English Departments See Iceberg Ahead, Keep to Course

Last month, the Modern Language Association (MLA) issued the report of its Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.  The crucial word in the report is “unsustainable.” The authors recognize that the old model of luring students into doctoral programs, keeping them at work on degrees for up to a decade, and then letting them loose into a shaky job market can’t go on. Students have begun to realize that Ph.Ds might make nice wall décor, but that’s about all.

The job market for people with doctorates in literature and languages is dismal. According to the report, only about 60 percent of those who working on their degrees will find tenure-track jobs. By MLA estimates, roughly one thousand newly-minted Ph.Ds are about to enter a job market where there are approximately six hundred openings.

That ratio, however, is far too high; the MLA has failed to take into consideration the glut of older Ph.Ds who are also looking for academic jobs but haven’t been able to land one. The probability that a student who enters a doctoral program today will eventually cash in on his or her investment with one of those coveted tenured professor positions is quite low.

If you know anything about the nature of the MLA, you won’t be surprised to hear that the report attempts to pin the blame for the erosion of its market on various knuckle-dragging tendencies that oddly seem to be gaining strength in America: “anti-intellectualism, anti-aesthetic hostility to literature, antipathy to theory, and nativist animosity to the study of languages other than English.”

In other words, the English Ph.D. is a victim of dark, reactionary forces.

It never occurs to the authors of the report that the explanation might be different. As Mary Grabar wrote in her recent essay Goodbye to English Departments, “Decades ago, politics of race, class, and gender overtook any concern for preserving and perpetuating poetic art.” Could it be that there is less demand for English professors today than in the past because few people see much value in their heavily politicized and theorized courses?

The big point of the report is to recommend ways of saving the ship, but the recommendations aren’t much better than the analysis of the reasons why things are “unsustainable.”

For example, the authors want to “rethink admissions practices” by “taking care to build the pipeline of applicants for small fields and subfields from underrepresented groups.” To whatever extent that “diversity” move brings in new students for those “small fields and subfields,” it would just set a different group of students up for disappointment and failure.

Another recommendation is to strengthen teaching preparation. Now, it is true (as many undergrads will tell you) that many new professors in English (and other courses as well) are poor at teaching. But even if their grad studies turned students into exemplary classroom teachers, that wouldn’t do anything to solve the sustainability problem.

The most sensible of the recommendations is to reduce the time it takes to earn the degree to five years. It only serves the interests of the faculty to hold students as veritable indentured servants for as long as they do, but making it less costly to obtain a Ph.D. won’t do a thing to increase the demand for them.

Here is the bitter reality that the MLA won’t face – professors have been killing their market with all of their ideological zealotry and quirky tangents. Unless a miracle changes that, the ship is going to sink.

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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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