Recruiting English majors and minors

Recruiting English majors and minors

Higher Ed

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.
  • (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.)

Recruitment Email

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%.

Here’s a link to my recruitment email. Please steal.

Pitching the English major/minor

When I googled “recruiting English majors,” here were the top three results:
Screenshot 2016-06-04 10.29.30
The key to selling the English major is that we have to change the narrative. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it can be done.
Let’s work on our pitch. 
Why are #bsuenglish enrollments up, despite national trends?

Why are #bsuenglish enrollments up, despite national trends?

Higher Ed

There’s an alarming 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).

 

How did this happen?

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.

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–which is a hard thing for 33 TT, 37 NTT, and 40+ graduate students–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.)

 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.

  • Enrollment in all of our minors is way up! 138% overall in the past five years.
  • 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 the amazing Marilyn K. Cory speaker series, which brings people like Mahogany Browne and Tyehimba Jess to campus.
  • We have a department blog and social media. We leveraged 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.
  • And then in 2016, we created an immersive learning class, Jacket Copy Creative, our own in-house PR firm.

We address our students’ concerns about “What am I going to do with this degree?”

The Future of the Liberal Arts

I really believe this: Ball State is a great place to study English and the humanities in general, because you get a great liberal arts foundation AND experiential-learning classes in your major that show you how to apply your skills in a real-world context.

Confessions of a Gadfly

Confessions of a Gadfly

CW Programs Higher Ed Literary Citizenship Teaching

You may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?

In 2014, Hanover College selected The Circus in Winter as its Common Reading, and I came to campus to talk to students. I loved the campus, the view, the students. On that first visit, sociology professor and writer Dr. Robyn Ryle told me that, like a lot of small, liberal arts colleges, Hanover had experienced an enrollment dip.

I found this news surprising and very worrisome. Hanover isn’t my alma mater, but I did go to a very similar kind of college—and The Circus in Winter had been the direct result of the quality liberal arts education I received at DePauw University.

So, when Hanover invited me back in 2015, I widened the scope of my “professionalization” concerns–which over time had morphed from a concern about creative writing students, to a concern about English majors, and now to a concern about liberal arts majors.

I gave the first-year students at Hanover a pep talk about why they were at the right school and screw all the haters who were saying, “What are you going to do with that?”

I called the talk “Stars to Steer By.” I haven’t published it yet, because I wrote it as a power point, but I will–just as soon as I can finish a draft of this novel of mine.

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How I feel when Hillary People shake their heads at me

How I feel when Hillary People shake their heads at me

Writing

Throughout my life, I’ve worked hard to balance my idealistic nature with necessary doses of…realism? pragmatism? skepticism?

If you believe in Myers-Briggs, I’m an INFJ.

I don’t think it’s an accident that I married a cynic. Sometimes, the stuff that comes out of my husband’s mouth shocks the heck out of me, but mostly, I am just so thankful that he helps me prioritize and stay focused. When I met him, I was a puddle of naive disappointment. These days, I rarely get that low.

I can remember so many moments in my life when I’ve said something so idealistic that the other person looked away and shook their head in disbelief. “You really think like that?” they’d say, and I’d say, “You don’t?”

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My critique of a critique of MFA programs

My critique of a critique of MFA programs

CW Programs

There’s a long history of articles about the impact of MFA programs on contemporary literature. The latest addition to this oeuvre is “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?” just published by The Atlantic. What’s different about this one: the authors fed 200 novels into a computer–100 by writers with MFAs and 100 by writers without MFAs–and used computational text analysis to study the diction, style, theme, setting, and characters of these novels.

Here are my thoughts:

Creative writing has become a big business—it’s estimated that it currently contributes more than $200 million a year in revenue to universities in the U.S.

I’m not sure how to evaluate this figure since the authors have linked to a 51-page pdf of Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era, which I have read. I just spent about ten minutes of my life scrolling through that pdf to find that $200,000 figure, but gave up. Which makes me wonder why the authors couldn’t have simply said, “According to Mark McGurl…” Another thing I wonder is if this figure includes only tuition payments or if it also includes the savings to universities–who are able to pay MFA candidates a small salary and NOT offer them health insurance (compared to paying TT or contingent faculty) to teach first-year writing courses.

We collected a sample of 200 novels written by graduates of MFA programs from over 20 leading programs (including Columbia, University of Texas at Austin, Iowa, and others) that have been published in the last 15 years.

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What’s the Matter with Indiana?

What’s the Matter with Indiana?

Writing

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, I sat down to write, and I made a horrible mistake: I checked Tweetdeck.

I have a special list called “Indiana” which is how I stay in touch with my state. It includes newspapers, colleges, political and cultural organizations, progressive and conservative politicians, TV and radio stations, etc.

