A Christmas Present from the MLA

January 19, 2007

For a decade, I never missed a Modern Language Association convention and even wrote about it on these pages as the academic superhero, "Conference Man." But for two years now, I have managed to avoid that annual bacchanal of sexless sadomasochism without much regret.

It's not that I don't enjoy the book fair and some of the panels. It's more that I want to avoid being among so many desperate, hollow-eyed job-seekers. The tightly ringed atolls of academic stars and their sycophantic wannabes -- always inexplicably laughing -- amid a sea of unemployed misery gives me something one might call sympathetic nausea.

I am now one of the fortunate few with a tenured position, and there's almost nothing I can do to help those poor souls, many of whom are bound for adjunct hell. They just keep coming -- like Steinbeck's Okies puttering into California in their jalopies -- as if there hasn't been an academic Great Depression going on for more than 30 years now.

If only this year's wave had been paying attention back in 1998 when the MLA published the "Final Report of the Committee on Professional Employment." The picture was bleaker than bleak then, and it's no better now.

Sometime back in 1999 and 2000, today's newly minted Ph.D.'s were hearkening to their kindly, flattering undergraduate advisers, the ones who keep telling prospective graduate students, "You're so talented; you can be anything you want to be, my child, and you are too smart to go into business." And, six or seven years later, the halls of the MLA convention hotel are filled with a new crop of really smart suckers: the waste products of the new corporate university.

But -- I keep reminding myself -- I am tenured now. So I spent the week after Christmas playing with my kids and writing instead of rehearsing answers to questions like how my third book will "redraw the boundaries of the profession" or how my "student-centered, process-oriented teaching" puts my "commitment to diversity, social justice, and critical thinking into practice."

Even now, the thought of going on the academic job market seems so spiritually suicidal that I would rather abandon my career altogether than submit to the scrutiny of another semihostile search committee. As far as I can tell, the hiring process in English favors psychopaths with ice water in their veins, which explains a lot about the changing climate of the profession.

Mind you, I am not bashing the leadership of the MLA -- which is, of course, full of well-meaning mandarins (God bless them, every one) -- so much as I am lamenting the unstoppable transformation of a gentle, harmless occupation into a cannibalistic nightmare straight out of Goya.

Even if I avoid the convention and take little pleasure in PMLA -- the immensely prestigious journal that no one reads -- I really do look forward, every few years, to a Christmas present from the association in the form of a report detailing the scope of the latest job crisis and how the MLA intends to solve it.

Now, after two years of anticipation, we have a new report called the "MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion," and it is a gripping narrative of the decline of the profession since the 1970s: shrinking budgets, expanding demands, bigger graduate programs, fewer tenured positions, and, always, more and more and more adjuncts.

As the report's writers acknowledge, "we are living through profound changes in the academy." So the study, as it was required to do, concludes with a rousing manifesto that addresses the least of the problems facing the profession. The Titanic is sinking, and the report asks passengers to come to a civilized consensus about the rules governing shuffleboard.

You see, there has been a lot of handwringing about the pressures placed on tenure-track faculty members, particularly in English, to publish more books at precisely the moment when university presses are cutting back on the publication of scholarly monographs. Meanwhile, many tenure committees are unwilling to consider electronic publications, textbooks, or mainstream writing as evidence of legitimate professional activity. The result, as the MLA's president at the time, Stephen Greenblatt warned the membership four years ago, would be college campuses strewn, like Flanders fields, with the bodies of failed tenure candidates, an academic "lost generation."

Well, as the 2006 report shows, that has not happened. Apparently, tenure-stream faculty members -- raised in the Spartan culture of the 1990s -- have risen to the challenge. Anyone who survived the academic job market in the last few decades should be prepared to do just about anything to get tenure: two monographs, a 4-4 teaching load, a stint in North Dakota, Lacanian psychoanalysis, whatever it takes.

OK folks, the report tells us, there's nothing to see here, just keep moving right along: Tenure-track faculty members still have a 90 percent chance of gaining tenure. But challenges remain: We must ensure that the tenure process looks transparent. (So administrators will be well-protected when it goes wrong?) And, just maybe, the report suggests, tenure committees at second-tier teaching colleges should not hold candidates to the same standards as do those at research universities.

