Humorless Man Yells at English Major Jokes

Old man yells at cloud newspaper headline from the Simpsons
A self portrait of the author.

Last December I got into a spat with the cast of an NPR game show. That overstates the case. I was listening to Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and rolled my eyes as host Peter Sagal made yet another joke about impoverished English majors. It’s a frequent joke on the show and even more common in the wider world. At best such jabs are tired and at worst—and I believe this to be the case—they are doing slow, small, but steady and substantive harm to a field and to students. And so I tweeted my annoyance, tagging Sagal. He, a group of other cast members, and some listeners responded defensively: he was an English major himself and only indulging in self deprecation, a comedic staple. It was all in good fun. I should lighten up.

I probably should lighten up. It was just one joke and I don’t believe Sagal, the cast members of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, or the others who responded in our thread claiming their own past as English majors see the study of language and literature as a useless pursuit. One of these, Lin Brehmer, wrote “when English major jokes are unacceptable, all satire is dead. Signed an English Major,” and assuring me “reading and writing will be essential skills as long as there is a civilization.” As someone with a Ph.D. in the field, who has built a career career researching and teaching it, I certainly believe this point to be true. And yet.

And yet, I wondered how many who responded in this thread were English majors when the discipline was a powerhouse, the largest major on many campuses and a seemingly unshakeable foundation for a liberal arts education. I was tweeting about an NPR show, whose demographics suggest my interlocutors were not likely to be 18-25 year olds. Most of my current students (or grad students) would understand the place of English in the university quite differently. Cynically, these folks bemoaning my lack of humor about English major jokes sounded to my ear like baby boomers lecturing millennials about failing to thrive in an economy the boomers tanked. We spent decades ridiculing something and now everyone thinks it’s useless and it’s dying—geez, why can’t you take a joke? From many of the people who deliver them, in other words, these jokes come off as punching down rather than self deprecation. I was once a job candidate in the (truly dismal) market for English Assistant Professors. As someone who was fortunate to secure one of those positions, however, it would be tasteless, even cruel, to indulge in job market jokes at the expense of current graduate students.

Most people who assume English major jokes are harmless don’t watch brilliant colleagues humiliated semester after semester as courses fail to enroll. They don’t sit in departmental meetings in which we struggle to understand why majors decrease year over year, or plan—mostly in vain, thus far—to staunch the bleeding. They don’t mentor brilliant graduate students who then compete with hundreds of equally brilliant colleagues for ever more scant assistant professorships each year. They don’t work in departments slowly but steadily shrinking—at least in the professoriate—as administrators decide that retired or relocated colleagues need not be replaced. They don’t work in departments disproportionately, always increasingly, staffed by contingent faculty, with administrators who seem more content each year to relegate English teaching entirely to contingent labor. There are no assistant professorships because administrators can’t replace positions in English departments because English majors are down because English classes do not sufficiently enroll. Even large English departments with significant institutional inertia are nonetheless shrinking, fast, with no signs of reverse. I worry frequently that my generation of English faculty will be the last, and it seems many in the public and in some legislatures would be thrilled to wave goodbye.

After all, English contributes nothing to the economy, right? English majors spend too much money on their degrees only to work as baristas…right? Everyone know this to be true, because it’s just about the only thing said about English majors on television, in movies, and on the radio. It’s the prevailing narrative about the field, and it looms in every conversation between parents and children about college (and beyond). It creeps into each advising session where students sketch their four-year curriculum. It hangs over every decision whether to click “enroll” in that Woolf class that sounds so interesting but seems so impractical. It’s the reason, I suspect, the New York Times headlines a story “Want to Search Earnings for English Majors by College? You Can’t” when the story is about an inability to search earnings by any major, not just worrisome English. And enrollments are down, and majors are way down, and we probably don’t need to fill that faculty line, and departments atrophy.

I’m writing about all this one year after my Twitter exchange because Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed reposted an article yesterday—also written in 2016—that handily dismantles the English major barista myth—and recalled the exchange to my mind. Judging by the response to my tweet about the article, Robert Matz’s debunking of the barista myth resonated with many others. In short, that little fact we all know about English majors, that steady drum beat warning parents and students away, away, away: it simply isn’t true. I want to quote from Matz’s piece at some length, because these points bear repeating in detail:

According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.

When we look at mature workers, the data bear out a broader observation: majors in the humanities and social sciences take a little more time to find their career footing, but then they catch up with and sometimes exceed in salary earnings the graduates with more professional degrees. For degree holders ages 27 to 66, the percentage of graduates in English working in food service professions for some time during this 40-year period is 0.72 percent, or about one in 139 majors. Among all majors ages 27 to 66, the average is 0.48 percent. English remains higher than average, but not by much. The 0.24 point difference translates to an additional one in 417 chance of ending up at working in food service at some point between the ages of 27 and 66.

So where, in fact, do English majors end up working? The top occupations for English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 are elementary and middle school teachers, postsecondary teachers, and lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers. Indeed, English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.

These stats don’t mention “NPR Host” explicitly, but it’s worth noting that my Twitter interlocutors last December were English majors who had been quite successful in their professional lives. According to Matz’s work, in that respect they are not exceptions to, but exemplars of the rule (which makes a “self deprecation” defense ring somewhat hollow).

It seems like every few months, a new article emerges about “Why English Majors are the Hot New Hires”, claiming “That ‘Useless Liberal Arts Degree has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket”, or insisting “Tech Companies Need English Majors Just As Much As They Need Engineers.” There’s a subgenre of such pieces that are written by CEOs themselves, telling us “Why I Was Wrong About Liberal-Arts Majors” or explaining why “I’m still hiring more humanities majors than STEM grads.” The existence of this genre shows us, perhaps, how fully we have embraced the myth that only STEM majors are employable. We require constant reassurance from those actually making hiring decisions that the humanities might, in fact, matter. And though such pieces appear cyclically, they barely nudge the needle toward genuine support of majors like English. Higher education administrators may approvingly post such articles on social media, but when budgets are decided the humanities get cut, again and again.

