While this decline partially reflects the tendency of English departments now to perform preliminary interviews on Skype rather than at the conference, it also tracks the accelerating constriction of the discipline of literary studies, where hiring appears to be at an all-time low. “The Sky Is Falling,” wrote Pennsylvania State University’s Eric Hayot of the jobs crisis.
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While this decline partially reflects the tendency of English departments now to perform preliminary interviews on Skype rather than at the conference, it also tracks the accelerating constriction of the discipline of literary studies, where hiring appears to be at an all-time low. “The Sky Is Falling,” wrote Pennsylvania State University’s Eric Hayot of the jobs crisis. Enrollments are plummeting, adjunctification is rampant, graduate students have tremendous difficulty finding employment. However you look at it, the discipline is in a bad way.
At the 2020 meeting of the Modern Language Association, in Seattle, The Chronicle Review sat down with five professors of literary studies to talk about the future of the discipline: Edgar Garcia, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago; Anna Kornbluh, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Jonathan Kramnick, a professor at Yale University; Sheila Liming, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota; and Jeanne-Marie Jackson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University. They spoke about public scholarship, the canon, the differences between private and public institutions, and the importance of hanging out.
Len Gutkin: In a recent Chronicle Review interview, the Harvard historian Jill Lepore said that “the academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril.” “The retreat of humanists from public life,” she said, has had “enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.” Does that strike you as plausible, totally off-base, or somewhere in between?
Jonathan Kramnick: Totally off-base. I’m not sure what period of public engagement she’s imagining that we’ve fallen from. The crisis in the humanities, if we want to call it that, is not our fault; it’s about major structural changes and the economy. It’s not about jargon, or lack of public interface, and it’s certainly not about literary critics no longer writing the kind of trade work that Jill Lepore specializes in.
Anna Kornbluh: Most faculty teach in teaching-intensive public institutions. That is public, human, face-to-face communication. A lot of public humanities discourse actually devalues that labor, which has already suffered tremendously.
Sheila Liming: I’m suspicious of any discourse that blames the situation of the work on the worker. That doesn’t make any damn sense to me. But it is part of the great capitalist tradition of assigning blame downward instead of upward. That’s what I see Lepore doing.
I’m suspicious of any discourse that blames the situation of the work on the worker.
Maximillian Alvarez: How might one respond to a similar critique from, say, Marc Bousquet, who recognizes the external factors but has also argued that internally more could have been done on the labor side to try to stop adjunctification?
Jeanne-Marie Jackson: I think you’re talking about two different things. There’s how you act at the level of the institution, and there’s the kind of work you produce. Lepore is talking about the kind of work produced. And I don’t agree.
But I think one of the dangers of conflating these two roles is that we fall into a not very useful delusion that the kind of work we do, or even the way we teach, is in and of itself effective activism. I think it’s very important to teach well, and to engage your students, and, if you are inclined that way, to write things that seek a larger audience. But at the end of the day that’s very different from advocating as a senior faculty member for specific improvements to labor conditions.
AK: So what role do humanistic precepts play in the fact that we, like all other professions, failed to collectively respond to the structural adjustment in the economy of the last 40 or 50 years? I think it’s possibly true that academia’s artisanal sensibilities have made it hard for people to imagine themselves as laborers, hard for them to imagine themselves in a set of collective relations, and that there are possible theoretical pieties about particularizations and singularities and evanescence and antipathy to institutions, including the discipline and organization of labor.
JK: Any argument that asks us to advocate for more tenure-track jobs is a good one, so to that degree Bousquet’s point is a good one. I’m not sure we need to criticize ourselves for not paying enough attention to adjunctification. I think a lot of people have been talking about that for a long time. But asking us to advocate on behalf of our discipline both in terms of wanting more jobs for our graduate students and also, especially, for the epistemic good standing of our discipline, is all a good thing.
JMJ: I will say that I often notice that colleagues, often really great colleagues, who are doing a tremendous amount of public intellectual work, are not necessarily so keen behind the scenes to do frankly unglamorous service work.
LG: Because they want to be famous!
JMJ: Right! Or who are not keen, for example, to take on a deanship — roles within the institution that a certain sort of speaking-back-to-power mode in a public tenor often has antipathy towards. But that is where you can make some kind of change: in comparatively nonintellectual roles within the university that are not directly related to the kind of work you’re producing.
AK: But we also overstate that contradiction. As the person who has been the wife of a 130-person department for almost five years, I do the schedule, budget, performance reviews. I actually don’t see any of that as profoundly in contradiction with my research, because I’m a formalist, and I think about how things are put together. And because I can’t believe that people don’t want to understand the conditions of their own work. There’s this terrible feminization of service, but there’s also the mischaracterization of it as not intellectual. Building a curriculum, inventing a gen-ed curriculum: Those are profoundly intellectual things. So one wants to be careful of upholding that divide.
