The Last English Majors

Pace’s Pleasantville Campus in the Process of Phasing out its old English Degree in Favor of Writing and Rhetoric, which they hope will be more flexible and applicable beyond Pace

Emily Teixeira

In 2021, Pace’s Department of Writing and Cultural Studies on the Pleasantville campus officially launched a new major- Writing and Rhetoric– with the hope of offering students a new lens through which to study language, culture, and the art of the written word. According to Department Chair Robert Mundy, while the previously offered English degree focused heavily on the study of literature, this new degree will offer a different, broader approach.

“No longer are we thinking of English as literary history,” Mundy says. “Our research suggests that for these departments to flourish and evolve and to have some degree of value and continue to offer value, the degree has to expand. It’s evolved at this point to include things like cultural history, rhetorical analysis, creative and professional writing, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, decolonial studies, media studies, digital composition. There’s a whole world of studies that are under the umbrella of English.”

This change is several years in the making. Mundy and his colleagues in the department examined data from current job markets, the Modern Language Association, and other academic institutions in order to determine what sorts of programs, classes, and focusses would be most beneficial to Pace students both in the classroom and beyond. Their goal is to create a degree that will offer students flexibility to study that which interests them while ensuring that they will have marketable skills with which to find a job after graduation.

“There’s been discussion across academiawhat are the humanities, how do we keep the humanities relevant?” Mundy says. “There needs to be a balance between being creative and being lit savvy and being able to transfer these skills into the marketplace to be successful. We see that as a very important step in supporting students through their academic careers. It’s not simply about these four years at Pace, it’s about the trajectory that they set forth from those four years as part of the major.”

According to Mundy, the department’s research suggests that it is important for schools to focus on composition rhetoric and creative and professional writing. Mundy referred to today’s society as being “content driven” and talked about the demand for skilled writers and communicators in professional fields.

As of right now, there are still four students left on the Pleasantville campus still classified as English majors. However, Mundy says that in future semesters, all students who wish to enroll in the program will be classified as Writing and Rhetoric majors. The department intends to market this new degree as one based on flexibility. Students will have a set number of literature, rhetoric, and creative writing-based classes to take, and from there they can lean in the direction that best suits their needs and interests and tailor their courseload as such.

Mundy says that the Writing and Rhetoric program “by no means strays away from literature or that field of study. Instead, it’s evolved to think about literature, literacy, and language through all these different avenues and lenses that I think are really important.”

Despite this, two of Pleasantville’s last English majors, seniors Kayla Slusser and Samantha Diaz, have expressed concerns when it comes to finding the classes that they need to complete their degrees, and they do not feel as though the changes made within the department or their impact were properly communicated.

The old English degree required students to take a set number of classes with an LIT designation, but according to Slusser, there have not been enough upper-level LIT offerings available to her in recent semesters.

“Fall 2021 there was only one 300 level LIT class offered on the Pleasantville campus,” Slusser says. “I signed up for it, and then it got cancelled due to low enrollment. So that was really frustrating because I needed that class, and it was the only one, and I couldn’t take it. So then I had to work with my advisors, and I ended up finding a New York City class to replace it, and I had to attend it via Zoom, which no one wants to do. The professor was really accommodating because I couldn’t be there in person.”

Slusser says that without the ability to take city campus LIT classes online, she fears she would not be able to graduate on time.

Diaz has had to meet with her advisor several times a semester to review her options in order to guarantee that she is on the right track and taking the right classes.

“I’ve had to book a lot of meetings back-to-back just clarifying ‘this is what we went over last meeting, this is what we went over in the middle of the semester, this is what’s gonna happen next year, all these courses count, this course is definitely not where it needs to be’,” Diaz says. “Just making sure I repeat what I already know so that it’s clarified, and if there needs to be a correction, then in the future semesters, there’s a correction.”

Planning ahead has helped Diaz ensure that she is taking classes that will count towards her degree, however, sometimes changes are made midway through or towards the end of the semester, and she has to readjust her plans for registration.

Diaz has had to fill out exception waivers for certain classes in order to get them to count towards her degree. For instance, her “Shakespeare goes to the Movies” class, which was originally supposed to fulfill her Shakespeare/Author Course requirement, ended up not applying, so she filled out a form to see that it would.

“[The most frustrating part of this process is] the not knowing if in a few months the thing that once counted isn’t gonna count,” Diaz says. “Someone changed their mind and said ‘I know I waived this for you but you kind of need something else. It no longer fits here’.”

Meanwhile, Slusser, a dual degree student, has had to fill out exception waivers for some of her digital journalism classes, which she was unable to take because they conflicted with one of her English classes. There are more options available for her digital journalism degree, and she is more likely to find alternate classes that fit the requirements for journalism than she is for English. If it comes down to choosing between meeting a digital journalism requirement or meeting an English requirement, Slusser has to choose English.

