New wing for the temple of literature

July 24, 1998

Elaine Showalter, president of the Modern Language Association, describes moves to solve the United States jobs crisis in the humanities

For most British academics the American "MLA" means the annual December convention, a four-day, four-ring travelling circus of literary criticism and theory, regularly parodied by journalists and novelists. But for its unpaid elected officers, numerous voluntary committees and permanent New York staff, the Modern Language Association of America is a challenging, year-round job.

In the decentralised, competitive environment of North American higher education, the MLA is one of the major agencies of advocacy and change in the humanities. Our mandate is professional rather than legal; we are a voluntary organisation of 30,000 scholars and teachers, not a trade union or government body.

Individuals are not required to belong to the MLA in order to be employed in academia, nor do departments have to belong in order to advertise jobs or hire. But along with other professional organisations, we have a responsibility to respond to issues affecting our membership and to provide information, recommendations, and leadership.

I am president of the MLA this year (Edward Said takes over in 1999; then Linda Hutcheon of the University of Toronto in 2000); and my term coincides with cuts and downsizing in humanities budgets and a long-term crisis in the job market for PhDs in language and literature.

Fewer than half of the 7,000 to 8,000 students expected to earn PhDs in English and foreign languages between now and 2000 will find full-time tenured posts in their first year of the job search. Some will drop out; some will become "freeway flyers", driving long miles between part-time teaching jobs; some will settle for temporary positions or for jobs in remote parts of the country, often with low pay and meagre intellectual compensation. Many will enter long-distance commuter marriages or postpone family plans. They are justifiably disappointed, frustrated and angry.

With more students and declining budgets for hiring full-timers, department heads must find ways to staff required courses. In many universities, tenure-track faculty, who have invested long years doing the research and publication that win jobs and reputations, are reluctant and ill-prepared to teach labour-intensive courses to new students. Even if all faculty taught these courses we would still not have enough staff to cover them.

So departments have been turning to cheaper adjunct and graduate-student labour. In PhD-granting English departments, for example, 82 per cent of first-year writing courses are taught by graduate students and part-timers.

In the long run everyone stands to lose: university teaching could become a profession of overworked part-timers with low rewards, resources and loyalties; tenured faculty could become an isolated elite; graduate students could become a dwindling cadre, as territorial about hanging on to their space as the rest.

The problems have been argued and discussed for years in the MLA's newsletters, journals, committees and convention forums. Some members would like to see a moratorium on PhDs or the closure of non-elite departments; others would like the MLA to punish or censure departments that hire "too many" part-timers and "too few" tenure-track faculty, or accept too many graduate students and fail to find them jobs.

Some believe that unionisation is the best move for graduate students and adjunct instructors. But institutions vary too widely for a fixed ratio of full to part-time faculty to apply to every situation.

Most PhD-granting institutions have already cut graduate admissions and are struggling to staff their lower-level courses and to answer to budget-conscious administrators. Unionisation is hotly controversial and divisive.

In 1995, the MLA executive council established an 18-member committee on professional employment, chaired by former president Sandra M. Gilbert, to look into the institutional and social forces limiting employment prospects for PhDs and to recommend strategies to improve the situation. A hard-hitting report published last December opened a pragmatic and hopeful dialogue on the crisis.

The report says the crisis is the product of a complex job system with a long history, involving faculty values, institutional practices and public pressures. The challenge is to defend the mission of higher education while expanding the PhD job market. This means preparing students to be outstanding candidates for a wide range of satisfying careers both inside and outside the academy.

The report recommends action at several levels. First, full PhD-granting programmes in modern languages need to study their balance of admissions and placements, and to revise their programmes and curricula to prepare students for more diverse job opportunities.

Graduate students should get full funding for five years and limit their teaching to one course a term. They should expand the graduate curriculum to include courses in pedagogy and internships, which will help students prepare for a variety of non-academic careers.

Departments should also send applicants detailed information on placements, time to degree, financial support and career services.

Second, the report urges campus administrators to establish equitable salary and benefits for part-time instructors and to make every effort to convert part-time to full-time posts.

Finally, it calls on the MLA to publish and distribute guidelines for departmental self-study; to continue to collect and disseminate statistics on job placement; to publish a guide to non-academic careers for PhDs; and to use our web site to facilitate and enhance professionals' employment opportunities.

How effective will these recommendations be? Persuading universities, state legislatures and the general public that excellence in higher education demands budgets for full-time teachers is a long-term task to which the MLA is committing time, ingenuity and funds. But almost all departments have the power to carry out self-studies, to change their programmes and to use alumni and campus resources to explore employment for PhDs.

Nevertheless, active and passive resistance to such time-consuming activity, and to such fundamental change, is also high. While the MLA's executive council and delegate assembly endorsed the CPE report, some elite PhD-granting departments are dragging their feet, while radical graduate students denounce all efforts to diversify the PhD employment pattern as letting the money-lenders into the temple of literature.

The report is a crucial first step in regaining our sense of effective solidarity. We will have to find ways to follow up. In spring 1999, an MLA-sponsored conference on the future of graduate education, hosted by the University of Wisconsin and planned by a committee of faculty, students and part-timers, will bring programme directors and administrators together to discuss the complex forces involved in adapting to a changed market-place. The temple of literature may be getting a new wing for the 21st century.

Elaine Showalter is professor of English, Princeton University. Final Report of the MLA Committee on Professional Employment, free from Carol Zuses, MLA, 10 Astor Place, New York, NY 10003.

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