what does the MLA job list mean?

Once again we enter into the academic job market season. A couple specific things have me thinking about the job market. MLAjobleaks.com, Dave Parry's interesting post on the job list, our own job listing in rhet/comp this year, department 3-year hiring plans, and of course, our own grad students heading onto the market. 

Out of curiosity, I took a cursory glance at the assistant professor jobs listed currently on the list. I am particularly interested in where the jobs are in terms of field. It's true that a report like this one from MLA will give you multi-year data. But in terms of job categories they always note that the percentages don't add up to 100% because jobs are often listed in multiple categories. As such, I wanted to see if I could pin jobs down into their main categories. Obviously that's subjective in some sense but I tried to go with what was in the title of the job or what was the main listing. So for example, though there are over 30 jobs in the "media" category only a handful of them are primarily media jobs, many are rhet/comp with some specialization in digital tech being desirable. It tells you that right now getting that kind of expertise is valuable but you don't want to define yourself primarily in that way, maybe. 

There are currently 240 assistant professor jobs listed. Over the last three years the total has been around 700, so there are more to come in the next few weeks. Out of the current jobs, here are the specializations with 10 or more openings: early American (13), early Modern Brit (11), British Modernism (11), 19th century Brit (13), creative writing-fiction (13), creative writing poetry (10), writing center director/wpa (10), professional/technical writing (12), rhetoric/composition (30). About half the jobs are in those nine fields. Contemporary America and British each had around 8 jobs. I counted 8 African-American jobs, 8 postcolonial and around 10 other minority literature jobs. Now for example there were 28 listing for postocolonial lit, so you can see how the double listing thing works. I wouldn't want to suggest that if one is in postocolonial lit, there are only 8 opportunities. 

What prompted this is wondering for example how the MLA's measurement that typically slightly more than 30% of all jobs are listed in rhet/comp actually translates into real, rhet/comp specialist jobs for grads in the field. Of the 56 results that return when searching for rhet/comp and asst prof, 10 are not rhet/comp specialist jobs of any kind, but maybe want someone who has some rhet/comp training. Of the remaining 46 some are really more professional writing/tech comm or specifically writing center or WPA to some degree and 30 are pretty much open in terms of specialization within rhet/comp. 

Ultimately one would have to see how this all plays out across the job market period. As interesting as the data in the MLA report is, I find it dissatisfying. How helpful is it to know what % of jobs there were in American Lit? Don't you want to know how many assistant professor jobs there were in Early American literature or something of that more precise nature? Right now there are about as many opernings in professional/technical writing as there are in any literary specialization. But I'd like to know if that's really the case over the whole year, if it's a historical trend, etc. As Collin Brooke indicates in a comment on Dave Parry's blog, the MLA needs to take its data curation more seriously. 

Or perhaps you disagree with my underlying premise here. The premise is that hirings, especially assistant professor, tenure-line hirings reveal something valuable about English departments. If one is in a department with a doctoral program, like I am, maybe that's information one would want to use in planning one's own hires, which is not to say that every department should be a mini-version of the market. I think that would be a horrible idea, actually. On the other hand, I think it would be equally bad to completely ignore information that might suggest that one is overproducing students in a field with relatively few openings. To be perfectly clear, I don't think that every doctoral program should produce rhet/comp graduates just because they represent a significant portion of the job openings; to the contrary, I think there are already enough rhet/comp phd programs. I also don't think this current set of data really tells me anything. After all it is a relatively small dataset. It would be nice to know though, for example, if specific literary specializations are trending in one direction or another and to see if those trends tend to be cyclical or not. Even if one discovered that hiring trends are not trend-like at all, but kind of meander around, that would tell you something too.

In short, I don't think this kind of data would be clearly prescriptive about what one should do, either in terms of going onto the job market or deciding what kind of field one wants to hire. But I do think it might offer some interesting feedback data that would alter behaviors somehow… maybe in a way that would make the market less painful and mysterious than it currently is to many, especially grad students.

 

 

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