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The English Profession: Tendentious Reflections of a Retired Independent Scholar

The English Profession: Tendentious Reflections Of A Retired Independent Scholar

After retiring early from my career as an independent consultant and returning to a career as an independent scholar, I have frequently reflected on my experience and the experience of others like me who, as English Ph.D.’s, failed to get tenure-track or tenured positions in the 1970s.  However, I have mostly focused on the causes—circumstances and conditions—of that experience, and their larger consequences for scholarly research and academic teaching.  So this essay is less autobiographical than analytical.  If I must apologize for a tendentious stance on professional issues, I do so as a staunch humanist and an unabashed critic of those who have abandoned it for self-righteous posturing on political issues and thereby converted literature into feedstock for social activism.[1]

When I first drafted this essay in 2000, a National Academy of Sciences 1980 summary of annual surveys, Employment of Humanities Ph.D.’s: a departure from traditional jobs, remained a reliable account of a part of that experience.  The subtitle recognizes a state of affairs unlike any before which prompted that experience.  Whether such summaries or surveys have continued to this day, the state of affairs has continued to this day.  According to Dave Colander, “In English, over the last 35 years [since 1980], less than half of graduated Ph.D. students have gotten tenure-track academic jobs upon graduation. The result is a large pool of residual job seekers, which places even more pressure on the job market for existing students.”[2]  This proportion likely goes back 10 more years.  Undeniably, the situation of the past continues in the present and still shapes the profession and scholarship.

This record of continued over-production of Ph.D.’s means that English departments have made no, or no efficacious, adjustment to an adverse employment opportunities in academe their Ph.D. graduates in over 45 years, and my experience and that of many others also has not changed.  Advisory statements and career centers have not abated the dynamics of over-production or ameliorated its effects; instead, they whitewash the crimes and wash the hands of the perpetrators.  The market is unfairly distorted as well as distended.  As always, preference in hiring goes to graduates of elite programs on the prejudice of departmental reputation, not graduate achievement and promise; as ever, over-production of Ph.D.’s continues at non-elite programs in their efforts to enhance their prestige and to ensure professorial privilege to teach upper-level and graduate courses.  For these reasons, embarrassing to all involved, very few have talked much or done much about this academic market for English Ph.D.’s then or since, whatever the different effects on all those involved.

The experience of most new Ph.D.’s has not been a happy one, for most failed to get tenure-track positions or tenure.  Their experience began with rejection and continued with predictable reactions: loss or a sense of failure, grief or regret, anger or bitterness, especially since many knew themselves to be as talented, trained, and dedicated as the few who succeeded.  Some responded by quickly departing from academe.  Others hung around and hung on, with part-time appointments to teach introductory and remedial courses, on one- or two-term contracts with few benefits, low pay, and little say; most became discouraged, gave up, drifted away, and made the necessary adjustments to another life.  Whether they found satisfaction is an unwritten chapter.  I doubt that it includes any comfort that the many who succeeded in academe labored to make their necessary adjustment to a field imposing often inordinate initial demands; riven by politics, and not only of the academic kind; and driven by the economics of oversupply and declining demand.  I suspect that, years later, the former are not so sad and the latter not so glad as most assume.

My experience is different from most.  I earned my Ph.D. in English from Michigan in 1973, declined an offer to stay as a lecturer, moved west, and taught part-time at two state universities for 2 years.  Seeing no promising future in academe, I accepted an offer from a high-technology management-consulting firm in our nation’s capital, relocated, and started over.  After 2 years, I left the firm, struck out on my own, and, for 21 years, was an independent consultant in areas (defense, energy, environment) and activities (policy analysis, editing and writing, proposal and report management) far from English literature.[3]  So, within a few years of receiving my Ph.D., I created a non-academic career far better suited to the range of my abilities and more gratifying than an academic one could have been.

