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A New Kind of English Major: Editing, Writing and Media at Florida State University

October 14, 2019

Editing, Writing, and Media (EWM) is currently one of the three undergraduate majors offered by the English Department at Florida State University (FSU). Launched in 2010, EWM is the newest and largest of the majors, which include literature (recently re-branded Literature, Media, and Culture) and Creative Writing. FSU is a selective state institution (55,000 applications for a freshman class of 6,400) with most students seeing higher education as a pathway to professional employment. The idea of a liberal arts education remains at the core of the general education curriculum, though it’s lost on most students, parents, and politicians in the state. While most FSU students are relatively well prepared for college they would not in general be as academically inclined and curious as UC Berkeley students.

FSU’s English Department has a love-hate relationship with the EWM major. While some family see it as providing a rigorous rhetorical curriculum in historical and contemporary literacies, other faculty view it as a vocationally-driven major that concedes to students’ desire for more applied courses and professional development. The reality of the EWM major is that it contains elements of both theory and practice, a purposefully praxis-based curriculum. Courses such as Rhetoric, a survey course of the rhetorical tradition, and the History of Text Technologies lean toward the historical and theoretical while others courses such as Editing and Writing in Print and Online (WEPO) and Advanced Writing and Editing Workshop emphasize textual production even though all courses include theory. My favorite course to teach, Visual Rhetoric in a Digital Age, blends both as do many others. Faculty teaching these courses understand this negotiation more than faculty who don’t teach in the major.

To understand EWM in its current manifestation, it helps to know a little about it origins. Prior to the EWM major, the English Department at FSU had three graduate programs—literature, creative writing, and rhetoric and composition—but only two undergraduate majors, literature and creative writing. Literature was and remains the program with the most faculty, which translates to voting power. FSU’s Creative Writing program is one of the best in the country with workshops and course organized primarily around genre at the graduate and undergraduate levels. In developing EWM, the goal was not to create an undergraduate major for rhetoric and composition. Instead, we saw this an opportunity to develop a major that would draw on the strengths of all three programs in department and would help relieve some of the pressure on creative writing by attracting students who are interested in professional and technological applications of writing.

Thus, the initial curriculum for the EWM program included:

  • Three core courses: Rhetoric, WEPO, and History of Texts Technologies
  • Upper level electives (e.g., Visual Rhetoric, Adv. Editing, Rhetorical Theory and Practice)
  • An internship in editing and writing
  • A capstone course: What is a Text?

Despite questions of student interest, the major immediately attracted hundreds of students. Though our data base was painfully unable to give exact or consistent numbers, within a couple semesters upwards of 600-700 students declared EWM as their primary or secondary major. The immediate success (if success is measured by student interest) of EWM created needs and heightened tensions within the department. We scrambled to offer course courses, though, because they are at the junior level, advanced graduate students were allowed to teach many of these sections. We even experimented briefly with large lecture sections of certain courses with TA assistants to relieve some of the pressure until we could stabilize and meet student demand. Ultimately, though, we had to change the capstone course from a requirement to an elective because we didn’t have enough faculty to teach it.

Those early years in EWM were exciting but polarizing. Students were (and continue to be) drawn to the program based on a variety of interests. EWM students are interested in journalism, professional writing and editing, law school, media studies, and digital production. EWM fulfilled a range of felt needs for students at FSU, and the numbers have remained consistently strong. An argument against EWM was that it poached students from other English majors, both of which are in rapid decline. However, a recent survey of over half the EWM majors indicate that if the EWM program didn’t exist, the vast majority would not major in one of the other two English major. Instead, the EWM students would likely pursue communications, public relations, marketing, and business. 

While we continue to have some challenges with staffing, our problems now are more political than logistical. Those who did not like the idea of EWM from the outset are convinced that it undermines the English Department. Several times outspoken opponents of EWM have lobbied to change the curriculum to require EWM students to take more literature classes. The revised Literature, Media, and Culture is a healthy reaction to reimagining a curriculum that would speak to the needs and interests of contemporary students, even while we lament changes in the educational landscape nationally.

While there are vocal opponents of the major, many Literature, Media, and Culture and Rhetoric and Composition faculty work side-by-side delivering a rigorous praxis-based curriculum to talented students who have various purposes for studying in the major. While students may not be well prepared for literary analysis, they are better prepared for professional writing, developing video texts, designing websites, applying principles of rhetoric to social media and advertising, etc. The college Career Center claims that EWM is among the most successful majors in the college. And even the most skeptical faculty have to see that the English Department student credit hours, the primary metric for departmental funding, is stable only because of the thriving EWM program and a revision to our college composition curriculum in which the second writing course required of all students was moved to the sophomore level.

A few years ago the department chair—an early modernist in the Literature, Media, and Culture program—established an ad hoc committee in the department. We had no decision-making power, but we could study the major and make recommendations to the department based on our findings. It was the first time that the EWM program had that type of faculty oversight since its inception. Among the many tasks we assigned ourselves, the first goal was to collect information about the major: the students, the courses, the schedule, the faculty. As part of this effort we generated data for the past five years on the enrollments of every course in the EWM major: how many sections have been offered, how students have enrolled in each section, who taught each section, etc. This gave us a better sense of who had been invested in the program and what courses need the most attention. We also surveyed current students, asking a variety of question that include what attracted them to the major, what their experiences have been so far, what they’d like to see change, and what their satisfaction level is in the major. We believe these data are critical in communicating with faculty and administration alike since so much of the discourse around EWM over the past several years has been grounded in anecdotal evidence.

Our desire is for EMW to thrive in a healthy and diverse English Department. We understand that our local challenges are but one narrative in a much larger story of English majors across the country, one which generates reasonable fear and resentment. However, education changes; populations change; even English Departments change, or could change if we have a vision for what they can become. EWM has been an imperfect but emergent attempt to build on the strengths of the department in response to evolving demands in higher education. Much like in other arenas, it’s far easier to critique than create. As an EWM advocate, I’m aware of weaknesses in and challenges with the major, but EWM is a vision that will allow our department to remain healthy and flourish if we don’t undermine our own efforts.

 

About the Author: Michael Neal is an Associate Professor at Florida State University.