With the effects of an economic recession and pushy parents nudging students to consider majors perceived as offering skills directly applicable to the job market officials say fewer students are enrolling in majors like history or English. But in an effort to maintain enrollment and reverse the trend, professors and administrators are trying to remind students of the value of a liberal arts degree.
The history department has seen a recent drop in student concentrators, according to Kathy Evaldson, undergraduate program and student services coordinator, for the history department. Though the department doesn’t directly assist in career counseling — it sends students to the Career Center — she said officials still actively encourage students to think more openly about future goals.
“I’ve been in touch with a lot of alumni,” Evaldson said. “I ask them what they’re doing, and pass that information on to current students, just to let (the students) know that the sky’s the limit.”
Evaldson said the history program teaches concentrators how to think critically, analyze texts, research and write — skills that are important in many fields. She added that history concentrators go on to a variety of careers, including law, medicine, museum preservation and everything in between.
“We had a student a few years ago start his own home health care business, and I’ve seen his billboards out on I-94. He’s entrepreneurial,” she said.
Susan Parrish, the interim director of undergraduate studies for the Department of English Language and Literature as well as an associate English professor, echoed Evaldson’s sentiment, saying English concentrators learn skills that are applicable to many careers. According to Parrish, many students who major in English have an interest in fields such as teaching, publishing and journalism, especially since the University doesn’t have a specific school or concentration for journalism.
“When people think ‘English’ they think about things like book clubs, which are associated with the after hours of work,” Parrish said. “But in truth, you can build a career out of almost anything the English department offers.”
However, Parrish said the perception that English is a more recreational major has led to a drop in enrollment. She added that the department is looking for ways to maintain and attract more concentrators.
“We are actually currently undergoing some curricular changes to address that because we don’t want to lose any concentrators,” Parrish said. “We’re doing a lot of soul-searching about why numbers in our concentration are going down.”
The department has already implemented a few changes to address the issue. This year for the first time, two peer advisors are available to help students. According to Parrish, the English department hopes that the student peer advisors will make students feel more comfortable coming into the main office and asking questions about the department or major.
“We’re trying to make students feel completely welcome,” she said.
LSA senior Laura Winnick is one of the department’s two peer advisors. She said she hopes to take her English degree to “spaces where creativity is important and prized,” including classrooms and non-profit organizations. She explained that despite misconceptions, English is extremely practical beyond the realms of teaching and writing.
“Even if a job position does not directly involve inscription, the crafting of language is crucial to the act of arguing, the art of being persuasive, and the ability to present oneself,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “This is what the English major provides its students with — the ability to write and the challenge to write well.”
In addition to learning valuable skills, majors in the humanities also give students the opportunity to learn about a subject they’re passionate about, according to Tim Dodd, the director of the Newnan LSA Academic Advising Center.
“I want people to divorce the notion of major from the idea of vocation,” Dodd said. “Your major should be the content area that spurs your brain to be smart, so you might as well choose the content area that you like, since all the majors make your brain smart.”
Dodd added that regardless of their major, students gain useful tools for a variety of jobs.
“All majors bequeath the same things,” Dodd said, “Content may be different, but the skills that you use to acquire that content are pretty similar across all majors.”
LSA senior Marissa Kresch said she hopes to use her major in philosophy and her minor in Program in the Environment to become involved in urban farming and the ethics of food quality, but she said she thinks philosophy is more than just a path that leads to a specific job.
“If you come to college and view college as a professional training ground with no intention of becoming a professor or a philosopher, then I would say that philosophy is not practical,” she said. “But if you view college as preparation for the world or the impact you intend to make, then I say philosophy is a very practical major.”
Though Dodd noted the importance of finding a major that best suits one’s interests and talents, he says students shouldn’t be “mindless” about picking their major.
“Just waving a Michigan diploma doesn’t get you a job, but careful research does,” he said. “Going to the Career Center early and often does. It’s important to love your concentration, but also be very clear-headed and very informed about the particulars of future opportunities.”