Resentment was not in my make-up.  What I was at first sad to forego as a profession, I was at last glad to continue as a pastime.  I kept my old friends in academe and made new ones.  As time and energy allowed, I continued my research and teaching.  Before retiring, I had published several articles and a review, presented several papers, and, I am unduly proud to say, contributed to the revised Short-Title Catalogue.  When I retired early, in 1998, I did so to revise my dissertation, which I had known to be my destiny and had thought about almost daily for a quarter century.  The originality of my book, implied by its title Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance: Rethinking Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, is its appreciation of these plays from the perspective of an old but still robust tradition.  While writing my book, I published two reviews; after its release in 2003, I published more articles, presented more papers, and served as a sometime reader for a scholarly journal.  Now, at the end of my second career, I am pleased to have had the best of both consulting and academic worlds.

Meanwhile, I have wondered what has happened in my might-have-been field, why, and what it means.  Between 1973 and 1998, I paid some attention to the changes in literary study which gathered force within a few years of my departure from academe.  I read the papers (including the NYT accounts of the annual MLA conventions), listened to All Things Considered, attended to the Byzantine or Gothic tales of friends within the ivied walls of the ivory towers, and skimmed journals and books in on- and off-campus bookstores and libraries—not your systematic study.  Nor was it much more systematic when, settled down to my second career, I sought criticism by distinguished scholars in my field, for I wanted to benefit from any insights which new approaches might offer me.

I was greatly disappointed.  I found that the idea of scholarship had changed, from a disinterested attempt to understand literature to a partisan attempt to interpret it to serve political or social criticism, or personal needs.  Anyone can engage in scholarship of these kinds.  But English professors?  Researching and teaching to serve ulterior ends are quests misdirected for an ersatz relevance or misconceived as efficacious, damage scholarship, and diminish respect for literature.  Those who so divert themselves often produce something, if not flat or stale, surely unprofitable to those interested in literature as the verbal distillation of human experience—so I found. I avoid examples by race and gender scholars because they are more likely to be too inflammatory to be illustrative.  My two examples, authored by distinguished scholars, represent the antipodes of a political-to-personal spectrum of much modern scholarship, and, respectively, the flaws of naive political polemic and the diffuseness of undisciplined personal confession.

*  *  *

Early, I turned to David Scott Kastan’s Shakespeare after Theory (1999), a work by a noted anthologizer, editor, scholar, and proponent and practitioner of New Historicism, for an overview of the state-of-the-art and, in particular, for his views on Macbeth.  The gist of his chapter “Macbeth and the ‘Name of King’” is that Macbeth and Malcolm have equal claim to their titles to the Scottish throne since one regicide (Duncan) is equal to another (Macbeth).  At a critical point in his article, Kastan claims:

“The play makes it difficult to discover exactly where obedience is ‘truly owed.’  Macduff calls Macbeth an ‘untitled tyrant bloody-scepter’d,’ . . . but in fact, however bloody his scepter, he certainly is, as Macduff well knows, titled.  Although Macbeth is undeniably a murderer, he lawfully succeeds and is crowned. . . . Macbeth is king and arguably truly owned the obedience of his countrymen.”

Here, traditional scholarship should come into play, for everything depends on what the words and their associated ideas meant to Shakespeare, not Kastan.  Kastan’s claim depends partly on the definition of “untitled,” partly on the dramatization of Macduff.  Kastan disputes Macduff’s “untitled” because he accepts Macbeth’s title as valid despite the fraud used to obtain it from the thanes in council sitting.  Although all editors gloss “untitled” as “unrightful,” “lacking a legal claim,” “illegitimate,” Kastan has a right to reject this unanimity, but he must give a reason for doing so.  Giving none, he gives no basis for rejecting contemporary distinctions in common talk and learned discussion between a valid and an invalid title to the throne, between the true and the false king.  And in disputing Macduff’s “untitled,” Kastan implies that Shakespeare made Macduff a dolt.  Instead, he made him shrewd and honorable in pursuing a course of conduct in accord with, and explicable only in terms of, these distinctions.  Macduff’s refusal to attend Macbeth’s coronation indicates his refusal to accept a false king.  His invitation to fellow thanes to join in saluting Malcolm as “King of Scotland” indicates his recognition of the true king: “Haile King, for so thou art”—that is, truly and actually, without anyone’s say-so; and, notably, without election by council and in advance of coronation.

