Opinion: Carolina Beat

The English Department Self-Destructs

Are the humanities in trouble on American campuses? That is certainly the impression one gets from the media today; articles in publications of both left and right describe the increasing flight from the humanities into other disciplines.

But is it all hype? To find out the real situation, I recently explored what is going on in one of the main humanities disciplines, English. Concentrating on English departments and their faculties in the University of North Carolina system, I used a mix of empirical and qualitative methods to look behind the rhetoric and wagon-circling.

The result is the newly released report, The Decline of the English Department. And as the title indicates, the decline is far from hype. By almost any measure, English departments are diminishing numerically, dropping standards, or calcifying into a hard-left intellectual status quo.

That is not to say that there are no pockets of excellence in the discipline. Nor does it mean that English departments will disappear anytime soon. But they are besieged by negative trends on almost every front, from politicized course content to ebbing enrollment.

At most UNC schools, there has not been a wholesale retreat from the English major, as there has been elsewhere. At the University of Maryland, for example, the number of English majors fell by 40 percent from 2012 to 2014.

Many English departments have tried to fend off the decline in enrollment, mostly by making drastic changes to the English curriculum making it more appealing to students. This means more emphasis on writing and technology courses that will help prepare students for employment. It also means more courses that are as much entertainment as education, such as UNC-Chapel Hill’s “CMPL 55: First Year Seminar: Comics as Literature.”

As the English discipline moves farther away from its core of the greatest works of English, American, and European literature, either to attract students or for political reasons, its very reason for existing is reduced. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, the humanities “are committing suicide because they have lost faith in their own enterprise.” And English may be leading the pack over the cliff.

Politicization is a particularly destructive force in the humanities because it directly affects what students learn. The left-wing bent of English department faculties is indisputable; I identified 261 tenured (or tenure-track) professors in the UNC system who teach literature and are registered to vote in North Carolina. Only 10 were registered Republicans, as opposed to 196 Democrats (55 were registered as Independent).

I found more than a few professors who openly put politics ahead of scholarship. For instance, Amanda Wray, who teaches writing courses at UNC-Asheville, states on her LinkedIn page that:
“In all the courses I teach, students can expect to talk and think critically about intersecting structures of oppression including racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism.”

Exactly how her hyperpolitical agenda makes students better writers is unclear. And it is very unlikely that these topics are discussed in an objective, even-handed manner from multiple perspectives, as controversial subjects are supposed to be taught in college.

Another example is UNC-Wilmington’s Alessandro Porco, whose master’s thesis and first book is comprised of obscene and childish poems, mostly written in honor of Porco’s favorite porn star. Porco was hired in 2009 over 100 other applicants, according to the then-acting department head.

With the older generation, which is more rooted in traditional scholarship, being replaced by younger Ph.D.s who are steeped in left-wing politics and a “pop culture as high culture” lowering of standards, it is hard to see a way out of the downward cycle.

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.