Humanities: Bridge to Nowhere

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

English majors in America today may be pursuing dubious studies but they also face dim job prospects. This trend was painfully apparent at the 2012 convention that the Modern Language Association held this month in Seattle.

“The MLA recently projected that about 2,400 jobs in English and foreign-language instruction would be advertised with the association this academic year, a 3-percent increase over last year,” Stacey Patton reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 20, 2012. “But the overall number of positions remains near the historic low for the disciplines, and the uptick in openings is too modest to make much of a dent in the backlog of people with Ph.D.’s looking to land a tenured or tenure-track job.”

“Searchers will outnumber jobs on the tenure track by perhaps 2-1,” the radical caucus of the MLA estimates.

“This year, 274 academic departments from 222 colleges checked in with the conference’s job center, according to the MLA,” Patton wrote. “The main interview area was used by 67 of the departments; the others conducted interviews in hotel rooms.”  Indeed, one of the rooms in the off-the-beaten track hotel I was staying in was used for interviews.

“At a recent holiday dinner, a friend who happens to work for the State Department asked me if I thought my college students were ‘ready to compete in the global marketplace,’ and whether I had come up with strategies to prepare them for that work,” McKay Jenkins wrote in an essay which appeared in the same issue of the Chronicle that featured Patton’s story. “They weren’t, I said. And I hadn’t.”

Jenkins is a professor of English, director of the journalism program, and co-director of the environmental-humanities program at the University of Delaware. “In fact, I said, my environmental-humanities class had spent the better part of the semester discussing the ways the ‘global marketplace’ had become an increasingly dispiriting phenomenon to watch,” Jenkins wrote. “For all the talk of ‘globalization’ as the very engine of their generation’s future prospects, my students seemed far more concerned about disappearing jobs at home, rising global temperatures, and a general anxiety about what it all meant.”

“The world did not seem as inviting as it seemed fragmented, even fragile, especially when the conversation turned to the environment, and to the resilience of their own local communities.” Jenkin’s most recent book is entitled What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World (Random House, 2011).

“Many of my students have decided to commit not to ‘globally competitive’ professions but to becoming middle-school teachers, primary-care doctors, nutritionists, journalists, and local environmental advocates,” Jenkins claims. What’s he going to tell them when they can’t find jobs in their chosen fields?

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

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