yellow tassel

Letter from an English Department on the Brink | Sarah Blackwood | The New York Review of Books

By Sarah Blackwood, April 2, 2023

At the English department I chair, our major has grown by more than 40 percent in the last two years. We are being driven to the edge of extinction anyway.
Illustration by Gustave Doré

I write to you with news about the state of the English major at one non-elite, midsize, regional comprehensive private university in New York City.

At Pace University, where I am currently chair of the English department, the major has grown by more than 40 percent in the last two years, to around 150 students. Every year we teach some 1,600 students—majors and non-majors—in seminars and workshops on literature, creative writing, and linguistics, in addition to the five thousand we teach in composition. That’s, give or take, $30 million of credit hour revenue per year.

Our students are immersed in a curriculum that emphasizes civic engagement, creativity, and both the canon and those texts and subjects that have been marginalized by that canon. Many students research issues of local importance to our campus: the community of Black theater professionals that thrived around the corner in the 1820s, the more recent anti-gentrification movements helmed by Chinatown artists, writers, and activists.

An introductory literary studies course examines changing ideas about who and what literature is for; it culminates with students working with the Bowery Residents’ Committee to organize a book drive for our unhoused downtown neighbors. Around 40 percent of our majors and alumni are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or Asian/Pacific Islander, and many of them are first-generation college students. Excellent writers and communicators with honed skills in analysis and critical thinking, they’ve gone on to gainful employment in publishing, the arts, media, business, education, law, and the nonprofit sector.

Last summer, an alumna was profiled by The New York Times for her feminist video game design, much of which she credits to her poetry education. An alumnus who works as a senior editor at a big five publisher is, at the time of this writing, featured on a billboard in Times Square.