counting to zero: the hapless math of English Studies

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathon Kramnick offers an analysis of the contemporary academic job market in English in comparison with its state 20 years ago (coincidentally when I was first on the job market). This can be put in the context of statistics on the awarding of phds from the NSF. This chart shows degrees by subfield since 2006 and this one, which shows only major fields, gives a view back to 1986.

To my eye there are some curious rhetorical turns in Kramnick’s article. He recognizes the significant declines overall in the job market and especially for tenure-track positions (old, but worsening news) with the note that writing jobs remain comparatively strong. Of this he speculates “The rising proportion of tenure-track jobs in composition and creative writing appears to reflect a change happening within the structure and mission of many departments even as they get smaller.” This apparent change suggests to him “that the jobs crisis may be worse than it seems.” Really? For whom? I suppose one might similarly suggest that it is not as bad as it seems (though really it’s bad for everyone).

But here’s the funny part. He determines, with a few caveats, that the decline in literary studies jobs is evenly spread across all periods and fields and that as such “the field structure of English stands out as remarkably and encouragingly firm.” 

I don’t know. To me this is like standing on the curb and remarking at how evenly all the parts of your house are burning down. 

But let’s circle back to those phd stats. Though the chart going back to 1986 only shows the major field of “Letters,” you can see that in general there’s been modest growth in the number of degrees awarded as the number of jobs have significantly declined. Looking at the other chart, though the numbers are only indications (since the fields are self-reported by institutions), between rhet/comp and speech/rhetorical studies, there are ~250 degrees per year over the last four years of the report. It’s hard to compare this with job opportunities as jobs on MLA and elsewhere are often listed in multiple categories. However, generally speaking, there aren’t enough jobs for all the rhet/comp degree recipients, but the situation is comparatively worse for those in literary fields. Regardless, there’s nothing here for anyone to suggest creating or expanding phd programs. And the oft-remarked, ongoing decline in numbers of English majors only reinforces this evidence.

Kramnick ends by offering this observation about the failing job market. “

That pinch is real and urgent. It requires our care and our hardest thinking. But there is no evidence that individual fields need to fight it out, or that any one of them is going extinct.

In other words, we’re all in this together. We ought to do everything we can to understand how best to respond to the shrinking market — how to lobby for more jobs, how to reshape Ph.D. programs, and how to decide whether all such programs can be sustained.

How can I put this? It isn’t good news that the “field structure” remains firm. It’s one of the primary pieces of evidence, if not sources, of English Studies’ problems. It means that even as we declined we failed to do anything different. Anyway, I think for English it’s pretty much all over but for the crying at this point. I mean, there’s going to be literary studies for the foreseeable future. It’s just probably at around 1.5% of undergraduates rather than the 4% it was 20 years ago. 

As for my own field of rhetoric, I’d say its survival will depend on its almost wholesale transformation away from printcentric, belletristic traditions that still typify its research practices and much of its teaching. A multidimensional transformation is required. One that recognizes communication is/is becoming

  • digital/multimodal (we’re sort of there, but the varieties keep expanding faster than our adaptions to them and as a field we still don’t have enough practical-technical expertise)
  • global/multi-cultural-ethnic-etc (doing a better job of valuing cultural and human differences and the challenges of communicating across them)
  • data-driven/machinic (we have to do better at handling data and understanding the role that machines play in every aspect of rhetorical activity from invention to delivery)
  • specialized/technocratic (again, we’re doing a decent job of moving away from the premise of “general writing skills” but we’re still not adapting quickly enough to the proliferation/shifts of expertise)
  • public/distributed (somewhat in an opposite direction to the last point that more people are performing a wider range of rhetorical-compositional practices. E.g., who would have thought that technical communication would become a quotidian practice? Well anyone who’s seen a “how-to” video on YouTube or visited a wiki. 

And those are just the ones I can come up with on the fly. I’m sure there are many other equally observable shifts. The point for me at least is that all of this is quite different from where we were 30-40 years ago when we were really just graduating the first large generation of specifically trained rhet/comp scholars, when Maxine Hairston was talking “winds of change,” when we were just taking on postmodernism and cultural studies, or when we were just starting to talk about computers and composition. (In other words, the field I was introduced to in the mid-90s.) These days we need completely different specializations and coursework from undergrad to grad, even while we still connect to the history and tradition of rhetoric. 

Compare that with Kramick’s observation that over the last 20 years the fields of literary studies have remained basically static. I realize he doesn’t quite mean it to come out that way, and of course there have been various “turns” and theories have come in and out of fashion. But really if we looked at those undergrad courses, how many of the assigned readings would be the same? Would the students be asked to do different things? Sure things are a little different. But that has to be put in contrast to the fact that the communicational practices and literacies of most of humanity have been completely overturned during this period. 

I mean I’d give rhet/comp a “gentleman’s C” for its efforts to keep up, but English Studies is obviously failing, as every indicator will tell you. And I just am not sure how rhet/comp manages to do better while tied to literary studies. I also don’t think rhet/comp has much chance on its own. 

So… yay!

3 thoughts on “counting to zero: the hapless math of English Studies

Add yours

  1. My five-year study of job ads and surveys of Rhet.Comp job seekers (not yet published but working on it) suggests that another survival/thrival strategy is a return to writing pedagogy. Most jobs want/need committed teachers of writing while many Rhet/Comp Phds (and their mentors) want Research 1 jobs. GIven that we need to reduce our production of PhDs, Research 1 jobs are going to remain a relatively small piece of the pie. A third of the jobs available involve some kind of writing program administration. Another third are in Technical and Professional Writing.

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  2. I think that’s an important point about pedagogy. I’d like to think how that works through the shifts and diversifications in rhetoric that we’re seeing. Part of it is a movement from FYC pedagogy into a wider range of pedagogical situations. Another is thinking through the relationship between developing expertise and interest in pedagogy while not necessarily focusing one’s research on the classroom or students. There’s a link there with the PTW third that you mention. The WPA aspect is more troubling to me (and I say that as someone who just spent 7 years as a WPA). What I see is that so much of a WPA’s job is managing the disciplinary and institutional contradictions of a general education writing curriculum housed either in an English department or outside a department structure. In a way, it’s good that such jobs are there for rhet/comp phds (including myself) but it is still troubling to see so much of our discipline become a permanent managerial class.

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  3. What do you think of the fortunes for rhet/comp in, say, a Communication department and organized as a study of “written” communication and/or writing studies? Does this just trade in one poor master for another?

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