What accounts for the multiple inadequacies of Kastan’s view is his claim that power, ill-gotten or not, is legitimate, if formally approved.  His cynicism is the more astonishing since “arguably” signals that he knows that allegiance would be “truly owed” Macbeth only as the true, not merely the named, king.  His imposition of this bankrupt political claim on the text violates traditional standards of argument or evidence, cripples this chapter, and renders it useless for honest scholarly or pedagogical, as opposed to polemical, purpose.  His cynical politics cannot, as he hopes, improve “theory.”

Later, I read Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), a work by a leading English professor, inventor and advocate of New Historicism, and former President of the Modern Language Association.  Oddly, the ambiguous title is wrong in its implications, for neither the protagonist nor the play is in purgatory.  Nor is the ghost in or from Purgatory, for sympathetic figures hence implore the living to purchase indulgences to alleviate their suffering or shorten the period of their purification by pain.  Elizabethans would have known—Greenblatt surely knows—that pneumatic beings telling truth but urging action contrary to Christian doctrine, like revenge, are hellish, not purgatorial.  They would have viewed a ghost claiming to be from Purgatory, thereby playing for sympathy, but calling for revenge as a truly frightful figure from Hell.  So Greenblatt’s attention-getting but misleading title distorts religious doctrine right from the start.

Even so, Greenblatt’s explorations of medieval literature to reveal the emotive power of a ghost purporting to be from Purgatory discover nothing to his purpose.  First, by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet (c. 1601), Purgatory was a lost cause.  As Greenblatt admits, the works which he examines, some centuries old, the most recent being Simon Fish’s A Supplication for the Beggars (1529), were probably unknown by Shakespeare and his audience.  As he shows, many such works had criticized and discredited this Catholic concept and its attendant rites.  In the religious vicissitudes of the 1530’s, 40’s, and 50’s, the doctrine and practice of Purgatory slowly declined and disappeared.  Mary did not restore it to the faith or the church when she returned England to Catholicism; Elizabeth officially suppressed it and forced lingering observance underground.  Second, as noted above, the ghost is from Hell, not Purgatory.  A truly purgatorial figure would not likely have impressed many in Shakespeare’s audience.  More likely to impress them would have been a ghost purporting to be from Purgatory but clearly from Hell in the guise of an armed knight.  Oddly, Greenblatt notices but says nothing about this figure of the knight, which survived and signified in contemporary life and art.  So he fails to make a link between a to-be-saved indulgence-seeking figure from medieval purgatorial literature and a damned, revenge-seeking ghost-knight on a renaissance stage.

Hamlet in Purgatory, despite its erudition in dealing with older, obscure literature, lacks any recognizable scholarly purpose and realizes no scholarly objective.  I agree with the reviewer who noted that Greenblatt’s investment in the subject derives from his abiding response to his father’s death.  An earlier book, Shakespeare’s Negotiations (1988), begins with a statement which echoes throughout this later book: “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.”  So Greenblatt’s thesis is his therapy, perhaps useful as such but not as scholarship.  Readers may want a scholarship which is relevant first, significant second, to concerns other than a scholar’s hobbyhorse, political or personal.

*  *  *

Since these noted scholars misrepresent texts well-known or muddle truths already told, they do not increase understanding or appreciation of the works studied.  They do imply that what is true of scholarship by the best is likely no less true of that by the rest.  Even their good intentions have paved a road to no good ends.  I have not felt that I have missed much, and I cannot imagine what it would be like to have colleagues engrossed in such undertakings.  The questions which the present state of affairs suggests to me are: how did we get to where we are and where might we go from here?

We got here by way of the nexus of the unforeseen and unintended collision of job markets and scholarship.  Others have discussed one or the other, but I do not know that anyone has discussed both.  Too bad: as long as they are considered separately, so long will ignorance of their dynamics obscure the problem and hinder any solution.

