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Parents telling you an English degree is worthless? Not so fast.

EWU freshmen make their way to Showalter Hall, Sept. 22, 2008, as the academic year for college students got underway in Cheney. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU freshmen make their way to Showalter Hall, Sept. 22, 2008, as the academic year for college students got underway in Cheney. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

After Claire Topalian graduated from Gonzaga University in 2011 with an English major, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she packed her bags for Istanbul to teach English, where she learned an important lesson: She was a terrible teacher.

“I moved home without any money and I found a job on Craigslist to be a chief storyteller for a nonprofit,” Topalian said. “The nonprofit would create these workshop events so that people around the world would be exposed to the idea of entrepreneurship.”

Topalian said her English degree – her focus was poetry – provided her with a unique set of skills that set her down a path where she is the founder and owner of Cove Group, a Seattle-based strategy and public relations firm.

“We offer quite a bit of storytelling workshopping for our clients,” Topalian said. “I really enjoy doing it, and where I get really excited is sitting down with clients to help them figure out what their story really is, who the hero is in their story.”

The Washington Post reported that despite a 25.5% decline in English majors since the 2008 recession, the skills learned through the major are more crucial than ever.

Dale Soden, Whitworth University history professor, said he believes the recession is a factor in the decline of humanities majors.

“The recession that followed for years after that financial meltdown is part of the reason that people are anxious on a number of levels,” Soden said. “There are so many individual factors that play into why someone would be cautious or anxious, but I think families’ memories of that event contribute.”

Ann Ciasullo, Gonzaga University’s English Department chair, said a humanities degree is an excellent way for students to learn much-needed “soft skills,” which are very desirable in the job field. But this does not necessarily assuage fears.

“This seems to be a refrain we’re hearing, that there are jobs for English majors. And that seems to be in contrast to the anxiety that a lot of parents in particular have, like ‘What is my kid going to be able to do with this?’ ” Ciasullo said. “So the messaging we’re getting is that English majors do get jobs. That doesn’t necessarily seem to be translating into comfort sometimes in having their children major in it.”

Ciasullo said graduates have provided feedback that the writing skills they learned play out in the working world nearly every day, even if that means writing an email or a memo.

Paul Lindholdt, Eastern Washington University English professor, said oral communication is an important skill English majors attain.

“I think that English graduates bring the skill of oral communication to different organizations outside of the classroom,” Lindholdt said. “A lot of people are glib, and a lot of people love to talk, but I think English majors are skilled in formulating their thoughts quick on their feet and in a formal manner to convey complicated knowledge and technical knowledge.”

Gonzaga has seen a decrease in English majors, though the decline did not directly correspond with the recession. In 2008, there were 22 seniors majoring in English. Seniors majoring in English peaked in 2012 at 42, and there are currently 29 seniors pursuing the major.

At Eastern Washington University, the number of senior English majors has slightly grown over the past decade. There were 42 majors in the 2008-2009 school year, and 48 as of the 2016-’17 academic year.

Whitworth has seen a drop in the major, though, going from 41 seniors 2008 to 26 in 2019.

Lindholdt doesn’t think technology such as the internet is ruining communications because “communication is communication, and even if people aren’t following hard and fast rules, they’re still communicating through writing.”

Lindholdt said English has been slow to incorporate technology, and he believes this contributed to the decline of the major. Lindholdt, who has been teaching online for about 12 years, pushed to get the English minor online at EWU.

“For a large demographic, online learning is not only preferable but even superior,” Lindholdt said. “That’s one reason I believe that people are not majoring in English as much, because we’ve been left behind in the technological surge. … I think the failure to bridge STEM and English is part of the problem.”

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