JMJ: But they’re not one and the same. It’s very easy to do the one, and not necessarily follow through with doing the other. And at a place like Hopkins, where many people do spend their entire careers in their office pretty much by themselves — that kind of university allows you the possibility of making precisely that distinction.
AK: It only works in a place where the university has many salaried staff people. In places like where Sheila and I teach, the faculty are making the institution go on a daily basis. And that’s not wholly incompatible with our pedagogical remit and our research.
LG: Let’s talk about enrollment numbers. Last year The Chronicle Review ran an essay by Eric Hayot, and I was shocked at how steeply enrollment in English had declined, including at the sort of elite places you don’t associate with this kind of downturn, like Harvard, where English majors were down 50 percent.
JK: The broader picture extends beyond what Hayot was talking about. Because the decline in enrollments or in majors in the literary humanities is not the same thing as the decline in the humanities as such. Part of what it tracks is the change in what the humanities amount to. So what’s emerged over the last 25 years are majors like communications, writing outside of English, ethnic studies, and media studies, all of which are feeding off of the pool of potential English majors. This is one of the reasons why the job numbers in English are never going to go up to what they once were.
Edgar Garcia: Anecdotally, at my institution, the most popular classes tend to be in ethnic studies, race studies, gender studies. This is motivating a lot of the hiring in those fields — student interest and intellectual interest.
JK: And not all of those classes are in English departments. Some of them are in ethnic-studies programs, which in most institutions are housed in the humanities but sometimes in the social sciences. So this is a shift within the university that draws from the same pool of students.
EG: What that has motivated at our institution is a rethinking of field formations. So hiring for race studies, not just in a presentist sense, but thinking about race and the Renaissance, race in the 18th and 19th century, both in our hiring practices and our curriculum-building — and I think very genuinely in our intellectual interests.
JMJ: I think one complicating factor is that students are interested in more socially oriented — rather than, for lack of a better word, traditionally or universally oriented — course material, but nationwide, as this has been happening to us, philosophy, for example, has actually seen growth in enrollment and growth in majors, all the way down to the community-college level.
JK: Is that right? The job crisis in philosophy is every bit as bad —
JMJ: I know, I know, you’d have to check on the numbers. But I remember citing this recently. It was a sort of like a “Hey, surprise!” kind of thing: Just when you think they’re not interested, they actually are! The Russian major, which was almost dead in this country for more than a decade, has resurged, and hiring has picked up. So in thinking about field formation, it’s important to look not only within English but also to ask, where else might they be going?
JK: Well that was my point about film and media studies and ethnic studies. They have all emerged relatively recently.
JMJ: For us they haven’t enrolled well, which could just be a Hopkins thing. Africana struggles to attract majors, for example. Ethnic and gender at JHU have not actually seen increased enrollment.
EG: English is such a pliable, flexible discipline. That’s its source of greatest possibility, and also its bane, in that it spawns all these other disciplines — and then the students go into these other fields.
MA: What about what Jeff Williams calls the hybrid humanities — legal, medical, public scholarship — all of which risk reducing the humanities to what he calls “a garnish”?
JMJ: That’s a huge force at my institution. Students want to be Atul Gawande. Doctors writing beautifully for The New Yorker are a real source of interest.
MA: It feels like everyone has referenced this in one way or another — it’s the elephant in the room — but how are grad programs trying to better situate grad students to compete in the sort of environment that we’re describing?
JK: I’ve been working in placement for almost as long as I’ve been in academia, and the change in what it means to be on the market is dramatic. And bleak. All of us who have jobs, and especially those of us who are involved in graduate education, have a moral responsibility as well as a professional one to think about the situation all the time, and do everything we can.
But it’s not an easy question to answer. Alt-academia is not going to save us. That’s one thing that we’ve learned over the last five years. The relationship between having a Ph.D. and getting a job outside of the academy can often be entirely accidental, and getting a Ph.D. doesn’t match up with alt-academic jobs in a way that would actually make it a plausible reason to go to graduate school in the first place.
AK: We shouldn’t overstate the specialness of academic employment relative to the employment situation of the United States or the first world. It’s really important that there are not such big opportunity costs to going to graduate school. You’re paid a salary — it’s obviously less than you should be paid. But it is a salary, it is health care, it is defined work, it is phenomenal work: to be able to learn and think and teach all the time. Part of what people are signing up for is five years of doing something that is most likely better than what they would be doing otherwise, given what is available.
English is such a pliable, flexible discipline. That’s its source of greatest possibility, and also its bane.
JK: I’m not sure that I agree with you. Most people who enter graduate school give up time that they actually could use in the development of a career that would last longer than the five or six or maximum seven years in which graduate school is labor in the manner that you just described, where you have benefits and a salary and you’re not just cobbling together courses while you finish your Ph.D. Many students who enter graduate school could spend that time on a career path leading to something longer and more sustaining.