This is not to say that no onus rests on English Departments to appeal to today’s students. No discipline can expect to thrive simply because of tradition. To be frank, the English major doesn’t have a very long tradition on which to depend. English language and literature have only been major university subjects since the late nineteenth century—give or take a decade, depending on the university—and they very well could disappear in the mid-twenty-first. I agree strongly with Andrew Goldstone’s point—a small moment in a larger, essential argument about the job market for PhDs in English—that

It would be easier to make this case [for scholarly research in the field] if English studies were not so largely divorced from rhetoric and composition, media studies, and communication studies, and as a result unable to convincingly claim a monopoly on reproducing, studying, and advancing written culture as a whole, or, if you prefer, literacy broadly understood. (This would make the relation of creative writing to English more intelligible too.) What we have left ourselves with instead is a residual version of literariness, typified by novels and lyric poetry, whose value as cultural capital is now quite limited, no matter how many heartfelt appeals we make to cultivating empathy for the Other or critical sensitivity to language. We need a shared understanding of the subject matter which is less liable to make English into a kind of moral finishing school or, worse, luxury pastime for those who can afford such things.

I would argue the broad trends in literary research have been toward more capacious approaches to written culture, but those trends have largely not filtered down into the undergraduate curriculum, which largely rests on period and author courses not unlike those offered decades ago. We could do much more to craft curricula that more readily hook into contemporary media and current debates, and help students grasp how their understanding literacy, broadly construed, gives them much to say about a wide range of cultural phenomena, far beyond—though still including!—novels and poems. My own teaching is deeply invested in helping English majors and graduate students gain greater capacity for thinking with and about technology. English majors can be remarkably creative and keenly critical working with technology, and I believe my field can do a much better job inculcating an engaged technical practice rooted in the historical technologies of our field, such as books, rather than championing a vaguely bookish technophobia. To think about human flourishing and social justice today requires both practical and intellectual engagement with technology. We need the critical and creative capacities of English majors distributed liberally across the technical fields.

Beyond such introspection, though, the fact is that English Departments are going to need a lot of help if we want students to recognize the value of studying the subject even as they (rightly) look with terror at the post graduation job market, as their parents ask yet again if that major is really the best idea right now, as universities cut humanities programs one by one, as politicians deride the arts and humanities and seek to cut programs, and yes—I’m going to be humorless again—as even the most well meaning allies make joke after joke about hapless English majors. No single English major joke damages anyone. Even the vast constellation of English major jokes alone cannot kill a discipline; there are broader cultural forces at work. Taken together with those other forces, however, English major jokes amplify the steady drum beat denigrating the field and those who would choose it. We are caught in a negative feedback loop that could be broken.

What English (and the wider humanities) will need is real, direct, and forceful advocacy. We need colleagues willing to structure curricula that encourage students across the university to take our courses. We need more than vague bromides about the value of “critical thinking”: we need instead to insist that STEM alone is increasingly insufficient precisely because computing increasingly influences every aspect of our personal, social, and civic lives. We need to ask seriously whether giving students college credit for work done in advanced placement courses in high school—which allows many college students to avoid English, History, and language classes entirely—really serves the best interests of those students or the public sphere. And yes, those who care about the humanities might, in this moment when they are so fully under siege, consider forgoing the English major jokes. They’re pretty tired anyway.

Because this conversation isn’t really about jobs. As Matz argues in the piece that started me on this reflection,

English majors achieve successful careers, as the data show. That we consign them, in the myth of the English major barista, to a permanent life in food service says less about them and more about us – about how afraid we have become of defying the market imperative to maximize profit, the single force, apparently, by which we are now supposed to guide our lives.

Every English major joke is a small concession to the same logic that leads administrators to trim humanities programs, or leads lawmakers to strike the NEA and NEH from the budget as wasteful, though these offices claim at best fractions of fractions of our larger national expenses. As I’ve written in an earlier reflection on humanities funding and Emily St. John Mandel’s beautiful novel, Station Eleven,

There’s a foundational defense of the arts and humanities that we ignore when we concede economics as the only premise to the argument. Discovery is intrinsic to human flourishing. This is to my mind the best reason to defend—and to fund—the arts, the humanities, or, for that matter, space exploration. We are never content with “that’s just how it was,” “that’s just how it is,” or “that’s just how it will be.” We are a curious species. We want to see more, to learn more, to understand more…Arts and humanities enrich not—always, or only—our coffers, but our culture, and this is a fundamental good worth defending. They do this for those who make their careers working in the arts, but they do this too for people who make their careers in science and technology. They do this for people who believe their lives should comprise more than work. They do this for people who want the work they do to be meaningful and to persist beyond their short lives. They do this for people who want to live, not merely survive. Because survival is insufficient.

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist—he wrote at the end of a long alarm—I genuinely fear that English major jokes may cease to be funny because they will have no referent. To ensure that does not happen, we might in the meantime default to full-throated endorsement rather than fearful cynicism.

I should add in closing that I am not arguing that current (or even recent) English majors must forgo English major jokes. The students who choose English today, despite the weight of their entire society pushing them in any other direction, tend to be pretty incredible folks. They are smart, delightfully contrarian, and refreshingly sensitive to the societal implications of language and literature, in the broadest conception of each. If these wonderful people want to indulge in some self deprecation, more power to them. They’ve earned it.