Higher Education

whither English revised

Read this recent article in The Nation by  William Deresiewicz (via Kairosnews) on the continuing demise of English *cough* I mean literary studies. Deresiewicz, a regular contributor to The Nation, is an associate professor in English at Yale. He notes the decline over the last decade in student interest in his own department from 120 to 90 majors a year and a corollary decline in faculty from 55 to 45. As he explains, "Student priorities are shifting to more ‘practical’ majors like
economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which
bring in a lot more money."

But what is more curious, and quite amusing to me really, are the other explanations he offers for what he ultimately comes to characterize as the slow death of academic literary criticism. He begins with analyzing the MLA job list and discovers that more than a third of the positions are rhet/comp, communications, professional and technical writing. Another 15% are in creative writing.


As Deresiewicz observes "Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to
write." Well I guess that might be the case after more than a century of teaching "kids" how to read but not how to write. Or wait, maybe the expectation is that this kind of logic doesn’t swing both ways? That lit faculty can teach students to both read and write, where their writing colleagues are relegated to one side of this equation? 

Deresiewicz then goes on to criticize literary studies job descriptions, which is almost as much fun as laughing at MLA panel titles. After a long list of various minority interest he remarks:

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."

Yes, some mysterious creature called digital humanities. Yes that’s very strange. Certainly it’s not anything senior faculty at Yale would have heard of before. And you say you’re losing students? Hmmm… Yes, very strange indeed. But of course, it’s this battle for student interests that is leading to the intellectual decline of the profession (characterized most profoundly by this filthy, degrading, anti-intellectual interest in writing!). As he continues: "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

OK, this is weak on so many levels. First he notes that students are running off to fields like economics. Is that because economics caters to teenagers’ whims? I think not. So why would English have to do this? Second, he notes how job descriptions are filled with requirements for various ethnic literatures, gender and sexuality, performance studies, cultural theory, ecocriticsm, plus the things above. I guess that just defines the difference between Yale students and Cortland students b/c if we were defining our curriculum to meet our students’ interests, we certainly wouldn’t be coming up with the list he comes up with! In Deresiewicz’s article these subjects are the equivalent of recess and chocolate cake: not serious.

But all of this is completely missing the point. The sad thing here is that Deresiewicz is attacking many of his colleagues, suggesting their work in writing or ethnic literatures is unimportant or anti-intellectual or merely trendy. It’s sad b/c aside from the aging, old-fashioned colleagues with whom he’s siding, it is these colleagues that he is attacking that are most likely to be sympathetic to his situation. BTW, this is from a guy whose current book project is title Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston and teaches contemporary Indian literature, so you’d almost have to wonder if it was a joke.

No, I think all of this is a lot more simple than it sounds. First, I think English had a disproportionate number of majors back in the 50s and 60s. As the social sciences came onto students’ radar they became more attractive. Nowadays most psych majors don’t go on to specifically psych related fields. Also you have rising respect for business-related and professionalizing majors. The shifting demographics of college attendance means more students are banking on jobs, looking at college as career-prep. This is compounded by the necessity for tertiary technical-professional education for many information economy careers. Put plainly, you aren’t going to get a job in the tech sector without acquiring some tech skills first.

So all that means an understandable decline in English majors but it also points to the reality that English no longer provides what it once did. Maybe without intending to, in the mid-20th century, literary studies provided enough literacy skills to get you started on a career. Apparently that’s no longer the case, even for students as privileged as those at Yale–many of whom are headed to grad, law, or business school anyway.

I agree with Deresiewicz that English is at sea. Likely lost and adrift. He notes "no major
theoretical school has emerged in the eighteen years since Judith
Butler’s Gender Trouble revolutionized gender studies." This indicates the decline of the field. I suppose someone might want to argue with that. I think it’s interesting to note that this largely shadows the rise of the Internet. It’s also interesting but not surprising that he fails to note the rise of new media studies in English as a major field, even though the evidence for it is all around him in the job ads he studies.

In the end, there is clearly a place for the literature and intellectual practices Deresiewicz values. It’s just not the place it held in the past. We can continue to debate the relative merits of new intellectual practices from rhetoric to theory to technology to ethnic studies, but I think there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree upon: the one truly anti-intellectual position is to assert that things do not change. One undeniable way of dying is to stay perfectly still. If that is what literary studies hopes to do, then it certainly will die.

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