Crisis in English

When the Modern Language Association convenes this year, highbrow literary questions will take a back seat to a thorny debate about the ongoing dearth of jobs.

Published December 25, 1998 5:39PM (EST)

Every application to graduate school in English literature should come with a cigarette-style warning: This occupation is a black hole.

As the American economy thrums along with rock-bottom unemployment, the
statistics for English graduate students are jaw-dropping. From 1990 to 1995,
according to the Modern Language Association, whose conference begins in San
Francisco this week, 55 percent of the 4,700 students who earned a Ph.D. in
English failed to land the kind of job they were trained for. The trend is
projected to continue at least through 2000. Rather than well-paying, tenure-track positions (the kind their mentors have), they were likely to end up as
highway-rambling adjunct professors, stringing together a course at a
community college here, a course at a nonselective public university there,
just to squeak above the poverty line. If, that is, they get an academic job at all.

None of this would have surprised H.L. Mencken, who considered it a fool's errand to try to make a living doing intellectual work in the United States, home to boobus Americanus, but it has everyone at the Modern Language Association stymied. The graduate students demand that the professors do something about it -- they plan a quasi-palace coup in San Francisco. The
professors wince and say they are sympathetic, but they can't do anything
without the help of their universities, and the universities say they'd love
to help, but this year is financially tight.

In the long term, the answer seems simple enough: Decrease the supply until it equals the demand. Reduce the intake of new graduate students until, say, 80 or 90 percent are finding jobs in their field. Here is where we hit the crux of the matter: The system works just fine for everyone except graduate
students. Since they have no power to change the rules of the game, it will
continue to be played this way. Conservatives claim that Marxism is alive
these days only in university literary departments. There may be a reason.
Higher education is one of the few industries left that thrives on the
exploitation of a lumpenproletariat.

An October report from the Modern Language Association, published in the association's journal, PMLA, shows how higher education's version of three-card monte works. Tenure-track jobs -- the good ones -- haven't grown at the same rate as enrollment in graduate school. As a result, those jobs have become more prestigious. As the full professors puff ever fuller with prestige, they view teaching subjects like freshman writing as beneath them. Which means more graduate students and adjuncts are required to teach those lower-level courses. This system saves the universities money. From 1970 to today, the proportion of part-time teachers grew from 22 percent of all professors to 40 percent.

The MLA leadership says it has been begging universities to end this vicious cycle, but they don't listen (we are shocked). So the MLA has been reduced to claiming that a Ph.D. in English can be good preparation for many careers: journalism, Web design, law. The graduate students are out for blood. You're telling us now? Seven years of penny-pinching, mastering the hieroglyphics of high theory, and writing a dissertation -- all to prepare us to go back to school and study law? The MLA also says departments should inform students at application time about job-market trends. (Cigarette-style warnings aren't just a joke.)

For those students still in the pipeline, and without the brilliant,
marketable insight of the moment -- or the right connections -- there is probably no choice but to look outside of the academy for work. Down the road, however, to stop the exploitative cycle, the professors with the plum jobs will have to show some more courage than they have so far. They'll have to fight against the very trends that make their own positions so esteemed. English departments can, on their own, vote to reduce the admission of graduate students; they aren't powerless. And senior professors can -- God forbid -- go into the trenches and help teach low-level courses, taking a hit in the free time they have for research. They can refuse to accept more adjuncts in their departments. No one wants to go first -- both out of self-interest, and because the university president will scream, "Who's going to teach freshman composition?" But let the president figure out how to create a system that doesn't lean so heavily on graduate students and adjuncts. Her solution might actually include hiring more full-time, real, English professors.

More courageous would be for mediocre-or-worse departments to wave the white flag and stop admitting graduate students altogether. Do Idaho State
University and Middle Tennessee State University -- ranked 126th and 127th out
of 127 graduate programs by the National Research Council in 1995 -- think they
are doing anyone any favors by pumping out more Ph.D.'s?

Silly arguments have been raised within the MLA against reducing the number of graduate students. Some senior professors -- Rutgers' Patricia Carter, for instance -- refuse to act because doing so might mean a reduction in graduate-student diversity. But it simply doesn't follow that a department
with 20 students must be less diverse than a department with 40.

A few of the dyed-in-the-wool lefties -- notably Andrew Ross, of New York University -- propound that if graduate-student enrollment is reduced, fewer well-trained intellectual radicals will be around for the next revolution. That seems to underestimate the political commitment of students. Even if a would-have-been graduate student takes a job at one of the hundreds of corporations scrambling for fresh blood, there's no reason she can't read
Marx, Foucault and Derrida after 5 o'clock and carry on the revolution
from within. The only difference is that she would be a revolutionary whose
rent is up to date and who can afford to eat out once in a while.

By Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea is a writer living in Washington.

MORE FROM Christopher Shea

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College