By Emma Way
Editor in Chief
Every year the president of the U.S. gives a status update to Congress and the American people with a State of the Union address—but now we shift the focus to the humanities nationwide and in particular, writing at Washington College.
Writing at WC
WC’s literary tradition is evident across the board, from a curriculum that stresses writing with required writing intensive courses and first-year courses like English 101 and GRW to the esteemed Sophie Kerr prize. Programs for writers abound with offerings including the Poetry Club, “The Collegian,” the Kiplin Hall trip, “The Pegasus,” internships and more.
Between attending Literary House events, completing classwork, participating in a multitude of clubs, and maybe even blogging for fun, students are spread thin. “There are so many student opportunities on campus—it’s an embarrassment of riches really,” said Dr. Kathryn Moncrief, chair of the English department. “Students have a lot of choices to make with how they’re going to spend their time.”
With only so many hours in a day, students make decisions, leading some student-run organizations to suffer more so than others. The Writers’ Union, for example, is on hiatus according to Dr. James Hall, associate professor of English. He said that they plan to recharge next semester.
Senior Rachel Brown leads “The Collegian” team as Editor-in-Chief but has noticed the staff shrinking over her time at WC. “We’re having a hard time getting and keeping staff writers,” she said. “When I was a staff writer, I think we had maybe five or six and now we have three.”
Brown chalks the fluctuations up to normal cycles of varying student interest. “I think writing is a big draw for this school,” she said. “I hope that people are not just losing interest in writing as a whole.”
A War on Humanities?
Humanities as a whole—including disciplines like philosophy, English, and history—have seen a nationwide decline thanks to the great STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) push. In 2014, the humanities hit a record low in America, making up only 6.1 percent of all bachelor’s degrees according to Humanities Indicators.
“There’s a lot of pressure to figure out what you’re going to do after college. The STEM sciences look more like sure bets,” Dr. Moncrief said.
English has not seen a significant decrease at WC in fact the creative writing major remains the College’s most popular one by nearly double the runner-up. In his 40 years at WC, Dr. Richard De Prospo, professor of English and American studies, has only seen a surge in quality among student writers. “The quality of student writing has improved, but the problem may be there’s a war against the humanities now,” he said.
“Even students coming to WC, which has the reputation of being a writer’s college, have been told by the media, by their parents, by so-called opinion leaders that you’re going to be homeless if you major in the humanities,” Dr. De Prospo said. “In fact it’s actually not true.”
There’s a stereotype that English majors will not see the immediate economic success of their math and science peers. Although there is a gap, according to “Inside Higher Ed,” it is not as significant as one may think. Those with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities see about a 5.4 percent rate of unemployment following graduation, compared to 4.6 percent for other degrees. This figure drops to 3.1 percent, lower than the 3.4 percent for other degrees, with advanced degrees. Salaries for humanities graduates are about $7,000 lower than those with another degree but are still significantly higher than the median salary levels for all Americans.
Despite the push for more STEM sciences, the value of a liberal arts and humanities-based education persists in the workplace and in life. New York Times contributor Arnold Weinstein wrote in his editorial, “At a time when the price of a degree from elite institutions is well over six figures, fields such as literature and the arts may seem like a luxury item. But we may have it backwards. They are, to cite Hemingway’s title for his Paris memoir, ‘a moveable feast,’ and they offer us a kind of reach into time and space that we can find nowhere else.”
“We all share that liberal arts background that is teaching us to read texts closely, to think deeply, to argue effectively, to be able to write. Those are job skills that employers want,” said Dr. Moncrief. “Humanities look a little less lucrative on the surface, but those are skills you can go on and do anything with.”
In fact, many students have. Five students were accepted to top-tier Masters of Fine Arts in poetry programs last year. Senior Reilly Cox was accepted into Bucknell University’s summer writing program. Tim Marcin ’13 won the Sophie Kerr prize and is now a breaking news reporter for “International Business Times.”
In the words of President Barack Obama and many presidents before him, “The state of our Union is strong.” Many agree the same could be said about WC’s status as a writer’s college, but the state of humanities nationwide is largely uncertain.