Slusser has sought exception waivers for certain English requirements, such as the Shakespeare/Author course, but these waivers have yet to be approved.

According to Mundy, there will be several LIT courses offered in the spring: LIT 363 (Shakespeare Before 1600), LIT 342C (Studies in American Literature: August Wilson), LIT 349A (African American Drama), LIT 290R (Fairy Tales from Medieval to Modern), and LIT 275 (Disabilities Studies in Literature and Culture).

There are courses listed as ENG that can technically meet an LIT requirement, however, he understands that not everyone realizes that, and he encourages students to consult him and other faculty members within his department to help them navigate this part of the process.

“We are a department first and foremost about community,” Mundy says, “so if there ever is situations that arise where there is confusion or they don’t feel a class is available that needs to meet a requirement, my door is always open… the truth is, every one of the requirements of the previous degree are met by the courses we provide each semester, it just doesn’t always mean that you’ll be taking a course with a LIT designation to meet that requirement.”

Slusser, however, would personally prefer a focus on LIT-centered classes.

“My English degree isn’t what the English degree was supposed to be,” Slusser says. “For example, I need two diversity courses, but we haven’t really offered any, so I’m taking one this semester, but then I have to take an ENG class which isn’t part of my original curriculum, so I’m not getting an English major I’m getting more of a Writing and Rhetoric major, which isn’t what I really signed up for.”

The former English major capstone class, LIT 499 is no longer being offered, so in order to complete their degree, Slusser and Diaz will be taking ENG 499 instead. According to Mundy, these two classes are, in essence, interchangeable. Students will reflect on what they’ve learned over the course of their time in the program, consider their career trajectories, draft resumes and cover letters, and assemble writing portfolios.

“Next year, this process will change slightly,” Mundy says. “The department is moving to portfolio-based assessment, so students will add to this platform and reflect how the work meets learning objectives and determine transferrable skills throughout their time as undergrads. Students will continue forward with the professionalization workshop series that we began this year, so more attention will be paid to writing and revising resumes and cover letters throughout the undergrad program. The capstone will focus on pivoting to a professional portfolio.”

However, current English majors are not fully aware of what ENG 499 will entail, and Slusser confesses that she is a bit apprehensive about taking it.

“I haven’t really taken many ENG courses, but now I’m going to be forced to take an upper-level class with minimal experience there,” Slusser says. “It’s the capstone for the Writing and Rhetoric major, but I’m not a Writing and Rhetoric major, so why am I taking a capstone that’s not applicable to my own major? It’s like half English, half Writing and Rhetoric at this point.”

Both Slusser and Diaz wish that the changes taking place in the department had been communicated better from the start.

“I feel like there was a slight trickle of information that it’s leaving and that we would have to take other classes, and then, out of nowhere it was just like, it doesn’t exist,” Diaz says.

Slusser vaguely recalls getting an email informing her of Writing and Rhetoric’s existence but feels she hasn’t received enough specific information beyond that. She originally applied to Pace as an English and Communications major (which, according to Mundy, is a remnant of a time before communications was its own major in the MCVA department and has seen lower enrollment and attention in recent years) and was told over the course of several advisor meetings to switch to a dual degree of English and Digital Journalism. However, despite all these meetings, Slusser still did not feel adequately informed on how her choice of degree would affect her.

“I think in total I’ve spoken with four different advisors,” Slusser says. “It’s just frustrating that I just have to go to so many different places to get answers when no one told me what was going on. One of them told me to do the English major so I did it, but then I needed waivers and all these things all of the sudden, so it was more of a hassle on my part to stay ahead of it… I feel like I wasn’t told that they were fading it out when I switched to it, I was just told to switch to it, but then they stopped offering the classes. I wish they would have just told all of us English majors and minors that they were planning on phasing it out. They just said that they were introducing the Writing and Rhetoric.”

Mundy still expresses his wishes to support this campus’s last remaining English students as they navigate this process.

“Part of this process was ensuring that we can support the students of the previous degree as we go forth and unfold the new degree,” Mundy says. “We’ve been very much aware of the needs of our students; we have someone in our department who looks at students in our major across the different areas of specialties and makes us aware as we’re doing scheduling as to what students need in both programs.”

Mundy expresses gratitude for his colleagues in the Writing and Cultural Studies department and says that it is their well-rounded skillset that will help the department flourish going forward so that they may meet their goals and offer students a broad range of opportunities.

“We want to engage students on the campus and get them excited about the production of art and the creation of art, being a part of a community, being together on campus,” Mundy says. “This is an exciting time. I can’t be any more excited about what lies ahead, about the community that we’ve already built, about the faculty that is engaged in this project that is our department. We are really excited about what’s to come, and I don’t know how often that happens in one’s professional career that you get really excited again, and that’s where we’re at right now.”