With the tightening of the academic job market and the rapid-fire emergence of new technologies, some say the time has come for a field like English to quietly fade into the background in favor of more practical STEM fields. We explored the value of an English degree with Mark Christian Thompson, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Krieger School’s English department, who specializes in the interrelatedness of African American expressive culture and European thought.
Are English and other humanities fields still relevant? In what ways?
I have a very English-specific take on this which can be applied to the wider humanities. There’s a confusion that sets in early in this conversation about the humanities’ sustainability, and that is just in terms of the definition of what that means. Not the degree, but what the study of English literature actually entails.
The critical tools
If I could provide a simple but somewhat provocative definition, English literature would be the critical reflection on a narrative that says it’s false but presents itself as true. And in some way, shape, or form, literature always presents itself as true. Even the most abstract, modernist piece of writing says it has some truth value to it. But it also is always clear about the fact that it’s fiction. Or that a poem is within a fictive space.
So, the critical tools that one has to learn in an English course, or even while studying the humanities more generally, have to do with the identification of false narratives, critical reflection on false narratives, and proposing a way to extract that truth from a false narrative.
When you put it like that, it starts to become fairly obvious what the merit of that type of study is, because English and the humanities are not really about edification or seeing how resplendent the human spirit is, although that’s certainly part of it.
Defining the problem of an English degree’s value
The second problem in the debate is: Who is defining that we have a problem? For those who are outside the humanities or English, it’s fairly simple: Reading House of Mirth might not have the same value as learning how to build an engine. And that’s a hard one to overcome, but I think the first part of our discussion addresses why you might want to read House of Mirth. But from within English, we maybe have a greater problem. Is it worthwhile to study Native Son instead of The Sun Also Rises?
I don’t think you’d have too many takers who would say, “What’s the value of studying Native Son?” because within the fictive space that literature opens up, it also opens up horizons, perspectives, that help us in our quest to be better citizens, to understand each other, in ways that we can’t otherwise attain, either through isolation or lack of opportunity. Sometimes literature in its most sophisticated form is the only opportunity for many students to think about these issues and to talk about them in a safe space.
It’s learning to be an effective citizen in dealing with information, with narratives; learning how to recognize when they’re true and when they’re false, learning how to compare them with other narratives of the same sort, and to make a decision about them.”—Mark Christian Thompson
It sounds like narrative is what positions English so well to grapple with issues and information. How does it do that?
What English provides is a narrative space in which issues from other disciplines start to reflect one’s actual lived experience in some way, whether in a realist sense or something a bit more abstract. It provides a way to synthesize—it’s a good synthetic space, the literary space—these interests and new communicative and critical tools and try them out and see how they work in one’s own life and in the social space of the classroom.
This narrative has to suit the subjective needs of its reader/narrator while retaining a sense of generality and relatability. Literature relates. This means that the literary narrative places the student at the center of an objectively produced drama—or comedy, to be sure—that can then be shared intersubjectively and intellectually. Literature produces common ground. It continues to narrate long after it has been written, in what we are able to make of it, individually, and as a community.
When you went into the field, did you know that that’s what English would mean to people?
No. I don’t have a degree in English. My undergraduate degree was in art history, and my PhD was in comparative literature, which is close enough. My interest wasn’t necessarily pedagogical engagement, primarily, but it’s also something that we’re all deeply invested in. Pedagogy’s become crucial just to remaining vital and to feeling connected over the years, to the point where it’s extremely important to me.
And when I had to think about it in terms of “what is your approach, what’s your classroom philosophy, what does it mean to you to teach,” suddenly I started to think about these things. So it was almost overnight, very early in my career, there was an aha moment in the classroom where I had an exchange, and I said, “This is it. This is what we do, aside from the more ivory tower type of stuff. This is what we can do.”
What’s the career value of an English degree?
There is evidence of long-term income parity between English majors and STEM majors. But also, while there is no job that says “English” aside from English teacher or professor, there are jobs such as lawyer, or any of the professional degrees that don’t involve highly specialized training, and many students use the English degree as a type of de facto pre-law degree or as a way to move into something else, because the English degree is protean, in a sense. In learning this basic set of critical skills, one can then apply it to many other analytical jobs that don’t necessarily have their own major, but still seek these types of skills.
In your 11 years at Johns Hopkins, what changes have you noticed about English students?
Around the time I arrived, we started to see an increase in the number of majors and enrollments—though our numbers never fluctuate too wildly—followed, about five years ago, by a decrease, that then started to go steadily up again.