Until 1965, the numbers of Ph.D.’s in most fields were in roughly sufficient supply at colleges and universities.  But shortages threatened to become acute within a few years.  A 1964 Carnegie Foundation report The Flight from Teaching predicted that they would adversely affect the American economy within a decade.  It urged reforms: expanding existing Ph.D. programs, creating new ones, streamlining graduate curriculums, requiring teaching experience.  Colleges and universities responded immediately by industrializing the process of producing Ph.D.’s.  The results were astonishing.  By 1970, the shortage had become a glut, but only in some fields.  The economy absorbed most Ph.D.’s with commercial and technical skills, but not many in the humanities, notably in English.

The glut in English Ph.D.’s grew rapidly in the late 60’s and early 70’s despite surges in undergraduate and graduate enrollments, and has lasted long after enrollments stabilized, then subsided.  These surges resulted from the intersection of demographics, as Baby Boomers came of college age, and three political developments, as civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements spurred enrollments of minorities and women in response to new opportunities provided by law, and of white men seeking to defer or avoid military service.  These increases required many more sections in remedial English, freshman composition, and sophomore literature courses, but only a few more sections in upper-class courses, in which enrollments by majors and non-majors did not increase in proportion to the overall increase in enrollments. The glut need not have occurred, much less persisted, but it did.  Professors assuming slightly increased or modified workloads and a few more graduate students doubling as instructors could have met this differentiated demand.  But the demand for graduate students in underclass sections dovetailed with proposed reforms, including an emphasis on teacher training, and the many motives of deans and chairs in responding to them.

The alacrity with which English departments adopted reforms reflected altruistic motives far less than self-serving ones.  For different reasons, all parties struck a devil’s bargain.  Colleges gave tuition discounts and teaching stipends to graduate students instead of paying the costs of additional faculty; departments elevated professors to higher-level courses according to rank, seniority, or clout (and thereby created a caste of “stars” of highly paid celebrity scholars); and graduate students accepted teaching assignments as part of their professional preparation and in return for financial support.

Meeting demand with supply was one thing, and addressed a national problem.  However, designing an integrated system which perpetuated over-supply was another.  It disclosed motives which deans, chairs, and professors prefer to conceal or deny—power, prestige, and profit—and which dominate administrative and departmental decisions.  Once deans and chairs had effected these financial and teaching arrangements, they delayed or refused undoing them when the glut persisted.  They preferred graduate students as less expensive and more readily expendable and dispensable—one might say, exploitable and disposable—than professors when budgets contracted or enrollments declined.  Only years later did overall admissions to English Ph.D. programs begin to decline slightly, as the more, but not the less, prestigious ones reduced enrollments.[4]

Over time, the market for tenure-track job seekers got bad, then got worse.  On the supply side, the glut increased as the number of job seekers—recent-years’ graduates and final-year candidates—grew with the accumulation of each year’s overproduction.  On the demand side, the market tightened from smaller enrollments and budgets.  All job seekers competed with next-year’s graduate students to teach underclass sections.  But women and minority job seekers enjoyed preferential consideration in the name of equal opportunity employment.  Changes in the curriculum further distorted the market.  In response to undergraduate and graduate interests, departments offered more courses and needed more teachers in linguistics, and in more modern and diverse literatures.  As a result, white male job seekers and job seekers in more traditional areas of study were less likely to find positions commensurate with their merits than others were.  Thus, Ph.D.’s who might otherwise have secured positions did not, although they were as qualified and capable as, and, in some cases, actually superior to, those who did.

The responses of outside organizations to the glut are worth noting in passing.  The Carnegie Foundation’s response was indifference; it said and did nothing about it.  Its concern about an undereducated labor force for government and industry eclipsed its concern with “Restoring the Status of Teaching” and was satisfied by increased overall “Graduate Student Output.”  It did not trouble to look at, or care about, what its work had wrought in the plight of those who had elected the humanities, not the sciences, professions, or trades, as a career.  In its big scheme of things, the problem of an oversupply of English Ph.D.’s was too small to notice or to matter.

The National Endowment for the Humanities’ response was negligence.  Although it helped fund the 1980 NAS report on Ph.D.’s in the humanities, it made no constructive use of the data.  It did nothing to include English Ph.D.’s unaffiliated since the late 60s in its activities.  It did nothing—developed no program, advised no agency, recommended no legislation—to engage them and enlist their talents in efforts to make the humanities more available to, and better understood by, the public.  Thus, the NEH wasted personal talent, squandered a national asset, and betrayed its mission to make the humanities an integral part of American culture.

