English Professors Moral Panic

, Malcolm A. Kline, 1 Comment

If you love literature, you might find it easier to actually buy it than take a course in it. “According to the most recent comprehensive report on staffing by the Modern Language Association and the Association of Departments of English, published in 2008, English lost 3,000 tenure-track positions from 1993 to 2004, roughly 10 percent of the total,” Marc Bousquet writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Even that understates the case, since more than a third of the new tenurable hires have not been in traditional literary fields but in composition, rhetoric, theory, cultural studies, new media, and digital humanities.”

“Combined with evidence of lowered public interest in reading traditional literature and plummeting enrollment in traditional English majors, many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a ‘moral panic’ in defense of traditional literary studies.” Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory.

“Last year, at my institution, Emory University, the traditionally trained lit students typically received zero or one invitation to an MLA interview,” Bousquet relates. “Most didn’t even come close to winning campus interviews—much less tenure-track jobs—even coming from a top-25 program with support packages that rival those at Yale, Duke, and Stanford.”

“Some of the Emory students who eventually get tenure-track jobs do so after years of on-the-job retraining in comp-rhet, pedagogy, and new media, commonly in the Brittain Fellowship postdoctoral program, down the road at Georgia Tech. But since 2005, only two in five of those who graduated from Emory with Ph.D.’s in English have landed tenure-track jobs. The research university employing the most English Ph.D.’s from Emory is Emory itself—in staff positions.”

To borrow a phrase from Mr. Bousquet, even that understates the case. We were at the aforementioned MLA conference earlier this year: Out of 700 panels featuring more than one thousand English professors for collective audiences of thousands more, comparatively few sessions focused on traditional literature.

Even those that did often disappointed, as they bore little relation to the work discussed. For example, it was easier for Captain Ahab to find Moby Dick than it was to find actual quotes from Herman Melville in the panel on his most famous novel. As well, the environmental references in Dickens’ Hard Times popped up with less frequency in the original story than they did in the MLA panel discussion on it.


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