• Barbara L. Ciccarelli, PhD

Who Still Reads Books Anyhow?

A case for international virtual projects

Who Reads Books?

I started out as an idealistic literature student who earned an MA and PhD and landed my first full-time academic job soon after graduation. Meeting my future Dutch partner during a conference in Amsterdam interrupted my professional trajectory, and before I knew it, I was moving across the “pond.”

It didn’t take long to realize that there were only a few Literature positions open each year at the two local universities, and those that were did not relate to my specialty. As it turned out, my credentials didn’t transfer well to the Dutch education system. I had to rely on free-lance work for a while until I realized the other opportunities that were available for someone with my skills and experience.

After considerable searching, I found myself at the doorstep of the universities of applied sciences (hbo-opleidingen), schools that prepared students for various professions. At these universities, English was a support subject for engineering, aviation, IT, computers, business, communications, etc. I have taught in both engineering and business programs. The funny thing is that my current professional university was the only university after several interviews that would respect a PhD in the field of English. The other schools thought I was overqualified and didn’t want to pay a decent salary. One school even said “It’s not like we have an English department” in regards to my qualifications.

The question arises as to whether the change of the role of English from subject in and of itself to support subject (or supplier of soft skills) also suggests a lowering of value of the field at large and of those who operate within it. In other words, have those with graduate degrees in literature, like myself, become devalued by crossing over to professional skills with the universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands or with the rise of online universities in the U.S.? Or rather is the white ivory tower of academia just finally doing a Rapunzel move and allowing others besides the dominant privileged access? In the case of the latter, you also must ask who is rescuing whom?

In the United States, from 1970 to 2004, while English Studies declined and the humanities was taking a place on the “periphery of American higher education,” the study of business increased. William M. Chace in his 2009 American Scholar article asks why this happened and concludes it is due to

1. the failure of English departments to sell their subject to the students, that there is value in itself of reading the books taught.

2. the growth of public universities which provided the opportunity to study professional skills and subjects at a time when education costs were going up and the relative earning power of a degree was on the minds of the students and their parents.

3. jobs for English PhDs were disappearing while jobs for the professions were increasing

Nine years later in July 2018 the MLA ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major reported on the same topic and provided an update on the status of the English major or department across the United States. The committee states that from 1991 to 2012 the average number of BA English majors was 52,684 a year, falling to 42,868 by 2016.

The committee explains that, just as before, students were under pressure to pursue a degree with more earning power, such as business, but also that there was a decline in leisure reading and that there was a “reshaping of reading practices by electronic media.” The committee pointed out that the additional reason for the 2009 downturn in the major/subject was the failure of the United States economy in 2007-2008 which sent students to more promising professions in terms of employment outlook. In addition, the popularity of the STEM subjects had the effect of devaluing the humanities because they prepared students for certain careers.

Now, many departments [BA, MA and PhD] are not only including preprofessional experiences in their programs but are also addressing on their websites the student need for a degree with greater earning power, emphasizing the honing of skills in reading, critical thinking, writing and research while also elaborating on the job and career potential of the English degree.

A reflection of the changes in some English Departments could also be the COIL projects that are increasing across countries, including the United States. COIL stands for Collaborative Online International Learning, and it involves a project between students from different countries. Through virtual meetings and other forms of communication, studentscan develop intercultural competences and digital skills while working in teams on designated learning tasks.

I am currently arranging a COIL project between professional writing skills students at a public university in Ohio and my Amsterdam students at my professional university. The leaning of the public universities toward the earning power of the degree no doubt makes our collaboration more possible.

As a preprofessional career endeavor, I see no reason why students in the other areas of English Studies could not do a COIL project to exchange ideas and different perspectives from different cultural lens on fiction or theory or to practice modes of teaching or business communication with intercultural awareness in mind. With Covid-19 there is an even stronger move toward virtual learning than ever before. Let’s focus on the silverlining.
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