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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of what we do in English and Technical Communication. Anyone who follows national news is aware of the so-called “crisis in the humanities” whereby pundits and politicians suggest (wrongly) that students majoring in English, philosophy, or fields related to communication are doomed to a life of underemployment. Putting aside for a minute the question of the relative value to society of welders and philosophers, the statistics simply do not support this claim. As journalist Blaine Greteman writes:
Defying all conventional wisdom and their parents’ warnings, most English majors also secure jobs, and not just at Starbucks. Last week, at the gathering of the Associated Departments of English, it was reported that English majors had 2 percent lower unemployment than the national rate, with an average starting salary of $40,800 and average mid-career salaries of $71,400. According to a 2013–14 study by PayScale.com, English ranks just above business administration as a “major that pays you back.” (New Republic, June 13, 2014)
Beyond the question of jobs, recent events have reinforced for me the vital need for citizens who are trained as humanists and communicators. We need, more than ever, people in our communities, our institutions, and in our government who think critically and carefully about complex problems, who consider the value of opposing viewpoints and can live with paradox, who communicate with precision and sympathy. These are not skills one learns from a textbook or a Wikipedia page. One learns them the old-fashioned way, by practice. In our classes, students read, discuss, write, and rewrite about difficult texts with ideas that are often counter-intuitive or alien to them. They create documents that seek to communicate complex information with clarity and precision. They learn about the world and about themselves, just as humanists have been doing for a long, long time. These are skills and values that we dismiss at our own peril.
At the same time, our students are learning to embrace new challenges. The English and Tech Com Department is hardly stuck in the past or in the mud. We’re moving aggressively into the area of digital learning, balancing carefully the convenience of online courses—which many students love—with intellectual rigor and the personal touch of classroom learning. Our online presence in technical communication is growing, with our entire MS degree offered online and now with many of our undergraduate courses available in that format as well. Several faculty have submitted proposals to lead new study abroad courses for our majors and other S&T students. And we hired recently our first full-time faculty member in English as a Second Language to help our growing number of international students on campus acclimate to S&T but also to help our majors become more skilled and thoughtful world citizens.
Thanks for visiting our web pages. We hope to see you in Rolla!
Dr. Kristine Swenson