ll learn how to sketch and then flesh out memorable scenes.
I’d love to work with you (or someone you know) through this online class.
I’m going to be honest with you: You can have a great career with your English major—but you’re going to have to hustle.
Let me explain what I mean by “hustle.”
Over the weekend, I downloaded the new app for the Cardinal Job Fair. You can search by major, sure, but also by transferable skills—and this is awesome! I think we are the only university using this app that allows a student to search employers by transferable skills!
Of the 170+ employers who are coming to Worthen Arena tomorrow, how many want applicants with great writing and thinking skills?
169! Isn’t that awesome?
But how many of those same employers say they want English majors specifically?
Ouch. What does this mean?
I asked some Career Center friends of mine, and here’s what they said:
I tend to think that employers are ignorant of what English majors bring to the table and are too passive (too busy?) to be asking that critical question. Hopefully we can be an agent that drives the employer to ask that question. But it does put a unique burden on our humanities students to tell their stories to the employer rather than to assume that the employer understands what the student has to offer.
We need to work with employers to help them connect the transferable skills they are searching for to majors they may have not thought of before.
This is what I mean when I say that you are going to have to hustle.
You can’t assume that the world understands what you know and what you know how to do.
English vs. Pre-professional majors
Pre-professional majors like business, marketing, advertising, public relations, journalism, and TCOM have built professionalization into their curriculum.
- They often have a specific class in the major.
- They determine job outcomes and map the structure of their curriculum over those outcomes. Picking the major (or concentration within that major) means you’re on a straight shot to a specific career. Easy peasy.
- Plus, the faculty are often people who worked in those fields.
In English, your professors aren’t going to fix your resume and tell you exactly how to get a job. They’re just not equipped to explain how your skills can translate to the 126 types of jobs you can get with the degree. (I made that number up, but it feels right.)
I consider myself moderately knowledgeable about careers for English majors, but I haven’t used a resume since 1995, and I’ve been doing one thing–teaching creative writing in higher education–my entire adult life.
That doesn’t mean we don’t care about your future. Far from it. We are a 21st century English department, and we’re always thinking of ways to help you.
We’ve got lots of professional opportunities to offer you, but you have to make time for them, people.
Who’s got time for that?
I know that you are super busy.
- You take 5 or 6 classes a semester.
- You work part-time, maybe full-time.
- You take care of the people in your lives.
- You commute.
- You volunteer.
- You have loans.
- You try to leave a little time to, you know, sleep, eat, play.
But your chances of finding a meaningful “next step” in your life will improve dramatically if you can prioritize even a few of the following opportunities.
Attend the new Stars to Steer By series—next one is Tuesday, September 27 at 6:30 PM. Here’s the schedule for Fall 2016.
Visit the Cardinal Job Fair at Worthen tomorrow, Wednesday, September 14—even if it’s just to look around.
Find a summer internship on Cardinal Career Link or on your own and set it up as an ENG 369 so that you can get credits and count it toward your degree
Take part in the Practice Interview Program in your ENG 444 Senior Seminar and consider signing up for the Intern-Read Program.
Take one of our six immersive learning classes. Think of them like internships you don’t have to drive to!
- Creative Writing in the Community
- Jacket Copy Creative
- Broken Plate literary magazine
- Digital Literature Review
- Rethinking Children’s Literature magazine
- Book Arts Collaborative
No, I’m not trying to give you an anxiety attack
I know that you don’t like to think about this. When I was in college, I didn’t want to either, but I did figure out how fit in two internships—one in magazine journalism and one at a newspaper—that showed me that, wow, I didn’t want to be a journalist. Thank God I figured that out.
Looking back, I realize that I spent an enormous amount of time on the High-School-to-College Transition (researching colleges, working on applications, going on campus visits) and a lot less time on the College-to-Career Transition.
And I know why, too. Because I’m a first-generation college student, and I just figured if I graduated, I would get a job doing something. I wanted to be a professional person, but until I went to college, I’d never known one. I was on a journey, but I had no map. Everyone was willing to give me directions, but I was too embarrassed to ask.
In the last year or so, I’ve made an important realization: the only reason that I became a professor is that my college instructors were the first professionals I’d ever known. I’m not saying I regret the way things worked out! It is what it is. And I’m really lucky to do what I do. I just wish that I’d taken the time to find a few more stars to steer by while I was in college.
Let’s make a deal, okay?
This blog post began at 4:00 PM this afternoon as an email. Ha ha. I wanted to urge you to go to the Job Fair, sure, but also to give you a pep talk, get a little fire burning in your belly, get you to hustle it up a bit.
I’m posting this here on my blog because I’m speaking to you right now more as Cathy Day, the person, the writer, not as Prof. Day, the Assistant Chair of the department.
Tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to a meeting of the Career Center Advisory Board, and I’m going to tell employers about how great you all are and how we’re preparing you to lead awesome lives.