*  *  *

Such is a part of the basic history of the market for English Ph.D.’s since the 70s.  Another part, inadequately considered, is the consequences of a market distorted by a large and lasting imbalance of supply and demand, with unforeseen and unfortunate effects on the professoriate, the profession, and scholarship. With tenure-seeking Ph.D.’s on the faculty, job-seeking Ph.D.’s at the gate, and future job-seeking Ph.D.’s within the walls, the English professoriate imposed new standards to help them make increasingly difficult decisions about employment and promotion.  In all cases, standards became more demanding, not necessarily applied fairly, and distorted in favor of publication, with dire effects on scholarship.

In hiring decisions, the usual factors—area of expertise, grades, recommendations (and faculty marketing), scholarly potential (or its actualization in publication), and teaching experience—figured variously.  The influence of affirmative action became a wild card in the play of all other factors taken together.  Many of those hired when departments played the card to demonstrate their earnestness and uprightness were later “unhired” when they failed the tests of merit in research and teaching for tenure.

In tenure decisions, the professoriate used publications more than any other factor to winnow assistant professors and thereby disappointed even more would-be academics in the process.  So competition for the small and finite number of publishing opportunities in journals and at presses intensified, although the proliferation of specialized journals to serve the special-interest and employment needs of professorial aspirants somewhat diluted the competition.  It was, in the phrase of the day, “publish or perish.”  (Indeed, some can publish and still perish if, as at one eastern university, they do not publish two books to support a favorable tenure decision after six years).

As the professoriate came to rely on publications in hiring and tenure decisions, it industrialized scholarship.  It scanted quality and stressed quantity—what was good enough to get into print, it assumed, was good enough—, and, quite unwittingly, ceded authority, sometimes more, sometimes less, to others in these decisions.  As decisions at journals and presses to accept or reject manuscripts became more important to hiring and promotion decisions, editors and readers acquired more power in shaping faculties.  As prestigious journals and presses made decisions reflecting and reinforcing fashions in scholarship, they augmented a previously limited role in defining it.

For the first time, the professoriate screened scholarship for subjects and approaches of approved kinds.  Whereas previous schools of criticism like New Criticism tolerated, if they did not encourage, others kinds of literary criticism, the various post-modern kinds of criticism imposed as far as possible their standards on other kinds of work.  Market economics explains some of this difference in conduct between older and newer schools: an earlier undersupply of Ph.D.’s required some latitudinarianism; a later oversupply permitted Procrustianism.  So those facing publish-or-perish decisions have had little choice but to accept what today’s scholars regnant have said counts as scholarship and to jump through their hoops.  In the end, post-modern schools of criticism established dominant market share, if not a monopoly.

Yet with this emphasis on publication and with so much at stake, professional journals and university presses, with the assistance of their readers in academe, favored the work of assistant professors struggling to remain in the profession.  As readers came to see their role as one sustaining the profession as much as supporting the best scholarship to come their way, so they acted as if they assumed that the work of those outside academe was, by its provenance, inadequate and invasive, like cheap clothing from overseas.  The profession impugned the dispossessed.

A perverse relationship works here: as the number of those qualified to do good work and doing it outside academe increased, so the willingness of those inside academe to recognize the merits of their work decreased.  So it is today.  Plainly, this perversity reflects current market distortions, for such has not always been the case.  Within the past century, within the living memory of some, amateur scholars—those not unskilled, just unpaid, and devoted to learning—participated in scholarly activities; founded or joined and served in scholarly organizations; and published.  Some of their works remain standards in the field.  Since then, however, professionals have erected barriers to keep amateurs out.  Whether, at this late date, unaffiliated scholars can offer something of value to literary scholarship is a question to be asked; whether affiliated scholars can answer it or accept the answer is another.

