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The 83/17 Split

Two students sit in an English class. Roughly 83% of English students are women, while only about 17% are men. Photo courtesy of Natalie Aversano.

Examining the gender disparity within the English major

At a liberal arts college like Wofford, a key component of the general education curriculum is its breadth. It allows — and requires — all students to take classes in departments at the college across the sciences, the humanities and cultures and peoples.

While some students come to Wofford knowing what they want to study and pursue it passionately for four years, others are on the fence, ready to be swayed by their experience in a class or in a department that they may not have considered much during their application process.

So where do a lot of Wofford students land? Clearly, a lot of biology and finance majors appear to answer that question, but what about English?

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Well, if you identify as a woman at Wofford, the numbers say that you are far more likely to be an English major than those who identify as men.

According to John Ware, associate professor and chair of the English department, in February, there were a total of 86 students who were declared a part of any of the affiliated programs in the department. This includes majors, minors and creative writing, African/African American studies or film and digital media concentrations and minors. Of those 86 students, 71 were women while only 15 were men. That means that, of the 86 students, roughly 83 percent are women while about 17 percent are men.

For a department that features a roughly 50/50 split in terms of gender identity among professors, the question then becomes a simple one: what is behind the gender disparity among students?

Some professors, such as Kimberly Rostan and Julie Sexeny, associate professors of English, noted that, while their 100- and 200-level courses typically have a fairly even split in terms of their students’ genders, their upper-level courses are often overwhelmingly, sometimes exclusively, women.

“I’ve noticed more recently that there are more women than men in the classes and I’ve wondered about that,” Sexeny said. “I see more English majors who are women, (and) I see more film and digital media students who are women.”

This trend at Wofford appears to be part of a marked shift in English studies. Sexeny recounted her undergraduate, Master’s and Ph.D. experiences and remembered her programs as being mostly men, but that does not seem to be the case at Wofford.

“My understanding was that, once women entered the field and sort of started to populate it,” Sexeny said of the shift in gender majority, “then men would flee it because…it became affiliated with women and, therefore, devalued.”

In the case of Rostan, one of the most striking examples of the gender disparity among Wofford’s English students that she cited was her Human Rights class, which is made up completely of young women. She said that, while her classes are not exclusively for, or populated by, English majors, that still does not explain the large gap that she is seeing.

As a professor in the Gender Studies program at Wofford, Rostan did acknowledge the possibility that, for many men on campus, there may be a stigma surrounding that particular program as being more feminist and anti-men. However, as a professor who also teaches courses in world literature and in African and African American studies, she was still not so sure that that was the whole story.

“I try to be as friendly and make it as friendly as possible while still being honest,” Rostan said. “I mean, the interesting thing is, then, why do you get white women who are interested in talking about the problem with white women?”

Patrick Whitfill, assistant professor of English, is no stranger to having only women in his courses, having had semesters in which roughly a dozen women make up his entire poetry workshop. However, in other semesters, Whitfill said, there has been an even split between the genders in that same course. He has never taught a course entirely comprised of men despite poetry historically being dominated by the male voice..

Eleanor Wilkerson ’21, an environmental studies and English double major, called into question the concept of the “masculinity” of the humanities disciplines. She noted that most of her upper-level English courses have been made up of mostly women, and also said that she believes that STEM career fields have historically been more male-dominated and, therefore, masculine due to issues of access to the job market and equality that faced women.

“We are still overcoming the divided nature of the way the job market used to be,” Wilkerson said, “thus women in STEM is (sic) an encouraging topic and statistic.”

Sam English ’22, also an English major himself, added that the requirements for introspection and for analysis of systems of class, gender and race can make some students, particularly male students, uncomfortable.

“It’s easier, I think, for a male student to dismiss this necessary confrontation and pursue other courses that aren’t as introspective,” English said. “It’s easy for a male student who identifies himself with hyper masculine traits to eschew courses that require him to open up to negative and distressing feelings. It may be due to the fact that emotional affairs are still, lamentably, considered something that women engage in, not men.”

Despite English and Wilkerson’s experiences, Natalie Grinnell, Reeves Family professor in humanities, was originally not so ready to accept the premise that men avoid English courses to avoid talking about societal issues and constructs. She expressed that, in her courses, her students engage with and embrace these topics “with enthusiasm at all levels,” but she also admitted that she was not confident that students would tell her that anyway if that were the case.

“I don’t think students would tell me if they were avoiding English classes because they didn’t want to talk about (class, gender and race),” she said.

Rostan expressed similar feelings to English and Wilkerson in further discussion of her Human Rights course, a course that she says, notoriously, gets dropped by a lot of male students. Though she lamented the lack of representation for men, particularly men of color, one of her biggest concerns was the silent implication that human rights issues are not quite as important to some as they are to others.

“There are times in the class when it’s really noteworthy and people just look around and you can tell that it’s just the absence of men in there to talk about these issues,” Rostan said. “Particularly when we’re talking about rape as a war crime…(and) sometimes my students have just said they just want to be in the room and have men affirm that this is an important thing to be talking about, and the absence of it suggests that it is not. …It doesn’t mean it’s not important, it doesn’t mean that men on campus don’t find it important, but it’s hard not to make that assumption, I think, for some of the students who are like, ‘look around.’…I could see it in their faces.”

Questions about masculinity and perceived male fragility aside, the low-hanging fruit in terms of why today’s men may not consider English as a viable major is a familiar one: job outlook after graduation.

Jacob Hollifield ’21, an English and history double major, said that he believes that, for many men, one of the biggest deciding factors in what they will study in college is how much money they can expect to make once they cross the stage after four years.

“With the English major,” Hollifield said, “I think people see less dollar signs coming out of (it), and I think guys feel like they have to get one of those premier white collar jobs like a doctor or lawyer…or some sort of business or finance career, and so that’s why we see those majors so full of men, because in those majors…we see more men going into those areas.”

Sexeny expressed similar feelings, saying that, “I was just reading [that] men tend to gravitate toward higher paying majors, I guess…like in engineering and computer science and business maybe.”

While the English major was once directly linked to potential careers in law or in teaching which, to some degree, it still is today, Rostan conceded that, to prospective college students trying to figure their lives out as best they can at the ripe ages of 18 and 19, a relatively abstract major like English may not be at the top of people’s lists when thinking of career paths.

“I sometimes wonder if the English major is just not ready-made enough where you have certain majors that look like, you can pretty much tell what you’re going to do afterwards or there’s a lot less leeway,” she said. “It’s not so clearly tied to a particular career, and I think that that puts off people who are really planners…or really mostly motivated by higher paychecks.”

While Hollifield and Wilkerson both said that their learning experiences in the classroom have not been negatively impacted by the gender disparity, English said that his experience has been helped in some respects due to the opportunity to hear more perspective from women on topics like gender oppression, marriage and sexuality. Despite this, English, and professors like Rostan as well, would still prefer to have a more even gender distribution in these discussions.

“The absence of male voices sometimes detracts from the depths we can reach with our conversations,” English said. “I think that overall, it would add greatly to the dialogue to have all genders contribute and respond to each other.”

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