Twilight of the English professors

by Rob Horning

19 March 2008


One of the best personal decisions I’ve made was the one to give up on writing a dissertation in English Literature. It seemed silly to quit at the end, and only when the work got serious and needed to be professionalized, but there is such a thing as sunk costs, and at some point I had to write mine off. I didn’t have any interest in being a professor. No dissertation, no matter how broad or theoretical or New Historicist, was going to make up for my deciding to study English instead of economics or even sociology, the subjects I was actually interested in. At some point, I was going to have to try to say something meaningful about literature as literature, and I didn’t believe anymore that there was anything worth saying. This may have been my imaginative failing, but I was thinking that literature had only a faint impact on life as it was lived by most people, so to comment on it is to theorize about echoes when you could be wrangling with the real thing. It seems as though you are rejecting reality for the cave and the shadows. (I have a similar understanding of real news—aka business news—versus the personal-interest vicarious-fantasy material masquerading as news. Studying literature started to seem to me a way of affirming the latter over the former.)

Still, this Nation item depressed me completely. William Deresiewicz looks at the MLA job list and comes away with these impressions:

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.” ...

This year’s Job List confirms the picture of a profession suffering from an epochal loss of confidence. It’s not just the fear you can smell in the postings. It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the 18 years since Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies. As Harvard professor Louis Menand said three years ago, our graduate students are writing the same dissertations, with the same tools, as they were in 1990. Nor has any major new star—a Butler, an Edward Said, a Harold Bloom—emerged since then to provide intellectual leadership, or even a sense of intellectual adventure. The job market’s long-term depression has deepened the mood. Most professors I know discourage even their best students from going to graduate school; one actually refuses to talk to them about it. This is a profession that is losing its will to live.

Would that someone would have discouraged me. But the universities need writing teachers, and literature grad students can be impressed into teaching composition courses for meager wages as long as studying literature for a living can be dangled before them as enticement. In the English Department I was connected with, the rhetoric and composition folk formed a well-disciplined and highly professionalized cadre who were devoted to instrumentalizing the department’s course offerings. They had the energy for this because their teaching and their studies weren’t fatally split. They and their kind will inevitably inherit the shell of the English departments that are left when lit studies collapse completely. Perhaps they will be absorbed by Education departments, who share a similar fetish for pedagogy for pedagogy’s sake.

On a related note, John Mullen, writing in the TLS, looks at Rónán McDonald’s recent book The Death of the Critic and decides that English professors are ruining their own brand.

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