AK: We have nothing but evidence that the career world outside of the academy is not sustaining, is not safe for people.
JK: But we’re not sociologists of labor. We’re English professors.
SL: But sociologists of labor have written about this. I agree with Anna. We are suffering an underemployment crisis in our nation — wages have remained stagnant, and on top of that something like two-thirds of the American population is not employed full-time, or they’re cobbling together multiple jobs. So I’m not sure that graduate school causes you to miss out on important career opportunities.
JMJ: But they’re not actually the same people.
SL: At our schools they’re very much the same people.
JK: So this is about different strata of the educational system and the kind of graduate-student populations that they have.
SL: Yes. I’m working with a graduate student right now at the University of North Dakota. Prior to going to graduate school, she had worked for six years as a secretary in a funeral parlor. She saw that that was basically a dead-end job. She wanted to stay near her family, within the region. So she came to graduate school, as a way of buying a ticket to something else — but also to spend five years doing something that probably would be better.
MA: This is my life! Before graduate school I was working 12-hour days at warehouses and factories, as a temp. And that was after a year of looking for jobs. And then I went to graduate school. It can’t be discounted that a lot of graduate students are finding in graduate school some sort of steady form of employment, and then when they’re in graduate school are given hope for a more profitable career that they could build there.
JMJ: Our grad students — and I can only speak for our grad students — they’re mad. They expect to come into this program and become academics. So we have to manage expectations. And alt-ac has not been a solution. We’re the last people who are actually in a position to give really good alt-ac advice.
JK: My sense is most graduate students now enter with expectations [of becoming professors] and a clear sense of why those expectations might not be met. That produces anger. It’s not so much disappointed or frustrated expectation — it’s a kind of professional doubleness.
LG: Sheila, your students at the University of North Dakota getting Ph.D.s — what do they tend to do?
SL: They tend to find placement within our region. Which is obviously a lower level, hierarchically speaking, of academic employment, but we are more or less successful, probably more so than a lot of other institutions, at finding employment. We have a population that’s loyal to the region. We are the only Ph.D. program in the state of North Dakota. So we’re your only choice if you want to get a Ph.D. in English. They end up working in junior colleges, tribal colleges, and things like that. It’s not necessarily glamorous employment, it’s not well-compensated employment, but they tend to get jobs.
Crisis talk can be wearying, but the numbers are stark. As The Chronicle’s data show, between 2010-11 and 2017-2018 English majors have declined precipitously at many institutions: down 19.5% at the University of California at Berkeley, 35.2% at the University of Texas at Austin, 44.4% at Arizona State University, 39.3% at Emerson College, 19.8% at the University of Pennsylvania, 29.8% at Harvard, and a staggering 61.3% at Northwestern — just to name a few. (See our complete report on English and History majors here.)
In combination with a field-wide hiring crisis, such figures render the rhetoric of apocalypse inevitable — an inevitability amply explored, and sometimes resisted, in our free e-book, Endgame.
LG: Are there core competencies in literary studies that are being lost?
JK: No. The discipline is robust and strong. And I think we need to remind ourselves of that.
LG: Does everybody agree that the discipline is robust and strong?
JMJ: No. But I think we’re speaking from completely different fields. And this is one place where the fact that the discipline is so nichified is important. As Edgar was saying, disciplinary formation has been in such flux, which is both the blessing and the curse of English. From where I see it, it’s probably completely different than for an 18th-centuryist.
JK: Don’t say anything you’ll regret!
JMJ: I’m not! But it’s not always clear what the object of knowledge is.
JK: If there’s a problem in literary studies, it’s our disciplinary self-hatred and self-denigration. We are, for reasons that go pretty deep and would be interesting to look at closely, disposed to discount our own core competencies, and the quality of work that’s done in the discipline. And given that no one else is going to value what we do, or at least many other people don’t, it’s tragic —
LG: But Jonathan, these are two separate questions. One is a public-relations question, and one is a question of actual evaluation. Do you think that we are as strong as you would like us to tell others we are?
SL: In terms of the practical skills that you need in literary studies, we’re doing fine. But one of the competencies we have lost is a sense of solidarity, so that the problems in one another’s fields seem distant from one another. Yes, we are speaking from different fields, but damn it, we do the same work! We have to care about it for each other.
JK: Exactly! Hear hear.
AK: I don’t know how to be exactly hopeful about literary studies. I also work in film and I see lots of enthusiasm there. The enthusiasm from students for visual culture is often somehow lamented by literary scholars. But there are conceptually driven, dynamic ways of linking Beowulf and the Marvel universe. We have a lot of analytical tendencies and habits that have inhibited that possibility.
EG: Are we talking about returning to the human in humanistic inquiry, and the life of the human in language?
