A few people have forwarded me Marc Bousquet’s latest essay (article behind paywall) about the “moral panic” in literary studies, along with SEK’s follow-up, and I’ve seen surprisingly little push-back from the presumed subjects of the essay, English literature professors. Bousquet’s point is that PhD-granting English departments like his own (Emory) are seeing a widening gap between the hiring of newly-minted PhDs in “traditional fields” vs. “new fields.” (i.e., students trained in historical, period-based fields vs. those in rhet/comp or digital humanities). As a result, the wounded and defensive professors in traditional fields have engaged in what he calls a “backlash discourse” conjuring up “a ‘moral panic’ in defense of literary studies.”
I think there’s some truth in this description, but I also think that the analysis could be deepened. From my own experience, in a public research university, and in a pluralist department with a full complement of advanced degrees in sub-fields (literary studies, creative writing, rhet/comp, linguistics, and with a growing interest in digital humanities), it’s taken for granted that we must work together, even if it does make all our lives more complicated. It does make inter-departmental conversation more difficult at times, but perhaps more rewarding, too. (I don’t deny that we all wonder from time to time what it would be like to work in a stand-alone department squarely focused on what we do). But I think that for all but the most prestigious and super-endowed programs, disciplinary autonomy is off the table.
As I continued to read through Bousquet’s essay, it seemed to me that all but a handful of my friends and colleagues in the academy work in similarly mixed environments. The remaining ones work in institutions either so prestigious that they could ignore the market forces he describes, or so oblivious (or, more likely, divided) that nothing short of catastrophe could make them change direction. Frankly, by the time Bousquet writes, “the moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production,” I wondered why this essay wasn’t just an email to his colleagues at Emory? In other words, why should the rest of us care? At the same time, I do think that there’s a potentially useful discussion to be extracted from this essentially local argument.
I think in the long term and among a very broad group of working scholar/teachers, there’s a lot of justifiable anxiety about the future of what we might call “traditional” or historically-based literary studies. This anxiety comes not (just) from the insecurities of superannuated or inactive faculty, but from the increasingly market-driven language used to justify the reorganization of academic departments wholesale in domains like hiring, tenure, enrollments, and so forth. The once-dominant model of nation- and period-specialization has just weathered serious challenge from the MLA leadership this past winter, and left many eighteenth-century scholars wondering just what role we shall have in that organization as it goes through its own evolution (not that the MLA has demonstrated much love for rhet/comp, either).
So I wonder what sort of role literature and literary studies might have in the undergraduate and graduate curricula of “English studies” twenty years from now. For example, in a pluralistic department organized without period categories, how would historical research be taught, or the general category of “literature” be usefully sub-divided or segmented? How would “genre” be studied? And so forth. In my view, a large part of this “anxiety” reflects our awareness that many familiar landmarks in scholarly life are disappearing, with little concrete sense of what’s to replace them.
I have two thoughts about this stand-off between Bousquet and the resistant literature faculty he describes.
First of all, because of the depressingly straitened circumstances outlined by Bousquet many times before, a lot of literature faculty–even the ones trained in the Ivy Leagues–have made heroic or at least incremental efforts to adapt their curricula, teaching, and their research interests to their new surroundings and new students.
In other words, the period-based fields have not in any way stood still in the past few decades. This fact really became clear during the MLA dust-up, when eighteenth-century scholars were forced to argue to scholars from other historical periods against shrinking our division at the annual meeting. Not only were the proposals a self-defeating gesture for an organization purporting to represent the entirety of “literary studies,” they would jettison every trace of the field’s development over the past thirty years. So I think anyone in Bousquet’s position would be much better off encouraging more, and better, adaptations among literature professors rather than threatening them with “irrelevance.” I don’t think high quality collaborations can occur under any other circumstances.
My second point is that it feels odd for Bousquet, of all people, to use the language of the market to justify the de facto institutional changes he wishes to make. I have long admired How the University Works precisely because it questions the use of the marketplace or its organizational jargon to justify educational decisions that affect people. Anyone who has spent time in higher education knows that the market is not in any way a fair or rational arbiter, nor is it an impersonal historical force, but something that produces certain outcomes because of certain prior decisions and priorities. Assuming that this is the case, the changes taking place now are driven in part by all the forces he’s rightly critiqued elsewhere: permatemping, public disinvestment, corporatization, etc. The economic-institutional process that elevated rhet/comp to its current position (however resisted by a few outliers) may also hollow out the academic departments that may someday be filled with majorities of rhet/comp teacher/scholars.
So the market has spoken, but why exactly should we follow its dictates here or elsewhere? From my perspective, it might be better to envision (and enact) a version of “English studies” that is able to draw upon the expertise of all its fields, including the historical study of literature.