*  *  *

All unlooked for, the oversupply of English Ph.D.’s influenced, not only the English professoriate and the profession, but also scholarship and the scholars who pursued it in light of their interests.  What spurred undergraduate enrollments spurred graduate enrollments—contemporary personal and political commitments more than customary scholarly concerns—, and the sharpest spur during the Johnson/Nixon years was the anti-war movement.  Because, on many campuses, English professors more publicly than other professors opposed the war, English departments became a favored refuge or last resort for many white male graduate students with no other basis for deferment.  As graduate students, they opposed racism and sexism, protested the war, and decried the system.

As professors, many still do.  They still aim at racism and sexism, but, since the end of the draft and the war, they have also targeted class and the general issue of power and its unequal distribution in society.  Accustomed to proselytizing and protesting, those who became Ph.D.’s and earned tenure made their concerns—race, gender, class, and power: a tetrad of topics lumped together under the rubric “post-modern criticism”—those of scholarship and pedagogy.  They view English literature less as art than as agenda.  They claim that the shift in focus from literature and literary criticism to metacriticism and “theory,” a thinly disguised honorific for politics, in the last 40-plus years is a much-needed corrective in research and teaching transforming them from aesthetic to political enterprises.  The origins of the “culture wars” are the real war in Vietnam and the metaphoric wars against social ailments.

From here, we go forward by going back to fundamentals about English literature as a subject of research and teaching in colleges and universities.  One way to approach these fundamentals, a way seldom taken, is to compare the careers of Ph.D. graduates of other fields from the Ph.D. graduates in English.  Their graduates find careers in academe or in other domains like government, industry, business, or the professions.  Professors and practitioners in these fields often cross and thereby blur boundaries between academe and these domains.  Academics serve as consultants or leave academe for positions outside it; non-academics participate in professional organizations or return to academe.  Even in some fields in the arts and humanities, academics and non-academics mix in their professional work.  For example, art historians work on public arts commissions, and gallery or museum curators teach classes or present papers at professional meetings.  Likewise, philosophers consult to business, advise medical organizations on ethical issues, and even serve as expert witnesses in court.  Not English professors.  They rarely engage in professionally related activities outside of academe.  Some read for academic or commercial presses; some speak to alumni/ae groups.  But most English professors talk almost entirely to each other or to students throughout their professional lives.  They seldom consult to or serve organizations other than theirs; they infrequently testify in court or before Congress.

Literary study has been so isolated for so long from the concerns of most people that its relevance and, hence, its value are suspect.  Literary scholars seldom make themselves relevant because most are illiterate and innumerate, not only in science and technology, but also in the social sciences.  For a long time, if ever, literary studies have made little contribution to the issues of the day.  Almost sixty years ago, C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis engaged in a more calorific than clarifying debate about the “two cultures.”  Then, there were two: the sciences and the arts; today, there is one, and bloviation or bric-a-brac.  Not by accident is the celluloid stereotype of someone who knows nothing important and can do nothing useful an English major.  I doubt that anyone really cares what English professors think about public issues or takes seriously their protests and pontifications.  The New York Times used to cover the MLA annual convention by writing either dreary stories about the desperate state of the job market or droll stories about its resolutions to end war and poverty and racism and classism and elitism and sexism and xeno- and homo-phobia—the lot; if it writes any at all, I have missed them—or not much.

Ironically, post-modern literary scholars have little more to say to each other than they have to say to others outside English departments, whether inside or outside academe.  Many academic presses have reduced or continue reducing the number of books and of copies per book printed, on English literary history or criticism.  This decline is final proof: post-modernists do not even read what their peers write except within the narrowest of specialties.  The most authoritative verdict on the merits of their scholarship is this one, their own.

*  *  *

Yet another way directs attention to what is essential and unique about the study of literature.  It alone undertakes the task of interpreting and appraising literature as it represents human experience.  It properly studies what may be called the infrastructure of human existence, in its nexus of personality, culture, and society in all of their variegated, complex, and dynamic possibilities, as explored and expressed in literature.