Don't get me wrong. The new MLA report is a good thing, and I have to admire the spunky willingness of the task force to take its message to the academic streets, actually trying to persuade English departments not to abuse the tenure-track faculty members. (What else, one might reasonably ask, are untenured faculty members for?)

And there are a couple notable recommendations in the report that strike me as having been sneaked in like last-minute appropriations: No. 11, which states that "collegiality" should not be a criterion for tenure, and No. 19, which encourages "discussion of the current form of the dissertation (as monograph-in-progress)." Those suggestions -- both with enormous implications -- could have been the basis of a major report by themselves, and should be.

Overall, the "summary recommendations" are full of "shoulds," but there are no enforcement mechanisms -- and the momentum of the profession is all in the other direction.

Let me indulge my cynicism for a moment: Now that the MLA has called our attention to the embarrassingly high 90-percent tenure rate, I would get ready to see that number come down while publication expectations continue to rise. If 32.9 percent of departments expect progress on a second book for tenure, then we must, too, unless we are prepared to give up on "excellence." If 65.7 percent of departments have no experience evaluating electronic monographs, then why should we be among the first to lower our standards? And how will the generation that had to write a monograph-plus come to terms with a tenure portfolio that only includes a handful of articles?

As much as I agree in principle with the report's recommendations, I expect that, if anything, publication demands will increase as long as graduate programs keep churning out more doctorates than the academic labor market can absorb.

The report focuses on a segment of the academic workforce that has the least to worry about (tenure-track faculty members), and it does nothing to help the segment of the academic workforce that is, by far, the most exploited (adjuncts and graduate students).

Anyone who has interviewed in English during the last 10 years (and probably the last 35) knows that the hardest part of academic life is not surviving the tenure track; it is getting on that track in the first place. It's like what they say about Harvard: It's hard to get admitted, but once you're in, you will probably graduate with honors.

So the MLA has produced a study that is helpful within its particular mandate, but it only addresses a symptom rather than the cause of the horror that descends on some chilly hotel the day after Christmas. There are too many graduate students and not enough jobs, so at least 40 percent of Ph.D.'s will never find the tenure-track position for which they have trained for so many years. That's the one statistic that flashes out at me from the whole study -- a conservative and upbeat number, I think -- and it's the one thing that the new report does nothing to change.

When will there be stern talks about closing down all the marginal and bloated graduate programs that have created a reserve army of the academic unemployed? In effect, the MLA report asks lower-ranked departments to realize their proper station and accept that they should not be making faculty members write two books for tenure while teaching eight courses a year.

But there's no reason departments should accept that reduced status. They don't have to. Plenty of English Ph.D.'s are only too happy to meet whatever standard the departments care to set.

Maybe I'm wrong. But my experience of the academic job system has made me cynical about the MLA's ability to do anything to change the enormous political and economic forces that really determine the working conditions of people in academe. The MLA may loom large in the imaginations of English professors, but hardly anyone in Washington or Wall Street has heard of it, and, if you explain it to them, they probably guffaw at the notion that they should care about a bunch of professors who teach medieval poetry or whatever.

It is revealing to consider the MLA report alongside the just-released "AAUP Contingent Faculty Index" for 2006. The AAUP report shows that tenured professors now make up less than a quarter of college and university faculty members: a hard fact that has some consequences for the ability of faculty members to govern their institutions or make decisions about what will count for tenure.

At many places, it's already too late for the MLA's band-aid solutions. We have arrived at a point at which the tenured faculty, to paraphrase Grover Norquist, is small enough to drown in the bathtub. Maybe some of us can continue to eke out a livelihood in the humanities as we know them for another 10, maybe 20 years, but, unless you are close enough to the end of your career, I would recommend preparing some kind of professional exit strategy.

Better advice: Do not go to graduate school in the humanities in the first place -- not unless you are independently wealthy or, for some reason, you don't mind the strong possibility that six or more years of hard work and lost opportunity will come to nothing but competing at a disadvantage against new college graduates for entry-level jobs.

So my Christmas present from the MLA has turned out to be a pair of socks. They're good to have, and it's the thought that counts. And, I guess, there's always next year.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at