(“Homo Bulla” (“man is a bubble”) image courtesy of the Nieuwen ieucht spiegel (1617))
While I’ve been grading papers and presiding over the slow death of my spring semester, dire predictions of cultural decline have been popping up all around me like sad, wilted flowers. So let’s catch up on this week’s month’s Harvest of Hand-Wringing, shall we?
1. The Bad News about English Studies. Bill Deresiewicz has published an essay about the decline of the English major and English studies generally. To give us the bad news, Bill relies upon–you guessed it– the most recent MLA job list. On this basis, Bill informs us that the “profession’s intellectual agenda is being set by teenagers.” Well, no. There aren’t many teenagers out there reading “ecocriticism” or working on “digital humanities projects,” whose mere existence Deresiewicz takes as an affront (damned computers!).
My problem with these kinds of op-ed pieces (which are called “jeremiads” if they appear in print, and “pissing and moaning” if they appear on blogs), is trying to gauge the real seriousness of the argument and its claims. To wit: is WD really trying to generalize about the state of the profession at this historical moment, across the country, from top to bottom of the academic hierarchy, on the basis of a single year’s job list and his own time at Yale? In other words, what precisely does he know about current conditions of teaching and research in literature departments elsewhere, and how does he know it? These are the kinds of questions I would put to someone who claimed to represent academic values like curiosity, thoroughness, and intellectual independence. Similarly, I would expect to see much more analysis of the economics of academic work across the country, if I were to take this analysis more seriously as an account of the profession right now.
More importantly, WD has left untouched what I consider to be the truly difficult problem of higher education its current, precarious state: what does it mean for college curricula, and higher education generally, to be “responsive” to the public, its needs, and its preferences, when so many different interests and constituencies are competing to “represent” the public and its demands? Who gets to represent the public, and what constitutes a response, in those situations? At the very least, WD all but ignores the administrative role in constructing the supposed “preferences” of the public for lean, mean, and up-to-date faculty and curricula, whatever those terms might signify in individual institutions. WD seems to have forgotten that administrators are the ones who sign the checks for hires and sign off on tenure decisions, an omission that seems all the more puzzling, if WD wishes to make a credible argument about scholarship as a public good.
On the other hand, WD, as others have pointed out, does not appear to believe that other scholars and faculty could be sufficiently interested in topics like Equiano or Ecocriticism to develop their research and teaching interests along those lines. This cavalier attitude towards others’ work seems to me to be a drastic, perhaps wilful, misrepresentation of the research and publications that scholars have been doing since the Theory boom petered out. I also find it unlikely that during our own era of the Great Cutbacks at both universities and university presses, that the relative numbers of rote, reflexive versions of cultural studies or whatever would exceed the numbers of rote, reflexive books we had in the days of the standard 5-author literary monograph.
Finally, to accuse others of “trendiness for the sake of trendiness,” as WD does, is simply to announce your lack of interest in their pursuits. Though intended as a criticism, it’s equally an admission that you don’t know (or care) why they pursue their work in this manner. Nonetheless, Derisiewicz deserves some credit for raising these issues, and for provoking the thoughtful responses from CR of Ads Without Products and Joseph Kugelmass of the Valve. Now let’s see if he responds to them.
2. Why people with tenure sometimes feel free to criticize its effects. The difficulty of generalizing about academic life (see above) seems most evident when I find myself reading and disagreeing with scholars like “Claire B. Potter” (Tenured Radical) or Tim Burke (Easily Distracted) about issues like tenure, academic freedom, etc.
Debates about tenure, however, do look different in the SLACs (small liberal arts colleges) as opposed to large public universities, because these tend to be places where hiring occurs less frequently, full-time labor covers much of the teaching, and bad university practices like adjunctification and exploitation of grad students are a moot point in those places. (If I’m incorrect about this, please correct me.) And of course, these kinds of schools offer their own challenges to faculty, but governance necessarily appears different under those conditions.
Nonetheless, Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed piece about tenure demonstrates just how stratified these debates about tenure have become. The Tenured Radical’s objections to tenure seem plausible, as far as they go: tenure destroys job mobility, is ineffective in comparison with faculty unions, fosters unnecessary mystery and proceduralism around the tenure process, and creates (potential) sinecures for those who do not deserve them. In fact, the most valuable observation in TRs postings involves the current opacity of the tenure process in most institutions, which often encourages unscrupulous faculty and administrators to manipulate the system.
But I also think that TR has neglected the imbalances of power enforced by our (manipulated) job market when faculty face the current tenure process: from the perspective of the profession’s future, “job mobility” seems like a less drastic problem than the inability of newly-minted PhDs to get tenure-track jobs in the first place. Moreover, the ability of candidates for tenure to manipulate the system is minimal, compared to the long-term players, including chairs, P&T committees, and of course administrators.
It’s unclear to me, then, how an alternative system of corporate style performance reviews could do a better job of reducing the gamesmanship in assessing candidates, especially if the role of “peer review” is reduced for candidates’ departments. So while I think there are plenty of problems with the existing system, the solution might reside in strengthening and elaborating the notion of peer review, rather than weakening it. From my perspective, we need better, more transparent forms of peer review, not less. Otherwise, we might as well go back to the days described by the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship, where Chairs essentially made the decisions by themselves.