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Friday, June 20, 2008

About those who study and teach English

By Dick Hirsch

There is no possible way you could have known or even suspected this, but the fact is that while in college I majored in English. Why did I make that choice? It is hard to say, but I had shown little interest in or affinity for math or science, so that narrowed the choices. So it was English.

One of my favorite lines from the movies revolves around the study of English. It is from “Bang the Drum Slowly,” the best baseball movie ever produced, in which Vincent Gardenia received a 1974 Academy Award nomination for his role as Dutch Schnell, the manager of the New York Mammoths.

In the closing weeks of a hot pennant race, Dutch tries to entice one of his retired stars, Red Traphagen, to rejoin the team in order to “steady the catching.” Traphagen, now on a college faculty, explains that he cannot leave since he has classes to teach.

“Teach? Teach what?” Dutch demands.

“English,” replies Red.

“English? What English?” inquires an astonished Dutch, his voice rising. “Everybody already speaks English. Forget the English. I need you here, Red.”

This only happens in the movies: Traphagen relents, takes a leave from his classes, returns to the team, and helps the Mammoths through a very difficult and emotional period. It’s a great film, more about life than about baseball. I watch this movie at least once every year, sometimes during baseball season, sometimes during the winter. Rent it sometime.

During my undergraduate years, I studied Chaucer and Milton, Bacon and Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, Pope and Byron, Emerson and Thoreau, as well as others, either too numerous to mention or too obscure to remember. Did I learn to write a news story or a column? Not exactly.

What prompts this reverie?

I wanted to say a few words about the teaching of English, having just recently read a survey of the salaries of faculty members at four year colleges and universities. I was shocked to discover that those who teach English rank near the bottom. The survey, conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It reported that professors of English average $76,793, just slightly more than professors of Visual & Performing Arts and professors of Parks, Recreation, Leisure and Fitness Studies. Those specialties were the bottom three on the list.

I would have thought that English professors would have been doing better than that. I was surprised to see that professors of Communications and Journalism made more money, averaging $80,514. I never took a course in journalism, but I did teach one for a semester. Based on that experience, it has always been my opinion that some knowledge of language and literature would be of at least modest assistance for an assignment that involved the dissemination of information or the expression of opinions.

Of course, Communications and Journalism conveys a much more occupational aura than English, giving the impression that a good student would be much in demand in the news or public relations job market. On the other hand, English, although it has many benefits, doesn’t exactly add much sizzle to a resume. As Dutch Schnell has said: “English? What English? Everybody already speaks English!”

Despite the years of exposure to the language from elementary school to college and beyond, many people---some of whom you probably know---do have trouble with English and don’t even realize it. Native born, they believe they are fluent, yet they often stumble around, having trouble with writing intelligibly and speaking directly. Some executives I have known admit they have difficulty writing concise and convincing business letters. Maybe if the English professors were paid more....

Who does get the big money? Law school faculty members have worked their way to the top of the list, far outdistancing their nearest competitors. The full professors in law school average $129,527, and an assistant professor earns an average of $79,084, which is more than a full professor in the English Department.

Trailing the law school faculty are professors of Engineering---$107,134---and professors of Business, Management and Marketing---$102,965.

I had no idea that members of university English departments were being treated in such shabby fashion. It’s no wonder so many people don’t know when to say “I” and when to say “me.”


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