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the decline of english

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(xposted to long sunday)

There’s a whole lot that’s right in William Deresiewicz’s review / jeremiad in The Nation focused on the ill health of the discipline of English circa now in the US. But don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot that’s way off in the piece too. Let’s start with the way off. Speaking of the MLA job list, he takes us on a tour of the silly stuff they’re listing nowadays, finally landing in the seemingly safe space of American lit, which is, “well, literature” at least.

When we [get to the literature positions] 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 is an old story, but let’s stop for a moment to consider what the many ads like the last one, for a tenure-track position in twentieth-/twenty-first-century American fiction, actually mean. They mean that you can be a brilliant young scholar, from a top program, but if you’re an expert in Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, or Malamud, Bellow and Roth, or Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, or all of them plus Dreiser, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Mailer, Salinger, Capote, Kerouac, Burroughs, Updike, Chandler, Cheever, Heller, Gore Vidal, Cormac McCarthy and God’s own novelist himself, Vladimir Nabokov, plus Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, but not in African-American or ethnic American fiction, then there are a lot of jobs you just aren’t going to get. And there weren’t that many jobs in American fiction to begin with. Graduate students aren’t stupid, not even in practical terms, not anymore. So nearly everyone is studying at least some minority literature, and everything else–not the totality of what’s valuable in twentieth-century American fiction but certainly the preponderance of it–is getting studied a lot less.

The overall focus on the piece is on the decline of English enrollment and the corresponding efforts to adapt to the crisis on the part of the faculties themselves. Later in the piece, we get the big payoff line “the profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.” But I’m pretty damn sure that increased emphasis on formerly-marginal groups / literatures has anything at all to do with declining enrollments – probably the opposite is closer to the truth. Given the choice between Morrison and Chaucer, or say Flannery O’Connor over Cormac McCarthy, I’m not sure the students wouldn’t pick the former in either case.

This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…)

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.”

It is a bit difficult not to wonder how Deresiewicz’s own current project avoids the trap of trendiness that he’s describing…

My current project is Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston. The book draws on fiction, film, television, poetry, and other arts, as well as on insights from the social sciences, to trace the impact of modernity on the ways that friendship has been imagined and practiced in Great Britain and the United States over the past two centuries.

Look, more power to him, but the title sounds exactly like the sort of course listing that people run to boost student numbers, especially at elite places where numbers really can matter on a course by course basis. Theme X: From Canonical Text Y to the Simpsons. Or was it Buffy? Depends. (Funny to think that he couldn’t really call it from Jane Austen to Friends, so Dame Jennifer gets the main billing…) We used to joke that adding the Simpsons to a course description would boost enrollment 1000%. And we joked this way because it was absolutely true. A class on satire that would draw 30 turned into a giant lecture with a squad of TAs if you showed cartoons on the first day of class.

The rest of the piece largely avoids this sort of thing, thankfully, and successfully delineates some of the real issues facing English today. This, for instance, is for the most part right:

What’s going on? Three things, to judge from their absence from Graff’s history, that have never happened before. First, the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we’ve gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. 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. This is also unprecedented. However bitter the ideological battles Graff described, they were driven by the profession’s internal dynamics, not by what our students wanted, or what they thought they wanted, or what we thought they thought they wanted. If grade schools behaved like this, every subject would be recess, and lunch would consist of chocolate cake.

Graff’s critical movements were proud, militant insurgencies, out to transform the world. 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 eighteen 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.

Twenty years after Professing Literature, the “conflicts” still exist, but given the larger context in which they’re taking place, they scarcely matter anymore. The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.

Now first of all, and while I only have the evidence garnered from my time in a few different English departments over the last ten years as well as the ambient stuff that goes around, he’s absolutely right about the declining enrollments. The department (big research 1 state institution) where I worked until recently is in full-on panic, as they’ve lost half. As far as I know, the place where I did my graduate work (a peer institution to Deresiewicz’s current place) is having the same sort of trouble that he describes. And there is absolutely no doubt that the worsening economic conditions – and in particular, the increasing anxiety that college-aged students feel when it comes to the job market that they anticipate entering – has a lot to do with this pattern.

But I can’t help but feel that there’s something else going on with the declining enrollments as well. After all, just as it’s never the wrong time for the Bush administration to push tax cuts (economy goes up, and the government has too much of “your” money; it goes down and its time for some cleansing stimulus), I’m not sure it’s ever been the right time to sign on for an English major. I don’t have the figures at hand, but it seems to me that there were good reasons in the 90s… and the 80s… and the 70s… and the 60s… to look for a more efficiently marketable degree.