I promise I’ll work to get more employers to seek out and hire English majors if you’ll promise to work on how to tell them your story about what you have to offer.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day.
[Long read. Sorry. Not sorry.]
Since I published this essay about Cole Porter and growing up “different,” I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people saying “I’ve never had the words to describe this feeling. Thank you.”
One email in particular has been on my mind. The subject line was “An ExMid from Peru Indiana thanks you.”
It’s from a fellow Peruvian who lives “out East” now. She still visits friends and family in Peru, but says that some members of her family seem uneasy with her at times. Sometimes they’ll say, “You’ve spent too much time in [City Far Away].
“I cannot help but feel like I don’t belong there anymore when I visit.”
Oh boy, do I know that feeling.
She goes on to say:
“I guess what I am asking you is how did you break the mold on what people in Indiana perceived you to be with who you really are to yourself? Did you find a way to do it that did not result in the ‘too good for us’ label that inevitably follows such a declaration? Indiana will always have a place in my heart and Peru a place in my soul but reading your words about both places made me feel like you understood my plight. I want to thank you for that. Indiana and particularly Peru is where I grew older but I grew up elsewhere. Cole Porter knew this struggle. Of that I am sure.”
Oh boy. Here goes.
Town people vs. Circus people
This blog post is for everyone in any English department that’s experiencing falling enrollments.
For most of my career, I didn’t think too much about where my students came from. I turned in my course request and maybe I wrote up a course description for a newsletter, but mostly, I just trusted that students would show up in my class.
And that’s the problem, really. We can’t just trust that they’re going to show up anymore.
Now, we have to ensure that what we offer is easily “findable.”
I happened to find this Ball State Advising Handbook online. It’s brand new. My fellow DUSs at ADE took a good hard look at this handbook, which will soon be in the hot little hands (or digitally in front of the eyeballs) of incoming students.
Scroll to p. 12. See the long list of majors.
Imagine a student who is looking at this long list and who feels pressured to declare a major. “English” is in the second column, but our four specific concentrations within English are also listed, including Creative Writing, which is very popular, along with Literature, Rhetoric and Writing, etc.
The visibility and findability of these concentrations in this list allows us to compete with other storytelling and communication related majors whose names suggest the career that follows, such as Journalism and TCOM and Marketing, etc.
However, scroll to p. 14, “Selected majors by interest area.”
The folks in advising have very kindly tried to take that unwieldy list of 190 majors and group them into six sections: Business, Creative Arts and Design, Government, Law, and Public Safety, Health Care and Human Services, Sports and Recreation, and Technology.
Please note that English is not included in any of these categories.
Probably this is just an honest mistake, and I need to write to Laura Helms, the very very nice and hardworking Executive Director of Academic Services and Associate Dean of University College and ask if they can add English to at least one of those lists in the 2017 catalog. But that doesn’t help me with the class of 2020.
The editors of this handbook know that students are thinking about the bridge between major and job/career, and they’re definitely trying to help. But for whatever reason, English did not come to mind when they were “categorizing” majors. Partly, that’s because English doesn’t want to be categorized. We believe that our students can do ANY of those things. But the editors will probably not let me put “English” into each category, and I’ll have to pick one, and I will feel both victorious (Yay! The first-years can see us!) and I will feel like I’ve capitulated to a kind of niche marketing that I don’t really believe in. Idealism. Pragmatism. This is the life of an English department administrator.
Scroll to p. 16. Note that all of our minors are on this page. Yay!
Recruiting students in the core/gen-ed classes
Scroll to p. 18, the Core Curriculum. Study how my department has positioned itself here, because this is really, really important.
We spent a lot of time at ADE talking about the importance of general education classes. Some students come to college knowing they want to major in English, but many more find us because they “have to take” a gen-ed course and discover that they love it.
Now, for a long time, college students were required to take a literature class to graduate, but this is no longer the case.
Here are the classes every single student at Ball State must take:
Know this: every department believes that all college students should be required to take one of their classes.
If your department offers a foundational class, as mine does, you have the opportunity to touch every single student, which is a privilege. Offering a required class means you don’t have to recruit students. They will show up. In droves.
These days, instead of requiring literature classes, most colleges include them in a menu, and my God, that menu matters so much. When your courses are menu-ized, you’re forced to think in terms of recruitment and “selling” and curb appeal.
Consider this example from DePaul University, where the gen-ed menu includes Arts and Literature. Scroll down this list. First, any course at the end of that list, such as Women’s Studies, is at a disadvantage. Second, Digital Cinema courses are in this menu, and it’s hard for traditional liberal arts majors to compete with those courses for the attention of millennial college students.
Tier 1 requirement:
The number of options in menu matter, as do the titles of those courses.
At Tier 1, our two classes compete with about 20 total.
Students are using the title alone to make a decision about which class on the menu to take.
Which of these titles will resonate?
Would you be surprised that our Intro to Digital Literacies class always fills quickly? Of course not.