Yesterday, every tweet in my “Indiana” column on Tweetdeck filled me with despair.

A song came to my head. “Anything you can do, I can do better…” So I started retweeting all the bad news with my tweaked ditty.

After awhile, I got so angry that I logged into Facebook and wrote this:

Screenshot 2016-02-25 13.19.10

Yes, I sacrificed my novel-writing time to Facebook-screed writing time.

This is why I’m going to have to go off social media again.

Tell me, why do you hate Indiana?

My friend Barbara Shoup asked me to contribute something to an Indiana anthology that’s going to be published in conjunction with Indiana’s 2016 bicentennial celebration. Although, who knows? Maybe that’s not going to happen either, since it’s not clear if my governor will be able to find the money to “celebrate” Indiana’s history.

So I got out an essay I started here a few years ago and expanded it.

This essay doesn’t celebrate Indiana. It critiques it. And the more I worked on it, the angrier I got, and I’m actually not sure it’s still appropriate for the anthology.

Here’s a snippet:

I don’t think Indiana is honest to goodness. Sometimes, I think it’s the angriest place I’ve ever lived—and I’ve lived in a lot of places.

I’m going to read it this Saturday and see what happens. Please come and tell me what you think?vouched

I guess that the news about plastic bags and Tesla and payday companies wouldn’t have enraged me any other week, but this week it did.

If you know me, then you know how much I love my home state.

But this week, I did not.

I’m reminded of this scene in my favorite novel, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (Replace “the South” with “Indiana,” and that’s how I felt this week.)

“Tell about the South,” said Shreve McCannon. “What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they live at all?…Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”

“I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I don’t hate it,” he said. “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”

Subscribe to my list and keep tabs on Indiana

My “Indiana” list has always been private, but I just made it public, so you can subscribe to it, too.

You’ll see bad news, probably, but I also hope this list gives you hope as well.

If you use Twitter, I highly recommend you use lists. Here’s how. It allows you to follow accounts without actually “following.”

Once you subscribe to the list, create a column for that list on Tweetdeck (or Hootsuite). Here’s how.

I hardly ever look at Twitter via the Twitter app (unless I’m on my phone). I look at Twitter via Tweetdeck, where I can see a variety of columns. Some people think Tweetdeck is overwhelming, but I think Twitter is, actually. Once you get used to the interface, it’s easy, because your feed and your interests are nicely organized–by you.

Maybe my legislators think that no one is paying attention to what they’re doing?

I’m paying attention. I hope you will, too.

Five Things: 2/22/16

Five Things: 2/22/16

Five Things

1. I’m giving a reading

I’m reading on Saturday, February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis. Here’s the Facebook invite with lots of details. It’s taking place at New Day Craft (oh man, I love mead) and includes me, Michael Dahlie, Matthew Minicucci and fellow Peruvian Jordan Zandi, whose book Solarium is fresh-pressed from Sarabande Books. Free, but bring bucks for booze and books.

2. Being “different” in Indiana.

I’m going to read an essay I’ve been working on for awhile about what it’s like to be “different” in Indiana. I started tweeting about it today and got a bunch of reactions, so I’m guessing this topic resonates with a lot of people. It also gives me a chance to talk about Cole Porter (another Peruvian).

3. Advice about Residencies

Things you won’t think to bring but should: a white noise machine, an eye mask, and, if it’s winter, a neti pot and good slippers with a sole. Being at Ragdale took me back to my graduate school days. It was so wonderful to hang out with other writers and artists for three weeks. It put me back in touch with Writer Me, before I became Teacher Me and Administrator Me and Wife Me, etc. Although I teach creative writing at the college level, I rarely talk about writing with my creative writing colleagues because we’re so busy with teaching and service and bureaucratic stuff. When I wanted to talk about writing, the fellow residents were very supportive, but everyone was also happy to just leave you alone, too. How long as it been since I could stand up from a table and say “I’ve gotta go work,” and not make excuses or fear coming off as rude? A long time! I’ve never done a residency before. I’m now a convert. I finished about 65 pages of my novel, and I’m happy with that.

4. Tricks I Learned

Hemingway said you should stop writing in the middle of a sentence, and there’s some truth to that, I’ve found. I discovered that if I made myself stop before I’d “fixed” everything in a chapter, I sort of couldn’t wait to get back to the writing. And that’s a good feeling. If I finished a chapter, I made myself start another right away so I’d have something I could come back to. Another trick I learned was to create arbitrary deadlines. I got the most writing done on days when I was trying to get something “done” before a big dinner or an important meeting. I also created arbitrary deadlines for myself each day: write 7 pages and you can watch Downton Abbey; finish that book and you can go to the gym; get to the end of section 4 by the end of February. Otherwise, I would have just la la la-ed with myself for three weeks, I think.