In other words, to my mind, there are other issues here that inform the change beyond what I think Deresiewicz is trying to establish to be a self-reinforcing cycle of faculty desperation and the watering down of the course offerings. I wish I had time to go fully into all of them, and maybe I will in a future post. Just quickly for now: there’s the way that however valuable historicism is a scholarly stance, it tends to fall relatively flat in the classroom. I say this as a historicist, a part historicist, myself: given equivalent teaching quality, the students will be hooked by the magic tricks you can perform on The Waste Land via vulgar decon and/or new critical torque far faster than they will by the status of the industrial society in Victorian Britain and the way that it informs Hard Times. There’s much more to be said about this, of course, and I will soon… Beyond this, intellectual fadism and the mal-distribution of teaching emphasis probably doesn’t help either. There are other factors, some of which Deresiewicz touches on – the farming out of intro classes to part time workers, the soft condescension of letting everyone do creative writing, and so on…

But there’s one important issue that I do want to focus on here – and it is one that, for reasons hinted at above, obviously wouldn’t make it into Deresiewicz’s piece. Take a look again at the timing of the decline as described in the piece:

In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year.(snip)

It’s the fact that no major theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen 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.

Deresiewicz has all the pieces of the puzzle on the board, they just need to be put together. The decline of the English major has corresponded with the decline of two complexly, but distinctly, related things. They are: the reign of theory and what we might call the politicized classroom. These two factors are complexly related, in my mind, because I’m mostly sure that the politics of theory, as practiced by English departments, wasn’t much of a politics at all, and certainly wasn’t a politics with any (easy) applicability in the real world. Further, the de-politicization of the classroom is something that I’d mostly attribute not simply to the failure of theory, but mostly to the changing atmosphere after 9/11, when conservative attacks on “liberal bias” were front and center in the news.

I went to grad school during the last days of theory. We started out in our first years with Derrida seminars and ended scrambling to become textual materialists. It became gauche (!), by the end, to go on about Lacan or Althusser, Foucault or Deleuze. But I also got my first tenure track job in the years of the “war on terror.” True to form, true to my academic generation, I am a leftist who apologizes for mentioning Iraq in passing during my classes on Conrad, and who probably advances better critiques of Marx than appreciations of him. Such was the ideological weather on the day I was born to the professoriate – and it’s grown to feel like the way the weather is supposed to be, has always been. There are times when I can tell that the students don’t want me to pull my punches, but I inevitably do.

I am beginning to feel that students have felt the change in the atmosphere of the English department and have responded by finding other subjects in which to major. The politics may have been largely imaginary back before the fall of theory, but the ethos of radicalism was perhaps hugely more attractive than, say, learning about the fruits of some very solid and largely uncontroversial archival work that your teacher is involved in. Perhaps we as a discipline were just holding off the inevitable by becoming, for so many years, the defacto home of left politics in the academy. But it is worth noting, now that the politics have receded and with them the student numbers, that something we were doing was working. And it is further worth noting just how hard it is for us to admit what it was that was different just before the numbers dropped.

We are, in sum, left in a tough, but not impossible situation…. More to come, I promise…

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 18, 2008 at 2:42 am

Posted in academia, theory

18 Responses

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  1. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…)

    Yes please. You got dirt on The Nation’s backstory? I don’t know it and would love to hear…

    (I met one of the reviewers and have a funny/annoying story there, but I’m obviously not going to post about him by name here.)


    March 18, 2008 at 4:34 am

  2. And as for the rest of this great post … aaagh! I’m in agreement, I’m depressed by all this stuff, I’m having way too many thoughts bouncing around in my head from this to even start…

    ok, ok, to just start, with my current institution, we have seen the founding of the various ethnic studies departments in the 60s as well as hugely beefed up mid- and far- East language programs. Not only do they offer lit courses for their majors and non-majors with GE requirements, pulling from the pool of possible English majors and course-takers, but in their sociological/activist bent they offer a pragmatic and sensible, and possibly “easier,” or more simplistic, take on politics that seems seductive to students.

    So besides the “crap I just failed out of my bio class and need an easy major” line, as one of my students just put it, these “new” departments offer a more political politics. So really depts who take Deresiewicz’s position and ignore “all that identity lit” are going to lose out even more; he’s got the thing exactly backwards.

    Too much stuff here for me to respond to it all, but I did want to point to the gap you’ve got there with “theory/politics” ending in 1990 and the War on Terra coming in 2001. What happened in the 90s? Does it all come down to, the Wall fell, Fukiyama was right, and English got boring?

    1990 was also the birth of the mod conf too, if you notice.


    March 18, 2008 at 4:55 am

  3. Sisyphus,

    It’s not really dirt on the Nation – but it doesn’t take much time at the outer edges of that circle to see the toxic pen / gown issue going on there. Works both ways, I guess. At some point I’ll say more about it.