We’re seeing a sort of seesaw that is taking students along with whatever happens to be going on at the moment, which tells me that there is a basic number of students who always have this interest. But if you want to move beyond that, it’s generally because the major is also very responsive to what’s going on in the world at the time. We’ve found that when there’s been acute crisis—be it the election, or any of the upheaval we’ve seen just in the last two years—that we see a rise in our enrollments, because students come looking for a place to start to think about these things in a different way, or to get some critical help in going through how they feel about it.
This isn’t to say that it’s an emotional encounter, although it can be, but it’s truly an analytical one: “What frames are available for me to think about what’s happening in the world? Because I’m at a loss right now, and I need some options.” I think they feel that there’s a set of electives, or when thinking about a minor field, that maybe in the past they would have gone elsewhere, and now they’re coming to English. We may not be their primary interest, but we are now something they feel they need to take a second look at.
When things are a bit more stable, I think there’s a correlation where we start to see enrollments drop, because the pressing need just isn’t there the way that it is otherwise.
How about changes in the department itself?
We do a lot for our undergrads, but I would like to see an even greater focus on undergraduate education. It may not be the case that most of our undergraduates are going on to PhD programs, but we are training them to do something important that will last the rest of their professional lives. We want to give a very strong grounding in the critical tools to sift through the mountain of information that we are now receiving.
When I was department chair for the last three years, I tried to be attentive to what the students themselves were asking for to see if we could meet that need. So, my way of trying to shape a curriculum runs along that line: not to make it the best course I ever took, but to try and shape the course to the need of the moment, to have it be something a bit more malleable in presentation.
That helps a lot because right now the students talk to each other in unprecedented ways, and the word about your course or about the English department can get out and the results are immediate. There’s an immediacy to what we’re seeing in the classroom that maybe we could never have had before, and so we can intervene much more directly than in the past, and I would urge humanities departments and programs to avail themselves of opportunity. I think they’ve been doing a good job so far.
How we view these issues
Part of thinking about these issues the way we’ve been talking about them, but also in shaping a syllabus or discussion topics or use of media in the classroom—which has always been important but is important now more than ever, because it’s really a matter of whether you have your audience or not at a certain point—the questions and presentations and the types of texts we read can truly be shaped by the moment.
It might mean taking a second or third look at one’s usual field of interest and saying, “What am I missing? Is there another way I can talk about this? Do I have to talk about it just this way?” It’s not a retraining—but it’s necessarily a refocusing—on things that one’s looked at for 20 years or so in the same way.
I think that refocusing has been really important for a lot of people. You see it happening, sort of organically, in some intellectuals rethinking what they’re doing so they can really speak to the moment. A rigidity in thought would be exactly the wrong approach right now.
Aside from the classroom mechanics of how I incorporate these apps and materials into my teaching style, which was crafted 25 years ago when none of these things existed, the other thing would be not to be afraid to try something new. So if I wanted to teach The Sun Also Rises, to try to think about it in the way that makes it the most relevant for today, I don’t want to go in with a set script that will be of interest to no one right now.
How our department works with students
I think students need to know some basic things about any particular work, but from that point on, after that’s already established, we need to work with today and with who’s in the classroom at the moment. And that raises a set of critical questions which lead us back to our original discussion, which was how we define the humanities from within, which has to be lurking in the background of every classroom from now on.
About three years ago, just for the sake of our own thinking about hiring needs and what we might want to do in the future, I tried to be a statistician, to some extent, and do a quantitative analysis of the fields that had job offers in them for new PhDs over the most recent 10-year period.
And what I found is that the types of interests that our students are coming to us with now didn’t just appear in 2020, that they had been building for quite some time, longer than four or even eight years ago, and that they have had an almost reflexive effect on the job market, because universities respond to this. They ask, “What do our students want to learn about?” and so I don’t see this changing anytime soon. With luck and perseverance, things will get better than they were in 2020, and we’ll see some return to something recognizable if not the same, but these interests will remain, only grow stronger.
What would you say to a student considering the study of English?
The outcome in that thought is: “Will I get a job, and how much money will I be able to make?” But the outlook for the outcome is not necessarily rosier from the other side. It doesn’t diminish your opportunities to get an English degree, but one doesn’t have to make an either/or choice. Especially at a place like Hopkins, I’m not asking students to do extra work; many of them seem to be double majors anyway. And certainly, we’ll settle for a minor. What I’m suggesting is merely take the courses or at least try, because it’s important that we pick up some of these critical tools, not because an English professor is somehow a superior mind in possession of some holy truth about the human spirit, but because we’re all facing the same confusion, and there is a way to sift through this and to know what’s a fact, what’s not a fact, or how do I recognize in my life if something really looks like a fact and maybe isn’t. That’s what an English class might be able to teach.