Are We the Musicians on the Titanic?—"The End of the English Major”

Apr 2023
5-minute read

“I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up.”

—Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Dawson, “Titanic”

It does not matter how comfortable I am with my decisions to pursue a degree in the Humanities, I am still not at the level of confidence as the character Jack Dawson from the motion picture Titanic was, and the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen is still very much present. I was scrolling through Instagram as I often do in the afternoon when I came across a headline that immediately caught my attention. The title read, “The End of the English Major” by Nathan Heller from The New Yorker. While it’s not something I haven’t heard before, something compelled me to click and begin reading the article. The author did not pull any punches and began with the shocking statistic describing how “during the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third” (Heller). He adds, enrollment in the humanities has collapsed in colleges nationwide with examples like the University of Wisconsin at Steven Point “considering eliminating 13 majors, including English, history, and philosophy, for want of pupils” (Heller). After reading these few quotes from the article, I knew why I felt compelled to click. It’s the same fear that drives all those protagonists in horror movies to check inside the closet or in the forest for the unknown noise. As an English instructor in a community college and a PhD student in Rhetoric recently graduated with a degree in Philosophy, I can’t help but wonder what the future looks like for me and many of my colleagues in the same situation. I come back to the question posed by Heller in the article: “Do the humanities no longer have a place on campus?” or if as a Harvard English professor said, “We feel we’re on the Titanic.”

Even though the article seems to focus more closely on literature and history programs, I feel the decline of the English major is present in most if not all humanities’ programs. I believe part of the problem involves something even I have fallen prey to by avoiding having to explain to people what is it that an English major has to offer to campus or more broadly to academia. Last week I took an Uber rideshare to The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and like so many times before I was asked by my Uber driver, “What are you studying?” I responded cynically, “Hm . . . I study English.” In the past when I have said rhetoric or philosophy, people have questioned me on what those programs are about and what kind of careers to they lead up to. I said generally English because I was avoiding the questioning, but this time it didn’t work. My Uber driver continued to ask me if it was something specific in English. and I shyly said, “rhetoric.” He laughed and replied, “Oh, you like a challenge!” I smiled because I thought to myself, “Oh finally someone who understands the difficulties that come with these types of majors as well.” However, his next question made me realize he didn’t quite understand since he asked, “What kind of things can you do with that in the real world? Can you do translation? I hear those jobs pay really well.” As I often do in these situations, I simply nodded and wondered how many people were under that same assumption that the kind of work that we do or the education that is gained in the humanities has no direct impact in “the real world” and why that assumption extends to creating the idea that only education that can be translated to high monetarily value or social mobility is worth it. Those encounters, which are not rare, do make me feel displaced and make me question the irony of it all. We are the communicators, the writers, the rhetoricians, and yet something has gone terribly wrong with explaining to the world why we are important and what is it that we do. My encounter with the Uber driver is no exception.

Reflecting on the article and my experience with someone outside of academic, I think about my own feelings to the question regarding if humanities’ majors are the musicians of the Titanic. According to most accounts, the musicians of the Titanic played music intending to calm the passengers for as long as they possibly could before all went down with the ship. All the men were recognized for their heroism. I think back to the quote of the Harvard professor and wonder, what are we playing for? Are we trying to calm students down in the midst of dark times? Is our responsibility in most people’s eyes to calm students into thinking everything is fine and as long as they learn how to write they will find a job and everything will work out for them? Do the problems arise when we try to make more out of the fields in humanities? Do we face opposition when we try to redefine first year composition courses and curricula?

I align my views with M.J. Braun who believes we need to adopt the critical language of rhetoric in order to “produce writers who are cognizant of the social, cultural, and political economic relations embedded in these discourses [that actually circulate],” as opposed to preparing them to write what she calls the “pseudo genres invented for the classroom” (Braun qtd. in Horner and Lu 90). At the same time, my recent work trying to intertwine rhetoric and philosophy allows me to see and try to adopt ways in which these fields provide ways to reimagine not in terms of what is but in terms of what should be. Rhetorical education with an emphasis in ethics insists on educating students in order to advance their democratic agency and asks of students to question and “read and write against as well as with the grain of canonical texts . . . to pursue a range of possible meanings to be made of these texts” (Horner and Lu 480). In other words, writing instructors or English majors are not simply working towards calming students or preparing them for a future job. As James Slevin describes with the idea of “interpretive pedagogy,” teachers work “collaboratively with students and colleagues to interpret educational practices and to work for educational reform” (Slevin qtd. in Horner and Lu 486). I am in no way representative of all that is implied in the humanities, but from my perspective there is so much at stake if we lose programs and instructors seeking to find alternative, anti-racist, equitable, inclusive forms of teaching writing and composition. Although perhaps even without realizing it, this weblog post is me playing the violin.

Cheryl Glenn insists, “For rhetorical feminists, teaching is hope embodied. It is a forward-looking endeavor, one that has the power to change lives—our own, our students” (125). As a writing teacher, I think about this every time I step in the classroom space and I hope that my teaching practices respect students’ experiences and that students are able to navigate injustices by developing rhetorical agency. While I don’t think that’s a good response to someone asking me what I do as a humanities major, I do believe I need to embrace the uncertainty that we are facing and embody the uneasiness prompted by the question because what we do matters and daring to hope is necessary.

Written by Corina Lerma, Doctoral Teaching Fellow

The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Works Cited

--Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2018.

--Heller, Nathan. “The End of the English Major.” The New Yorker, 27 Feb. 2023, Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.

--Horner, Bruce, and Min-Zhan Lu. “Working Rhetoric and Composition.” College English, vol. 72, no. 5, 2010, pp. 470–494, Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.


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