5. March at Hanover College

In March, I’m going to be a writer-in-residence at Hanover College. I’ve visited this small liberal arts college twice in recent years; they’ve been using The Circus in Winter as their “common read” for first-year students. I’ve never done a gig like this before, but I can’t wait to get there. Hanover has one of the most spectacular and beautiful campuses I’ve ever visited, and man, I hope it snows a little so that I can see the view in the winter time.

72229915_c145f664eb

 

Reading List: Starting a Writing Career

Reading List: Starting a Writing Career

Writing

Yesterday on Twitter, Celeste Ng asked a great question, and people responded.

How do you start a writing career? Some of these books will help you with the craft of your writing (very important) and others will help you with the business of writing (more important than you think).

You also have to expand your notion of what “a writing career” is.

  • Maybe you write grants and promotional materials for a non-profit and work on your novel every chance you get.
  • Maybe you teach high school, sell cars, work in a bank, etc., and work on your poetry every chance you get.
  • Maybe you are a free-lance writer trying to actually make a living from YOUR creative writing or journalism.
  • There are many ways to create a literary life for yourself, no matter what your job title is.

Anyway, on to the Storify!

Five Things: 2/15/16

Five Things: 2/15/16

Five Things

I’ve written about this topic before, but have been thinking about it again for some reason.

1.Why aren’t there more FTWPTT creative writing jobs?

I have this theory about why the discipline of creative writing has not flourished more than it has in higher education. By “flourish,” I don’t mean numbers of students in classes or the number of majors or minors. We’re doing fine in that regard. Demand is high. By “flourish,” I mean jobs–good jobs, full-time (FT), well-paid (WP), tenure-track (TT) jobs–in English departments (or in some cases Art departments or Writing departments). I’ve taught at four different colleges (five if you also count where I got my MFA) and in every case, the ratio of FTWPTT faculty has always been off. Literature faculty generally outnumber Creative Writing faculty as well as Composition faculty and especially Teaching faculty. (In literature, for example, there are reasons for “coverage” and the corresponding FTWPTT positions to provide that coverage, although that model is also coming into question.)

2. Because we don’t have real power.

I think that the reason why there aren’t more FTWPTT creative writing jobs to go around (despite the demand) is that not enough FTWPTT creative writing faculty have risen in the ranks of academic bureaucracy and become deans and provosts, those who ultimately decide whether to create or convert a FTWPTT position or use contingent labor, those who deal with budgets and politics and meetings. I don’t think people understand this: departments only have so much power to run a search, and areas within those departments have even less power than that. You can ask, certainly, but ultimately, the people “upstairs” or “in the xxx building” decide. I know CWers who have taken their turn as directors of CW programs and as department chairs, but relatively few who’ve moved further up than that. (However, a year ago, I asked my CW friends on FB for examples of these folks, and I did get quite a few answers.)

This could be you!
This could be you!

3. Because we don’t want power.

Creative writers define themselves in terms of their published work and/or to their teaching and mentorship–primarily. Navigating THAT is difficult enough. Deciding how much time and energy to devote to your writing and to your teaching, deciding if you want to be “known” as a nationally recognized writer or as a great teacher, or hopefully, BOTH. What’s rare, I think, are creative writers who are willing to play Academic Game of Thrones, who aspire to be movers and shakers within their institution. Most creative writers I know spend as little time as possible trying to move up the ladder in this way. Actually, it’s rare to find any English faculty at all working their way up the food chain, but in my experience, creative writers tend to be the absolute least interested in this kind of work. We are an ambitious lot, sure, but the “prestige” we seek has nothing to do with the grandiosity of our academic title, the size of our office, the amount of power we wield, or even how much money we make. What we want is to be recognized and remembered as writers and/or teachers, not as academic leaders or as higher education bureaucrats. And so we go to work, teach our classes, take our turn, and try hard to avoid commitments that nibble away at what little time and energy we still have for our writing. Keep your head down. Keep your hand down. Do your job. No more. No less. Protect your time. These are our mantras.

4. Because we just want to write, damnit.

Maintaining a writerly identity is hard fucking work–no matter your day job, no matter if it’s inside or outside the academy, no matter whether it’s FTWPTT or “contingent” (meaning maybe not FT, definitely not WP or TT). I mean, here I am on sabbatical (thank you, employer), at an artist residency no less, not working on my novel but instead, getting this “theory” out of my head, where it’s been swimming around for months, like a little blue gill nibbling away at the line I’ve cast into the water. I don’t want that blue gill. I want to catch a big fish, damnit. But this little fish won’t go away. And every minute I spend worrying about this stupid little fish, I feel less and less like a “real” angler and more like an amateur angler or a like a conservationist or an employee of a fish hatchery or a fishing lure designer.

