English Lit’s Poor Job Market

I have the print copy of the October 2009 Modern Language Association Job List, the annual publication in which English departments in research universities and major liberal arts colleges publicize open positions. It doesn’t contain every job opening in English literature at every institution of higher learning, but it is the main source for people looking for tenure-track openings. For graduate students, lecturers, and adjuncts in the traditional fields of English literature defined by historical periods, it’s a depressing document. Thousands of AbDs and recent PhDs long for a tenure-track post, or even a renewable lectureship in Old English, Medieval, Renaissance, and so on up to 20th-century British literature. Last year, the entire MLA Job List postings dropped 21 percent from the previous year, “the steepest annual decline in its 34-year history,” InsideHigherEd.com reported. This year looks no better. In particular, if candidates wrote a dissertation on Milton, Dickens, even Shakespeare, the odds of getting an interview look bad.
Here is the breakdown of all jobs across the entire country in the following areas:
—–Old English 1 position
—–Medieval 8 positions
—–Renaissance (or Early Modern or Shakespeare) 14 positions
—–17th Century 1 positions
—–18th Century 7 positions
—–Romanticism 6 positions
—–19th Century 7 positions
—–20th Century 11 positions
Think of what this means. For the whole field of Old English, Beowulf and the rest, United States universities offer a single open slot, as they do for 17th-century English literature. Indeed, for the entire history of English literature (not including drama or American and Anglophone literature), we have a total of 55 positions advertised in the MLA Job List. How many thousands of graduate students and non-tenure-track teachers and independent scholars crave a shot at one of those plums?

Think of it, too, on the supply side. The Carnegie Foundation lists 283 research universities in its Basic Classification, and they have a total enrollment of nearly five million students. This category does not include liberal arts colleges whose English departments desire to have specialists in English literary historical periods. Among those several hundred departments, fewer have traditional lines to fill. Some already have specialists in Old English etc. who plan to remain in place for another 25 years. They don’t need another one. Others find that sign-ups have slipped so much in English literature classes that they can’t justify replacements to the dean when their specialist in the area retires.
If the trend continues, it will have a self-fulfilling impact. If jobs are simply not to be found in certain fields, graduate students won’t enter those fields. That will make them even less popular, producing fewer enrollments in upper-division courses in Romanticism et al, and reducing the presence of authors in those fields in general education courses at the lower-division level. We will steadily lose John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History in the curriculum.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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