When West Virginia University was established in 1867, only five majors were offered: classics, science, philosophy, pre-med and modern literature.
Despite other English programs throughout the country reducing their literature requirements, WVU’s Department of English offers more options than ever in its efforts to provide flexibility for students.
Over the last 150 years, the modern literature major has evolved into the Department of English, which now offers three areas of emphasis: literary and cultural studies, creative writing, and professional writing and editing — as well as interdisciplinary minors in medieval studies and medical humanities.
Despite the two additional foci, the study of literature remains the core of the Department of English.
“Even with the additional areas of emphasis and minors available, the study of literature remains the core of the Department of English,” said Doug Phillips, professor and advising specialist. “Helping students learn how to read and interpret texts, and by extension what it means to be human, lays the foundation for everything else the Department prepares students to do, whether that’s writing poems or investigating how ideas about health and medicine are influenced by more than pure science.”
Studying literature is necessary for students within the creative writing and professional writing and editing foci.
“You can’t separate reading from writing,” said Laura Brady, professor and director of the Center for Writing Excellence. “When you begin to read in a way that you are thinking back, talking back and questioning the text, it’s the same action as writing. It’s the same creative impulse. As you read, you write.”
Students pursuing a literary emphasis are given the option of which historical literature, gender studies or multicultural literature and major author courses they take. If they are interested in more than one type of course, they can take more as electives. This allows students within the program to customize their degree to their interests and career goals.
“Although I enjoyed the required literature courses, my favorite classes were my electives that allowed me to explore new topics,” said Kalya Birnie, senior professional writing and editing student. “Electives like Native American Literature, Short Story and Novel, Pop Culture Literature and Horror Literature taught me how literature has changed throughout the years and helped me to become well rounded in English.”
English student Deni Remsberg has studied both creative writing and professional writing and editing to help her reach her career goals.
“My professional writing and editing courses have helped prepare me for different written communication within companies and have also given me hands on experience, such as editing articles for an online journal,” Remsburg said. “Even my creative writing classes have been helpful in preparing me for a career since they have allowed me to give feedback to others on their writing and story development.”
The number of students enrolled as English majors at WVU has decreased, with today’s enrollment down by 130 students compared to 10 years ago, but James Harms, professor and chair of the Department of English, said the trend is more of a “correction” than a decline.
“There were some really strange anomalies historically after World War II, then again related to cultural moments in time, but it hasn’t been a steady decline,” he said. “It’s been a roller coaster.”
In the next few generations, he added, students are going to be more interested in what the Department of English has to offer.
“They are going to recognize the overall value of a major in English,” Harms said. “They will be evaluating education for the sake of education, for fulfillment, for service and for reasons other than the purely practical.”
As evidence of the value of concentrated English study, the number of students enrolled in minors has increased in recent years.
“We have a lot of students that come from majors such as criminology, biology or communication studies who want to take the professional writing and editing minor,” said Nancy Caronia, professor and advising specialist. “They know that when they graduate, no matter what they are doing, they are going to need editing and publishing skills. We’re seeing an increase in both the minor and the major emphasis.”
Students that declare professional writing and editing as their emphasis are required to do an internship and professional poster presentation as part of their capstone, rather than create a collection of poems or a literary essay like creative writing students.
“Professional writing and editing students are more applied, they think about writing in terms of production and editing,” said Brian Ballentine, associate professor, associate chair and coordinator of professional writing and editing.
For her capstone, Remsberg interned with FiT Publishing, a publication within WVU’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.
“During my internship, I performed the exact tasks that I would do in future jobs,” Remsburg said. “I now have actual, tangible experience to list on a resume and to show employers. When I read job descriptions, I don’t feel any hesitancy about applying because I’ve performed the required tasks before.”