    Very, very interesting what you say about the parallel institutions, the appeal of the coherent and political if softly so… Yes…

    And I do need to say more about what happened in the (late) 90s. (Got tired at the end!) Will do soon…


    March 18, 2008 at 11:30 am

  4. I commented here and on the Long Sunday version. This is a really great post, but as I say in the other two places, I think we should all be unafraid to re-politicize the classroom a little bit. Reading Conrad in 2008 has a whole hell of a lot to do with Iraq; we can’t and shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

    G C

    March 18, 2008 at 1:16 pm

  5. I loved this post. The notion that the English major became less popular as it became less overtly political is blindingly obvious, but I’m ashamed to say that because of the mainstream consensus that idealistic adolescents are being driven away by radical politics, the thought never occurred to me until now. We need to go on the offensive on this idea!


    March 18, 2008 at 5:47 pm

  6. Echoing others, I really appreciate this post.

    That said, correct me if I’m wrong (I mean it) but the post suggests:

    1) a recognition that the politics of the English department “wasn’t much of a politics at all”
    2) a claim that this faux-politics, contra common sense, was good for the discipline (in terms of student numbers)
    3) a claim that a return to or reinvention of this faux-radicalism would be salutary

    To the mix I would note that a real politics would address (and *organize* around) the “neoliberalization” of the university, academic precarity, etc…. Such a politics is of course highly unlikely – departmentally – given departmental and faculty *interests*, which must find purchase within divisions and central university administrations. Speaking as a grad student (who somehow snuck into an elite, “first-tier” US university), the notion of shoring up the discipline by re-invoking faux-politics (at the expense of politicizing academia itself) seems kind of cynical to me.

    I would also add that as someone drawn into an English major principally for an attraction to the critical theory I couldn’t find in other departments – and as a grad student in English in a prestigious ostensibly progressive department – I haven’t heard the words “Iraq,” “imperialism,” or “global capitalism,” uttered once since arriving (where they were uttered and considered in my classes back in a public Uni. in Canada). Perhaps this is the point. Politicization is for undergraduates. When it comes to serious graduate work, we put our nose to the archival grindstone to produce rigorous, fine-grained scholarship (b/c everyone recognizes that, at this stage in the game the joke’s up, the “politics” was always in bad faith and grad school a time for serious scholarship, not politics).

    Simplifying in the extreme, in a world gone wrong, English departments can remain relevant by: 1) providing refuge to aesthetes, lovers of literature, etc 2) attracting critical discontents that their interests might be disciplined (realigned to disciplinary academia) 3) becoming genuinely critical and threatening places to think and work

    – 3) will never happen now that the jig is up with the politicization
    – 2) is too cynical to consciously consider, so
    – the move is back to 1)

    Speaking to a senior faculty member (a big-time academic with lefty sympathies), I learned that there’d been a pivotal debate about 15 years ago in the humanities division of my current institution and the single committee member advocating option 3 was (no doubt correctly) seen as someone who wanted to “sunset” the institution. Market realities determine disciplinary/institutional self-interest, and the genuine radical was shutout by the realists who didn’t want to see their departments/division/institution disappear over the imminent horizon.

    If English departments want to hold onto the object of knowledge that delimits their disciplinary claim, they’ve got to simply recognize the discipline’s decline is intractable. Re-enlivening the discipline with a return to the political, meanwhile, seems to me a band-aid that won’t stick, as anyone serious about humanitarian or political commitments quickly realizes that, 35-odd years into neoliberalism, English and the humanities are not the place to realize those commitments

    I lucked my way into a prestigious English department. The scholarship produced here is inspiring; the “politics,” such that it exists, is a transparent joke. I just completed a seminar with a once serious Marxist historian who has simply given up such thinking. In class he said, “What’s the point? Honest question. Why should I think about the poor? What will it do?”

    This is the environment in which I’ve entered grad school.


    March 18, 2008 at 10:35 pm

  7. GC and Adam,



    Really good thoughts there. And I absolutely know what yo mean. The short version answer – long version to come – is that I think those of us invested in the left and (for better or worse) entrenched in English departments might at once cynically discover a path out of the falling enrollments problem and figure out a path forward to a new model if not left at least purposeful work on literature.

    I may believe that previous modes were fruitless politically, but I do not necessarily believe that it is impossible that literary engagement could bear fruit in this direction.

    I’m being very vague, I know. It’s because it’s something I’m still working out. I tend to think that what I’m going to say has first of all something to do with the aesthetic, or even the beautiful. And it further has something to do with a changed sense of what it is that we might do (something like moving out of the frames of critique and historicization and toward, well, creation, and the support thereof.

    But it’s too early to say all that much more than that. I am not sure that this is not the place to realize my commitments, though I’m pretty sure the currently endorsed toolbox doesn’t help me much to do so.


