There is a sharp piece in The Nation this week on the state of the humanities in higher education. The author, William Deresiewicz, takes the MLA Job List as an indicator of where things stand, and when he looks at the ads he sees one odd and incoherent profile after another. It’s a damning survey, all the more so as it appears in the leftist weekly:
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.”
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.