5. Because because because…

I’m not even going to come up with a fifth thing. I’m going to stop right now, because I want to go work on my novel.

Five Things: 2/8/16

Five Things: 2/8/16

Five Things Mrs. Cole Porter

1. It’s okay to be rude sometimes.

So far, what I like most about this residency is how anti-social you’re allowed to be. You can behave in ways that would be taken as rude under almost any other circumstance. Let’s say I leave my computer to walk into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I’m still thinking about what I’m writing and I find that someone is already there. She’s absorbed in a book while she eats some cereal, doesn’t say hello how did you sleep are you have a good day how’s the writing going? She smiles and returns to her book. I can make myself a cup of tea and walk right out of that kitchen. Or I’m eating dinner with everyone at 6:30 PM, the only time of the day we all come together and eat a nice meal prepared by Chef Linda, served buffet style. It’s sort of like going to a dinner party every night, except you get to wear sweats and slippers if you want to. So, I’m at this dinner party in my slippers talking to the guy sitting across from me about, I dunno, the Lusitania or football or ice cream, and when he’s done eating, he stands up and says, “Back to work,” and I say bye and that’s that. No long goodbyes. No hard feelings. Everyone understands. If only real life could be this way!

2. My space.

"The Beach Room." Not sure why it's called that except that there is a large conch shell on my desk.
“The Beach Room.” Not sure why it’s called that except that there is a large conch shell on my desk.

This is a picture of my room at Ragdale, although I had to move the twin bed against the wall because I kept waking up terrified I was going to fall out.

How long has it been since I slept in a twin bed? College, I think.

Studio with skylights!
Studio with skylights!

And here’s a picture of the studio they gave me, too, so that I can storyboard my novel on the nice white walls.

3. Things I worry about even though I shouldn’t.

A great essay I read this week: “Children of the Century” in the New Republic. Alexander Chee asks the question, “Can a historical novel also function as serious literature?”

Jesus, I hope so.

When I tell people I’m writing a book about Linda Lee Thomas Porter, long-time wife of Cole Porter, I get one of two reactions: 1.) Oooh, I love books like that. 2.) Oh, I didn’t realize you were writing a book like that. Re: #2, by “like that,” they mean what we’ve come to think of as “the wife book,” the “woman behind the man book” like: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, etc. Why don’t the #2s think that I’m writing a book like The Women by T.C. Boyle, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel? Is it because I am a woman writer or because I’m writing about a female character? Or both? The second set of books are also novels about real people and real events, what I like to call nonfictional fiction, but they were all written by men or have primarily male characters.

Sometimes, as I’m writing a scene or making a decision in my novel, I find myself thinking about how that decision will affect the way the book will be presented to the world–commercial or serious? genre or literary? “male” or “female”?–when what I need to do is just write the damn thing the best way I know how and let my agent (whom I trust) guide me. Every single day, I get anxious about this, especially now as I come closer to finishing, but then I tell myself its useless to borrow worry. Reading an essay like Chee’s reassured me that I’m not the only writer who worries about these matters. Note to self: keep working on my essays related to the subject of my novel and pitch them to The Atlantic and The New Republic; this definitely sends a message about how you want to be read.

4. Nonfictional fiction. 

Linda's first husband, E.R. Thomas, hanging out with Clarence Mackay, the guy in the middle with the enormous mustache.
Linda’s first husband, E.R. Thomas, hanging out with Clarence Mackay, the guy in the middle with the enormous mustache.

Most of the characters in my novel are based on real people: Linda, of course, and Edith Wharton, Emily Post, Bernard Berenson, Elsie de Wolfe, Bessie Marbury, Anne Morgan, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.

Today, I’m working on a chapter in which Linda is being courted by Clarence Mackay.

The book that gave me permission to write my novel the way I want to write it is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Which features real historical figures like Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, Harry K. Thaw, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan, alongside purely fictional characters. There’s one scene in particular in which Gilded Age “It Girl” Nesbit goes to a socialist meeting where Emma Goldman is speaking and then ends up taking off her corset and allowing herself to be massaged by Goldman.

Now, this never happened. And once I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a biography, that I could invent, the book started to flow.

5. “altgenres” 

And speaking of genres and subgenres and labels, another great read from this week was this article from last month’s Atlantic, “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood.”  Believe it or not, this article got me going on a essay about “selling” the English major, the humanities, and a liberal arts education. Stay tuned…