A Memo about English Majors and Hustle

A Memo about English Majors and Hustle

Higher Ed

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.

Another said:

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 14even if it’s just to look around.

Make an appointment with our Career Coach Eilis Wasserman on Cardinal Career Link or send her an email. 

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

Read the Stars to Steer By posts on our blog where alums tell you how their degree prepared them for their careers, like Ace Howard, who works at a start-up in Pittsburgh.

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!

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.

The importance of being findable

The importance of being findable

Higher Ed

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.

Screenshot 2016-06-05 09.21.33

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.”

Screenshot 2016-06-05 09.28.15Screenshot 2016-06-05 09.29.03

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:

Screenshot 2016-06-05 10.08.28Know 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?

Screenshot 2016-06-05 10.21.03

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.

Screenshot 2016-06-05 16.34.17

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.


Screenshot 2016-06-05 10.35.12

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.

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

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

Appiah, “What Is the Point of College”

Cartwright, “Strengthening the Undergraduate English Major: Enrollment Declines and the Problem of Attracting Students”

Klein, “‘Everyone Has Their Reasons’: Planning English Department Curricular Reform”

Recruitment, Retention, and Enrollment Trends

Anderson, “Going for the Hard Sell as Interest in English Major Declines “

“Humanities Indicators Project Bachelor’s Degrees in the Humanities”

Jaschik, “Study Shows 8.7% Decline in Humanities Bachelor’s Degrees in 2 Years”

Professionalization, Careers, and the English Majors

Anders, “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket”

Carey, “Gaps in Earnings Stand Out in Release of College Data”

Meyers, “Feeding English Majors in the 21st Century”

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).

Screenshot 2016-06-02 09.09.48

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 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.

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.

Continue reading

17 years in the tenure track

17 years in the tenure track

Higher Ed

Employment History

1995: I earn my MFA.

1995-1997: For the next two years, I work as a full-time instructor, teaching a 4/4 for less than $20,000 a year.  But I have health insurance for the first time in my life. I’m 26 years old.

Note: Titles for contingent faculty:

  • Instructor
  • Lecturer
  • Visiting Lecturer
  • Visiting Writer
  • Visiting Assistant Professor
  • also: Assistant Professor

1997-2000: I get my first tenure-track job at Mankato State University, now Minnesota State University-Mankato. I work with wonderful people. However, my then-partner gets a job out East.

2000-2005: I get my second tenure-track job at The College of New Jersey, formerly known as Trenton State College. I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me, nor do I think to ask for them. I work with wonderful people. With sadness, my partner and I part ways. In 2004, my first book is published and I receive a positive vote for tenure, but it isn’t official until the Board of Trustees votes on it. In an effort to get closer to family, I go on the job market. Continue reading

Do the Math: Part 3

Do the Math: Part 3

Higher Ed

Time Management

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.

–William Penn

My students shared their Activity Logs with me last week. I told them that I wasn’t going to look at them. No grading. No judgement. “Be truthful,” I said, “or don’t do it at all.”

One student pointed to a block of time in between her morning and afternoon class. “Usually, I run errands during that time. Go to the library. Take care of stuff. It never occurred to me that I could schedule an hour or two of writing during that block. That’s what I’m going to do from now on.”

Another was amazed to see how much gaming he does. I was glad this came up, actually. I think our students devote many, many hours per week to RPGs and video games, esp. when you read confessions like thisI said look, there’s nothing wrong with gaming or any other pleasure activity. That’s necessary for good health and peace of mind. The problem is when that activity starts eating at the time you have for the stuff you absolutely have to get done.

[Here’s a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education about teaching students time management skills.]

Continue reading

Do the Math: Part 2

Higher Ed

Last week, I talked about “doing the math” (and by extension time management) here at The Big Thing. This powerpoint contained a slide that got my attention.

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 8.30.56 PM

I use Google Calendar to schedule meetings and appointments, but not writing time, teaching time, etc. I don’t compartmentalize my day that way–although maybe I should. My novel writing students and I were talking about time–how there’s never enough time to work on novels–so I showed them the picture and said, “C’mon. Let’s log in how we spend our time for one week.”

I went first.

How do I spend my time? I was already asking myself that question a lot because my P&T document and materials were due this past Friday.

Continue reading

Teaching Tuesday: Do the Math

Teaching Tuesday: Do the Math

Higher Ed

I’m sort of nervous about this post. Let’s see how it goes.

It’s incredibly difficult to gauge how much work to assign students and how much work to give yourself. I think you have to be in a place for at least a year or more to get it right.

Here are some things you can do to avoid mid-semester meltdowns.

  • Ask to see a sampling of syllabi of the classes you teach; how much work do others generally assign? If they’ve been there for awhile, they probably know what works.

  • Are you teaching on quarters or semesters? Are the courses 4 credits or 3 credits?

  • Ask how many classes students generally take a semester. If they take four a term, your course will probably need to be a little more rigorous than if they take five or six a term.

  • Are they on the quarter or semester system? How many students will be in your classes?


Continue reading