English department makes major ‘more attractive’ as national numbers shrink

UB rolls out new English degree requirements in hopes bring more students to major


After her first year at UB, Emily Kicinski switched her major from biological sciences to English to relieve the “unbearable stress” that she said came with studying the sciences.

But Kicinski, now a junior English major with political science and Spanish minors, found taking five 300-level English electives was almost as straining as taking cell biology and anatomy courses.

The five 300-level English electives requirement – among others – is now eliminated, as UB is trying to make obtaining an English degree less difficult in hope of getting more students to join the major.

The English department announced changes in its degree requirements, which include allowing more 200-level courses and the elimination of the foreign language requirement, in an email sent on March 13. The changes will go into effect this fall. Students already enrolled in the English major have the option to keep the current requirements.

“I hope the changes to the curriculum make the major a more attractive option for students,” said Dr. Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in an email.

The new degree requirements require three 200-level English courses, with the option of a fourth 200-level course as an elective. The current requirements state students can only use two 200-level courses for their degree and must take five 300- or 400-level electives, at least one of which must be a 400-level class. In the new requirements, students must still take at least one 400-level course. The total number of major courses will remain at 13, which equals 39 credits.

There are currently about 200 undergraduate students enrolled as English majors at UB, which is roughly a 50-student increase from this time last year, according to Dr. Graham Hammill, the English department chair. But that total number was a bit heftier back in 2007, when there were 271 declared English majors.

Pitman said although the number of English majors has increased in the last year at UB, the number of English majors at universities across the country has fallen.

Each department in the College of Arts and Sciences is required to revisit its curriculum, which includes the courses and requirements for majors and minors, periodically “to be sure the programs offered are current and appropriate,” according to Pitman.

This process is why three English professors from Rice University, Penn State and the University of California, Irvine, visited and reviewed UB’s English department. Hammill said although the professors were impressed by the quality and enthusiasm of English majors at UB, they felt the curriculum was “not as welcoming as it could be.”

“We do want to make our major as welcoming as possible,” Pitman said. “But the deciding factor was student learning. We want to have the best possible major for students here at UB.”

Victoria Iacchetta, a senior English and history major who is set to graduate in May, said the new set of requirements give students a greater opportunity to succeed, but some items in the previous requirements that were removed improved her education.

The current English degree requirements mandate students take four total semesters of a foreign language, including one year of a foreign language in sequence above the general education requirement. The new general education requirements passed by the Faculty Senate in December make it possible for students to avoid taking a foreign language under the “global cluster” by studying abroad, for example.

Iacchetta, who took four semesters of French to fulfill the previous English degree requirements, said taking away the foreign language requirement is disadvantageous for the students entering the major.

“I cannot even begin to explain how important it is for students in the humanities to take time to expand their language pallet,” Iacchetta said. “Sure, being forced to take four semesters of a language sounds a bit terrifying to an incoming freshman, but language classes offer so much to students at a college level, especially English majors.”

Although Kicinski is not in support of eliminating the foreign language requirement, she said taking more 200-level courses would make getting the English degree “less daunting” and “more manageable to students.”

Dr. Robert Daly, an English professor, said the new, lighter requirements are a great opportunity for students just entering the major because many jobs now require employees to have writing skills. Daly said allowing more 200-level courses, in addition to the other changes, would benefit the English majors in the long run.

“It enables them to diversify their educational investments, rather than requiring them to focus too early and too narrowly,” Daly said. “Such choices will prepare them well for graduate and professional school and even, I dare say, for life.”

Iacchetta, who plans on applying to UB’s School of Management upon graduation, thinks that the current English requirements are fun and interesting, but the changes bring UB students the opportunity to expand their knowledge.

“I believe that students will have an extensively larger pool of options to choose from, ultimately enriching and challenging the undergraduate English majors at UB,” Iacchetta said.

Evan Murphy, a freshman intended cognitive science and English major, said no matter what changes are made, students who have an appreciation of the English major will stick with it.

“A good majority of the people in the department are there because they feel passionate about English in some deep sense, so that they don’t need the extra encouragement to take up its study,” Murphy said. “I don’t think that ‘Oh, the coursework is too hard,’ is what’s keeping people from majoring in English.”

email: news@ubspectrum.com

Marlee Tuskes is a contributing writing and can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com

Read a column by Emma Janicki, a senior English major and managing editor about the change in requirements.