    March 19, 2008 at 12:40 am

  8. . . . however valuable historicism is a scholarly stance, it tends to fall relatively flat in the classroom. I say this as a historicist, a part historicist, myself: given equivalent teaching quality, the students will be hooked by the magic tricks you can perform on The Waste Land via vulgar decon and/or new critical torque far faster than they will by the status of the industrial society in Victorian Britain and the way that it informs Hard Times.

    Isn’t the lesson there that students prefer literary approaches to literature? They can smell the politics a mile away in “the status of the industrial society in Victorian Britain and the way that it informs Hard Times,” and they don’t like it. There isn’t an obvious politics in either deconstruction or new criticism.


    March 19, 2008 at 1:26 am

  9. My own sense is that, yes, the disappearance of the radicalized classroom is strongly related to the decline in student numbers–but that what actually matters is less the loss of radicalism and more the loss of confidence. What was appealing about English, when I was an undergrad, was that it had something valuable to contribute to my understanding of the world–something I couldn’t get elsewhere. That happened to be theoretical radicalism (and I was too young and too ignorant to see the holes), but it needn’t be. The problem is that most of us English types don’t know what it is that we have to offer. Historicism fails in large part because Historians do it better. Philosophy fails for the same reason. But there are things–more native to literature–that we, and only we, have to say.


    March 19, 2008 at 3:12 am

  10. Pollian,

    Exactly. (Ah if we could only, you know, go over this at the bsah).


    Dunno. I’m not sure the politics really pushes out and through in that case. Maybe rendered enthusiastically… But then perhaps the failure of enthusiasm (or, as pollian says, the confidence that underwrites it) is the problem…


    March 19, 2008 at 3:04 pm

  11. Agreed. I’d be interested to hear why you think, by your own account, the students are most interested in “vulgar decon” or new criticism, and not in sociology. I don’t think the answer is that they’re attracted to radical politics, but I’ll wait to see what you say about that.


    March 19, 2008 at 3:55 pm

  12. Again, the short version: because vulgar decon / new criticism helps them to deal with the literary work as work, which is not something that is easy to do with out long observation of someone else doing it and practice.

    I think there are a lot of courses where the baffling nature of the literary work – and the incredibly baffling question of what to say about it – is immediately bracketed in order to turn to historical context (or, increasingly, the material circumstances of the emergence and the publication of the text). I deal with students in the aftermath of this all the time. They understand, for instance, the status of marriage during Chaucer’s time, but they don’t know how to begin talking about Chaucer’s text, how to manage its complexities of tone and presentation… So they’re totally lost, having been placed on a methodological path they can’t possibly contribute to in the space of a 6 pp paper…

    Now how to make the leap from this to politics is incredibly complicated, I’d be the first to admit.


    March 19, 2008 at 4:09 pm

  13. […] God bless Ads Without Products for having more heart than I do.  Original notice from ED. Posted in absurdity, kulturkritik, […]

  14. Undergraduate Literature majors become Literature majors because they first and foremost love “stories.” And one of the reasons that Literature majors were often the best and the brightest is that all learning passes through “story”. (All sorts of research on learning and cognition has arrived at this conclusion for quite some time now: story, story, story — even in the teaching and learning of the sciences and technology — story, story, story.)

    And yet, “story” is precisely what English departments have primarily abandoned. Rather than have the “stories” of the texts call the tune of the course, the faculty have been doing the “story-telling” — and the stories have been of the faculty’s preoccupations and “literary approaches” and not necessarily the “stories”: the preoccupations of the literary works themselves.

    In short, it is the professionalization of the undergraduate curriculum, its transformation by faculty into a pseudo-graduate program (that the faculty wish they could always teach at/in), that has destroyed the Literature major on American campuses.

    This is not a defense and illustration of specialisation by periodisation (Xth century literature, etc.) but rather a pleading for a return to the texts of literature (written and visual and auditory), a return to reading and seeing and hearing, a return to their attendant pleasures and, often, their pain.

    American students would kill to become Literature majors — if only we’d let them.

    Anti-hypocrisy Advocate

    March 29, 2008 at 5:18 am

  15. Yes, anti-hippo, you said that at The Valve. Thanks for initiating an otherwise great discussion, CR!


    April 3, 2008 at 12:21 pm

  16. […] writing for The Nation, and also to the outstanding response written by CR and posted to Ads Without Products and Long […]

  17. […] some credit for raising these issues, and for provoking the thoughtful responses from CR of Ads Without Products and Joseph Kugelmass of the Valve.  Now let’s see if he responds to […]

  18. Oi, all these years later I’m still waiting for that discussion of anti-intellectualism in the American journalistic left! Seriously, dude.


    May 19, 2011 at 12:17 am

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