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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2023

In defense of the English major

Last Wednesday, Middlebury attempted to eliminate the creative nonfiction position from the English department. Thanks to the efforts of faculty, students and staff, the position will remain on a conditional basis, but the college’s actions reflect a concerning set of shifting priorities for an institution that professes to “inspire our undergraduates to grapple with challenging questions about themselves and the world,” and “foster the inquiry, equity, and agency necessary for them to practice ethical citizenship at home and far beyond our Vermont campus.” Middlebury’s attack on the Creative Writing Program is but one piece in a larger national picture, in which the humanities face a concentrated rollback

This winter, The New Yorker published a searing indictment of the state of the American English major. The statistics in the piece are alarming: in the past decade, the study of English and History at the collegiate level has declined by a full third, while humanities enrollment overall has declined by 17 percent. The trends of this decade are so alarming because they represent a genuine sea change; for the first time in history, the number of graduating English majors no longer correlates with the health of the economy, meaning that even when the economy began to recover after the 2008 recession, the number of English majors continued to decline. 

At the time I read the article, it could not have felt less like my reality. I was studying English at Trinity College, Dublin, one of the oldest universities in the Western world, and one which prides itself on the strength of its English department. For the first time in my life, I was at a university where, when I told people I studied English, instead of asking me why or assuming I must be considering law school, people commended me. When I walked across the same stones as Wilde, Stoker, Beckett and Rooney (just to name a few), how could I doubt the vitality of my major for a moment? 

Then I returned home. 

I chose to study abroad at Trinity College Dublin for the same reason I chose to attend Middlebury. Since the age of eighteen, I have known I wanted to be a writer. When I looked at colleges, I looked first to the strength of their English and Creative Writing programs. Schools were eliminated from my list if I felt their Creative Writing program to be too meager. I did not want to enroll in a school where creative writing was a supplementary concern. I wanted to land in a place where the study of creative writing and English were at the heart of the academic project.

For a long time, I thought Middlebury was such a place. 

After all, where better to write prose than in the shadows of Frost’s green mountains and the vaunted Bread Loaf? 

When I visited Middlebury, I sat in on an English class. By a stroke of coincidence, the students were reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. As the sun shone through the full windows of the Axinn classroom, I fell in love, enraptured by the intelligent observations of the professor and his students, and by all of Middlebury’s promises that might lie before me. 

And it has fulfilled many of those promises. I have been lucky to learn from some of the finest and most accomplished professors in the field, my fellow students delight me with their enthusiasm and the strength of their analysis, and my time as a reader and an intern with The New England Review is an opportunity for which I will be grateful for the rest of my life. 

However, the strength of the English department students and faculty cannot compensate for the lack of sufficient institutional support. 

The ethical importance of creative nonfiction has never been more self-evident. Contemporary memoirists like Cathy Park Hong and Hua Hsu produced stunning works that refined the possibilities of the genre and our notions of empathy. Without journalists such as Ronan Farrow and Patrick Radden Keefe, so much colossal tragedy might remain opaque. This is to say nothing of the tremendous essayists at work at The New Yorker and The Atlantic or the countless writers that taught themselves to write at the foot of Joan Didion. 

For any school that aims to take itself seriously as an intellectual heavyweight, eliminating creative nonfiction is a destructive decision. For Middlebury, it is an identity crisis. Creative writing has been central to Middlebury’s curriculum for decades. For 98 years, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference has hosted esteemed and aspiring nonfiction writers. And for 223 years, Middlebury has taught English. This is a genealogy more far-reaching than many of the rapidly expanding STEM departments at Middlebury can boast.

If an institution will not allocate sufficient money to one of its most historically prestigious departments then can it still be said to have the liberal arts, and even education itself, in mind? 

There are facts that I can offer you. Humanities majors are more likely to hold leadership positions in the workforce, John Legend and Sally Ride were English majors, reading fiction is linked to higher empathy rates and social intelligence, and AI might write novels of code but it will never write Hamlet

But this is the parlance of the anti-humanities, of trying to argue by way of “objectivity” when what I want to speak to you of is the soul. 

In their course of study, English majors embark on rigorous academic interrogations while also attending to the ripples of feeling in a comma or a line of prose. Reading and writing have made me a more porous individual. Not only have I become more sensitive to the beauty of the written world, but also to the affecting simplicity of the natural world. I see poetry in Faulkner’s prose just as much as I see it in the soft light that falls on campus right before sunset. 

While it would be remiss for me to imply all Middebury students would benefit from a career in creative writing, I maintain there is something essential to the discipline that moves the soul of the English major as well as the Biology major. I know this because the waitlists for my creative writing courses are always packed not only by the usual suspects, but also by students who have never written creatively and feel compelled to try and give word to the story that lives within each of us. 

Under the new terms set by Middlebury, the English department has two years to propose a long-term inclusion of the creative nonfiction position. I implore the college to be responsive to creative nonfiction’s essential benefit; failing to invest in creative nonfiction will deprive prospective writers and prospective consultants of an essential opportunity to both articulate their inner selves and to dream. 

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The strength and history of Middlebury’s creative writing program should cement it as one of the premier programs in the country. To axe a central facet of the department, whose budget should frankly be doubled, is not only a deep betrayal of the arts, but also of the college’s intellectual commitment.

And the institution should expect the next great crop of writers to apply elsewhere.

Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.