Skills for Today’s English Major

Student studying outside.

It’s been eleven years since I completed my undergraduate education. The Internet had upended the music industry during that time, but not writing and publishing. The information economy was dwarfed by fears of Y2K, when airports would shutdown, power plants would go offline, and we’d all be waking up with a killer hangover. The term, web 2.0, did not yet exist.

I double majored in English with an emphasis on writing and Japanese Studies. My interest lay in writing and in that hallway of the humanities writing seemed more marketable than literature. Moreover, I viewed speaking Japanese as a key to a job either teaching or translating. There was no talk of online identities, social media, or content creation. Writing fell into the realm of fiction, poetry, essays, thought and research papers. The term content could easily be confused with the feeling I had reading fiction and writing short stories.

In that year after college, after moving briefly to New Zealand, returning to Northern Michigan and jobs working in a restaurant, a vineyard, a video store, and a medical library; I went on to graduate school to pursue a degree in creative writing. That was 2002 and through a class in digital humanities I got a glimpse of the need to develop technology skills.

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Student with iPad

Now, we are all content creators. We post things (text, images, videos, events) to Facebook, tweet about TV shows, check-in to bars, and broadcast our beliefs to anyone with an Internet connection. I have an issue with that word, content. In many ways I dislike it. It cheapens the creative process; it dehumanizes the humanities. However, it does provide an interesting point of entry. It’s not just friends, colleagues, or strangers with a shared interest who take in all of this stuff. It’s companies. It’s marketers. It is all of these organizations, which are not interested in your point of view, but in your demographic and the data you provide. Facebook ads are the perfect example, as anyone can create an ad and target it to whatever demographic information a user provides.

So, if we are all content creators, are we also all publishers to a degree? Sites like Tumblr and Facebook provide the platform, but there is not an editorial board or a specific person deciding what we post. We type something, hit post, and it’s published.

Blogs, like Mashable give a list of skills for journalists and there is a larger, more up to date list from College Media Matters. What I especially like is a quote from Miranda Mulligan. She said, “Our journalism pedagogy should inspire future digital journalists to be Internauts, to continually grow, constantly teaching themselves the newest storytelling tools and techniques, instilling processes for life-long learning.”[1]

But these posts focus narrowly on journalism students and not more broadly on English or creative writing majors. Are these skills relevant to a larger group of students? Is it important that students who focus on writing also know how to edit photos, weigh copyright issues, and design websites? I’m not arguing that students who major in English or creative writing should become journalists, but they do need to be able to compete in the digital world.

The world of writing and publishing has distinctly moved toward digital creation, consumption, and distribution. How does undergraduate curriculum adapt to this change? Or, should undergraduate curriculum change to reflect this shift?

Further Reading

[1Miranda Mulligan: Want to produce hirable grads, journalism schools? Teach them to code

Meredith Artley: Here’s what we look for when we hire young journalists, j-school grads or not

Mindy McAdams: Don’t just teach skills, train young journalists to be lifelong learners

Bill Grueskin: News orgs want journalists who are great at a few things, rather than good at many

1 thought on “Skills for Today’s English Major”

  1. Should undergrad curriculum change to reflect this shift? Absolutely. The how to do so is a less black and white question than whether or not to do so at all. (And the how might, for many universities, entail considerations about funding; about finding professors who are on top of these subjects and can teach these new areas well; and maybe even about increased specialization of universities themselves–creating entirely new, specialized institutions, rather just than just creating a specialized curriculum.)

    The digital world isn’t something that’s far off in the future–it’s already here. Although we’re obviously still creating and learning about new ways to communicate (& there seems to be a new tool to do so everyday), we utilize these tools at the same time we develop them. It’s difficult to truly understand these new technologies from a distance, as if looking at them under a microscope or something.

    In terms of your earlier point, the abundance of writing out there may make it seem as though everything is just noise, or cold/disconnected, but I think that there’s a difference between “content” and “voice”. Twitter is a great example of this. There’s a big difference between following a brand and following a person, even if that person is a facet of that brand. The former, I think, provides what’s closer to “content”, and the individual has the voice. If I follow a news outlet for all of their general content, I may appreciate their overall tone and output, but still choose to follow select reporters or writers or whatever from that publication because I appreciate their individual voices. Yes, I do think at times that voices are diluted in what can be an intense stream of everything that’s out there, but I think that a lot of people put the time in to do that.

    As you mentioned, there’s an immense amount of “content” out there because pretty much anyone can generate it easily these days. But I think that people will always, always, always search for ways to find specific, individual voices. And I think that’s independent of medium, and is just human. Think about the (traditional, I guess?) book publishing industry. In many ways, it’s easier than ever to publish your own work without the help of a major imprint. And there are so many books out there that sometimes when I walk into a bookstore, I’m surprised that people talk about the industry the way they do. But there are still specific authors that critics discuss, or whose works books clubs dissect, or whose latest novel friends pass around. Everyone will always seek out individual voices to interact with. If that ever stops happening, that’s probably when it’s time to worry.

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