AK: I don’t have an allergy to that.
EG: It’s a shared ground on which we’re all facing the same set of questions. We have different methodologies, critical approaches, perspectives, but we can really bring students into an exciting sense of how it’s relevant to them as humans who live a life in language: the fullness of the social problems that language arrives with and also the intellectual possibilities that language gives us. And even the core pleasures. Not just core skills, but core pleasures of life.
LG: Has there been a retreat from core pleasures?
JK: I’m not sure what that would mean.
LG: A retreat from teaching the cultivation of aesthetic receptivity.
JK: As the oldest person at this table, I think people have been saying that for the entirety of my career, ever since I entered graduate school. There’s something about the structure of the discipline that generates that lament periodically, which would be an interesting thing to look at closely. But no, I don’t think so.
JMJ: I’m coming from an area-studies perspective. In order to be able to do things like elicit pleasure from my students, we have to go through fairly elaborate groundings. So I don’t think it’s just about experiences or skills. That’s a place where we’ve had trouble keeping enrollments up in what we used to call marginalized parts of the discipline. Students will take an intro course in postcolonial literature, but it’s extremely hard to enroll advanced-level courses in those subjects.
EG: I taught the Popol Vuh last quarter! The Mayan story of creation. There’s a lot of work leading up to teach that. But difficulty can be a pleasure. The difficulty of knowledge can be a pleasure.
LG: What are the most exciting developments in literary criticism or literary theory on the horizon now?
SL: Changes occurring to the conventions of scholarly writing. Latitude is growing, opening up more ideas about what scholarly writing can look like, and how it has to reach its audience. I just picked up Andrea Long Chu’s book at the Verso sale, so I’m thinking of what were previously seen as scholarly-adjacent forms of writing that are now moving into the spotlight. That is very exciting to me, because it means that we get to break out from some of the conventions and forms we’ve been taught are the only way scholarship can be made.
JK: I agree with Sheila, but I also want to speak on behalf of conventions and rules. The kind of blending of creative and critical writing that one is beginning to see more of is a terrific development. But I also think that one way of forming solidarity is to appreciate the rules of ordinary scholarly writing. We share all kinds of conventions that bring us together. I’ve been doing some work on practices of quotation, for example, which span every subfield in literary studies. Getting a handle on our shared conventions is important for understanding the epistemic grounding of the discipline, but also for cultivating solidarity.
Literature understands the world in its own particular way.
LG: Edgar, your work is at the crossroads of a very particular sort of canon in American literature on the one hand, the sort of modernist lineage, and on the other, texts that are broadly unfamiliar to most of the people working in your field. Working at this strange crossroads, what are your thoughts about canon-formation now?
EG: One of the most exciting things that I have encountered in my arrival to academia has been the possibility for my own voice, as a person from a nontraditional background, from a community college, wanting to work on things like the Mayan Popol Vuh, indigenous studies, pictographs, hieroglyphs, non-Western texts, in conversation with the canon — in an English department, not in an anthropology department. That’s a real fundamental distinction and gets at what’s good and important about literary studies: honoring the worlding of words.
JMJ: One of the most exciting things, which arises from a problem — the demise of comp lit as a powerful institutional force, and the demise of a lot of national- and area-studies departments — is that those fields are increasingly being folded into English departments or English departments are feeling increased pressure to hire Africanists and South Asianists. Increasingly an English department has to contend with all of the things that don’t traditionally fall under the auspices of an English department. While that can be difficult to negotiate, it’s also a very exciting opportunity.
LG: Going forward, how will English or literary studies define itself against sociology and anthropology?
JMJ: I can speak to that briefly because it’s a huge part of what I have to negotiate. One of the challenges of cultural studies is that it’s easy to forget that what we offer that is distinct from those fields is that we are not studying the world. We are studying mediations of the world. We are certainly not going to rival our anthropologist and quantitative-sociologist colleagues in training students to make empirically defensible observations. We are giving them specific genealogies of how people have refracted those practices through text. It’s a basic but very important distinction.
JK: And literature understands the world in its own particular way. There is a way that by paying close attention to and writing about literary artifacts, one can understand things about the world itself. Getting a grip on how that works provides something like the basis for interdisciplinary relations with sociology, anthropology, history, and other disciplines.
MA: What role should the MLA play now?
SL: It should serve the purpose, and I’m paraphrasing Fred Moten here, of radical hanging out. We do solitary work, and the social role that conferences play is really important.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Maximillian Alvarez is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review. Len Gutkin is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review and the author of Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, out in March from the University of Virginia Press.
* See Claudia Brodsky in PMLA (March 2016). Brodsky describes increases in philosophy enrollments at a range of colleges. U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by The Chronicle indicate that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in philosophy increased from 2007-8 to 2012-13 but began declining in 2013-14; by 2018 the number had dropped below the 2007-8 level.