Our “Reading Literature” course does well, but fills a little more slowly. It would probably fill more quickly if the actual topic of each section was more apparent.
We offer about three sections a term, maybe one on Narratives of Resistance, one on Dystopian Literature, one on Road Novels. The topics are different depending on who is teaching. But what students will see in the system they use to sign up for classes is “Reading Literature.” This is what they’ll see on Banner.
For various technological reasons, we can’t put the actual topics into this system.
We can put the those sexy, specific titles and course descriptions on our website and blog, we can make posters, etc., but it’s so hard especially at a big school like Ball State to make our topics findable by the student who is searching for a class to take.
It’s like running a really good restaurant in a city that’s hosting a big convention and not being able to let the people at the convention know that you’re just a few blocks away. Instead, all the convention go-ers eats dinner at the first restaurant they see.
Would someone invent the Yelp for cool college courses? Thanks.
Tier 2 requirement:
It’s at the next menu, Tier 2, that our department had to really think strategically about what to offer, because we’re in a much bigger menu (about 70 courses to choose from) and therefore the competition is much more fierce. We’re no longer competing with just the humanities courses anymore. We’re competing in a category called “Fine Arts, Design, and Humanities.”
If you scroll to p. 20 of the handbook, you’ll see that this is where we titled our courses much more specifically.
Our thinking was that we might attract students via our “Intro to [identity]” courses, and then say to those students, Hey, you can take the 400-level version of this course and then encourage them to add the major or the minor.
The importance of course descriptions
People in the English department create fascinating courses that require an explanation.
For example, what does “Narratives of Resistance” mean? Read the awesome description:
We will use the course to examine how novels, poetry, and plays have been used to challenge ideas of justice in society to create change in the system. We will read Luiz Valdez’s Zoot Suit, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Barbara Shoup’s American Tune, Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, in addition to a few shorter essays, stories, and episodes of Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot. Evaluation will be based on quizzes, two midterm tests, two short papers, and a final exam.
Aha! You get to read some very good and important books AND watch one of my favorite shows, Mr. Robot. SOLD!
But what’s going to happen (through no fault of the instructor or me or anyone else) is that most students will show up the first day and only learn then that they get to read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and watch Mr. Robot.
Note that pp. 26-31 of the advising handbook are nothing but course descriptions of the foundational classes.
Note that that the handbook doesn’t include course descriptions of any of the other classes in the core. Because that would make this document incredibly unwieldy and students probably wouldn’t read them anyway. The title of the course alone must attract and inform. And sometimes, that’s just not possible.
You’re thinking: Why not call ENG 206 Social Justice Lit?
Because we can’t promise that we’ll always offer it with that topic. Even the instructor might not want to do it time and time again.
Why not create ENG 206 Social Justice Lit, 207 Dystopian Lit, 208 Road Lit, 209 Southern Lit, etc.
Because there are not enough numbers to contain all the cool things we could teach.
I have more to say about this topic of findability, but for now, I’ll stop. Suffice it to say that it’s really important for English departments to take out their own eyeballs and look at everything with a student’s eyeballs.
We can offer the most interesting classes in the world, but if students can’t find them, no one will take them.
I’m thinking a lot about disloyalty today.
Let me explain why.
I feel like I’ve betrayed my hometown and home state.
This essay was published today, and I’d like to say a few things about it.
A few months ago, Barb Shoup at the Indiana Writers Center asked me to submit an essay to an anthology of Indiana writers that will be published this fall to celebrate Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016. She mentioned that the anthology might end up being used in public schools, and I thought, What would I really like to say to an Indiana high school student? It also stood to reason that Governor Mike Pence might actually read something I wrote. What would I really like to say to him? Oh boy!
Here at the Association of Departments of English, we’re talking a lot about why fewer students are majoring in English and what we can do about it.
Here’s a very good playbook on how to improve your recruitment strategies by Emily Todd and Lina Insana. Download away! It’s really great.
Here’s what I’d add to all that great advice.
Use every communication method at your disposal to reach more students.
I realized that I’m lucky to have certain tools at my disposal.
- One is something called Banner Works, a pretty simple program that allows me to contact Ball State students by major or minor and send them an email. I use this a lot to communicate with my own majors, and I use it to send a message, say, to all the Theater majors to let them know that they might be interested in our new class on Shakespeare’s plays.
- The other is Ball State’s Comm Center, which allows me to send emails to segments of or to the entire campus community.
- (One thing that shocked me when I took my job as Assistant Chair was the dearth of communication options available to me. It’s surprisingly hard for a department to communicate effectively to their alums and to their students, let alone to non-majors.)
Here is a link to an email that I sent via the Ball State Comm Center in Fall 2015 to all undergraduate students and faculty. I sent it out right before registration was to begin, and I spent about two hours crafting this message of a mere 200 words.
Yes, it’s a listicle.
A few months later, I discovered that the number of minors in our department was up by about 25%.