Thursday, March 27, 2008

How Goes English as a Discipline?

From The Nation, an article on trends in the nation’s English Departments.
There’s no better way to take the profession’s temperature, it seems to me, than by scanning the Modern Language Association Job Information List, the quarterly catalog of faculty openings in American English departments. If you want to know where an institution is at, take a look at what it wants. The most striking fact about this year’s list is that the lion’s share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the “service” component of an English department’s role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you’ve got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.

That’s more than half the list, and we still haven’t gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature. Even more significant is the number of positions, again about a third, that call for particular expertise in literature of one or another identity group. “Subfields might include transnational, hemispheric, ethnic and queer literatures.” “Postcolonial emphasis” is “required.” “Additional expertise in African-American and/or ethnic American literature highly desirable.”

To be fair, the list reflects not so much the overall composition of English departments as the ways they’re trying to up-armor themselves to cover perceived gaps. More revealing in this connection than the familiar identity-groups laundry list, which at least has intellectual coherence, is the whatever-works grab bag: “Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies”; “literature of the immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and technology, and material culture”; “visual culture; cultural studies and theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies.” The items on these lists are not just different things--apples and oranges--they’re different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions--apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two. There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism--whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children’s literature, even in something called “digital humanities.”
All this, of course, is happening in the context of declining enrollments.
Student priorities are shifting to more “practical” majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.

In other words, the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.
But which, we have to ask, is worse: having the agenda set by teenagers, or having it set by leftist, fadish professors? Our answer to that is pretty obvious.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Nomy said...

What happens when the agenda of the teenagers matches that of the "leftish, fadish" professors? Will you quit your complaining about the rampant leftist English professors then?

9:04 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

What happens when the agenda of the teenagers matches that of the "leftish, fadish" professors?

It's never going to happen. Most students are more concerned with the real world than the narrow, politically correct precincts of academia.

You seem to be assuming that teenagers can be indoctrinated into political correctness. A fair number can, certainly, but quite a lot can't.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

nomy, you apparently know nothing about elementary economic behavior.

Did you even read the story?

Students are choosing, of their own accord, majors which equate more with their interests and provide the value-add necessary to attain good jobs, etc. which, due to the self-destruction of English academia, are not English degrees.

When the humanities completely die out in academia (they are almost entirely dead intellectually already), the Left will have only itself to blame.

(See, for example, Goordon Wood's new book "The Purpose of the Past" for evidence of this with regard to the history profession).

3:01 PM  
Blogger James Pawlak said...

Too much of academia is involved in what can only be describe fully in the most gross terms: Circle jerks; And, Mental masturbation---Both having little, if anything, to do with the General (Even educated) public and, for that part, with the reality of effective communications with others in the wide, wide, world.

5:03 PM  
Blogger John Pack Lambert said...

I actually think a focus on writing in postings is a good thing. I also think it is generally a bad think when advanced writing classes get always cast off to be done by adjunct professors. Of course it helps I have the perspective of both Brigham Young University and Wayne State University. Plus doing graduate history work at Eastern Michigan University. BYU had the best writting requirements. They had a course in historical methods which Wayne State University lacked. At Eastern Michigan there were grad courses that had no research paper requirements. BYU had research paper requirements in all classes. My Civil War history class at BYU had more required writing than most courses at Eastern Michigan.

10:48 AM  

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