An English degree from Penn can get students anywhere. In recent decades, the English Department has graduated famous alumni such as Grammy-winning singer and 1999 College graduate John Legend, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and 1985 College graduate Jennifer Egan and Discovery Channel President and 1983 College graduate Rich Ross.
English was one of the top six College majors among the Class of 2014, and the department has made headlines for its number two ranking by College Factual, surpassed only by Georgetown.
Despite its success, the department is still evolving to offer majors and non-majors alike in a more interdisciplinary, hands-on experience. The ultimate goal of the changes, English Undergraduate Chair Michael Gamer said, is to provide a course of study that allows majors to pursue a wide variety of careers.
“We’ve become less of a books department; we’re a media and English department,” Gamer said. “We don’t just teach about books — we teach ancient manuscripts, and we teach digital media film, TV. The stuff we’re interested in is the stuff that’s happening now. ”
The English Department is remodeling itself through constant diversification of its course catalog — besides more traditional courses which primarily focus on literary analysis, students can take interdisciplinary courses like “Science and Literature,” “Literature and Law” and “Medicine and Literature.” In the future, the department will add additional courses that link English with other fields, including disability studies, environmental studies and business.
“On the one hand, English is a discipline. It is a discipline about how to interpret language, about history of that language, about the various institutions that have used that language,” Gamer said. “But a lot things that we target are by nature interdisciplinary … novels are about religion, politics, economics, gender, race, class.”
The department will also diversify its offerings with courses in Penn’s new psychoanalytic studies minor.
The program seeks to investigate the role and function of psychoanalysis through the lens of literature, history, health sciences and anthropology. The English Department will offer four of the 15 courses that align with the minor, and English professor Max Cavitch, who teaches “Literatures of Psychoanalysis,” said the minor may attract students from traditional STEM majors.
“We’re interested in bridging humanistic and scientific disciplines, and psychoanalysis is one of those fields that does an excellent job of that. It can percolate outside of the English Department and into other departments and to people who are not necessarily interested in being English majors,” Cavitch said. “We’d love to have more students take courses that might enhance their own program.”
In order to prepare and challenge students within the major, the English Department has also introduced a junior research seminar, through which students immerse themselves an independent project.
“It’s a nice way to transition from the normal five to ten page papers kids are writing in the English Department,” said English Undergraduate Advisory Board Chair Katie Antonsson, a College senior. “It’s sort of testing the waters before you actually jump into writing a 50, 60 page research paper that’s going to take a year and a half of your life.”
Beyond new course offerings, the English Department will continue to focus on students’ perennial concern of post-graduation employment. After the 2009 financial crisis, the department witnessed a roughly 10 percent drop in enrollment, with 117 majors in the Class of 2010 compared to the 131 majors the previous year. However, Gamer said that enrollment has bounced back in the past two years and is continuing to grow.
Part of this rebound in numbers may be due to the measures the department has taken to alleviate student concerns about job prospects. Most recently, the department revamped its alumni database, which students can access on the department website to connect with nearly 600 alumni working in different industries.
“Technology might impact the form that language takes,” Gamer said, adding that the department launched a new website at the end of February.
Professors and students within the department also say that English majors shouldn’t be worried about finding a career — their studies give them versatile skills that employers value.
“[The major] cultivates a sense of empathy so that you can better understand the human experience and be a better teller of human stories,” Gamer said.
Employment data shows that this type of skill has real worth: according to USA Today, the average mid-career annual salary for Penn English majors amounts to $90,000.
“It may not be the strict Wharton OCR track, but at the end of the day the most important thing is that we know how to write, and that is such a valuable skill,” Antonsson said. “You’re able to think critically, you’re able to think analytically, you’re able to research — components that are necessary for such a wide array of jobs.”
Gamer added that a degree in English is applicable to a variety of fields. “Whether you are in a boardroom, or a classroom or a courtroom, it’s about language,” he said. “And if you can analyze complex language, whether it’s ‘Madame Bovary’ or the annual report for a company you are working at, you can have some pretty powerful things to say.”
In late February, an English Department alumni panel brought panelists from a variety of fields to campus, including lawyers, speechwriters and academics. The panelists agreed that their English degrees allowed them to pursue their diverse passions and obtain rewarding careers.
“People don’t have faith in humanities. They think that if you don’t have a job in math, then you’re completely useless,” 2013 College graduate, English major and Google employee Oliver Pare said. “It’s a real shame that people haven’t recognized values in English and other humanities fields.”
From introducing new courses to revamping its online resources, the English Department’s makeover aims to educate its students like never before.
“We try to train people to be articulate and to write well,” Gamer said. “We try to train people to be charming.”
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