So we come to the customary fundamental questions about the principles, purposes, and practices of literary scholarship and pedagogy.  My answers are entirely traditional.  Literature and its study serve a triad of worthy aims: analyzing and assessing the literary expression of diverse experiences and perspectives; enlarging moral imagination and encouraging empathy; advancing understanding, not necessarily approval, across whatever boundaries divide us; and providing a reasoned critique of culture and society.  When read with sensitivity, with or without the aid of sound scholarship and sensible instruction, literature can enrich and improve lives.  Literary study by scholars and students, as well as general readers in say, book clubs, can be, and should be intended as, an invaluable, though indirect, aid to personal growth or social well-being.  The profession should rededicate itself to the proper work of literary study by creating, welcoming, and addressing audiences, in and out of academe, whatever kind or degree of interest in literature qua literature which they may have.

This perspective shows post-modern criticism to repudiate literature, what it does and should do, and what it represents.  Treating texts as pretexts reflecting post-modern issues of gender, race, class, power reduces the n-dimensionality and multifariousness of literature to the one-dimensionality and simplicity of polemic.  Since the beginning of literary study, scholars have used, but subordinated, other disciplines, like psychology, philosophy, political science, and economics, to inform their work as aids to interpret the human experiences represented in the works of literature at hand.  Post-modern scholars reverse this process by treating works of literature as documents largely undistinguished from non-literary kinds and important as sources of non-literary knowledge, to serve non-literary and often non-academic purposes.  Not so long ago, some went so far as to sneer at a work of literature for being “privileged” vis-à-vis, say, a telephone book.

Whatever the intentions of post-modern scholars, the results of their efforts taken as a whole have been deplorable.  Their scholarship lacks respect or affection for literature; dislikes or disregards readers other than coteries or acolytes; uses clotted syntax and distended argot; and too often does so to conceal a trivial commonplace, a fatuous non sequitur, a pedantic vacuum, or a hidden political agenda.  Multiplied thousands of times in articles, books, papers, and lessons, such work has tarnished the reputation of English as a field of scholarship, alienated students, and offended the public.

The offense given to a large part of the public reflects its reaction to the views and positions of post-modern scholars.  In their effort to be relevant, most English scholars advance views consonant with the post-modern tetrad of issues and conforming to liberal or progressive views and positions on them.  But they should not disregard or have contempt for views and positions on race, gender, class, and power different from theirs—and for the people who hold them.  A greater respect for the span of human experience represented by literature and respect for all people would encourage more attention to, if not acceptance of, the literary expression of experiences not aligned with the political prescriptions of post-modern scholars.

Reform will occur if only because fashions fade in time and under pressure from younger scholars with careers to make and reputations to advance.  Indeed, among many younger scholars, disenchantment with post-modern criticism grows.  But they lack not only a new direction, but also a coherent and focused articulation.  Lacking conviction, they find it hard to confront the morally and politically self-righteous who stifle dissent and discourage new approaches.  At present, the more things seem to have changed, the more they have have remained the same.

Unless some run risks against a still-powerful coterie, though now on the wane, reform must arise elsewhere.  Paradoxically, it may come from the top, not the bottom.  For a few prominent practitioners seem to be retreating in embarrassment at the deficiencies of post-modernism.  To give the fellow his due, Greenblatt has noted that the “profession has become so oddly diffident and even phobic about literary power, so suspicious and tense, that it risks losing sight of—or at last failing to articulate—the whole reason anyone bothers with the enterprise in the first place.”  Not a direct statement of his agency or responsibility, not an honest statement of his role in instigating and supporting efforts which have made the profession as he describes it worse, but a start.  And he has recently questioned the stress on publication, at least of the book as opposed to the article, in academic life.

*  *  *

The big question is whether reform, even the survival, of English departments as we have come to know them matters.  If we take post-modern critics at their word; if, as they claim, literary works constitute a corpus of documents to serve non-literary purposes; and if the purpose of scholarship and pedagogy is to treat them as such—we should assign the study of these documents and the scholars who study them to departments in other fields.  English departments would survive to support scholarship in linguistics and teaching of literacy and thereby become what they have pretended and professed to be as a rationalization for their growth since the Second World War: support centers with courses in effective reading and writing for all students in the college or university.

A proposal along these lines would embarrass post-modernists, call their bluff, and deflate their pretensions.  I know and they know that no other department would have them, documents or scholars.  But I jest, mordantly.  The adoption of such a proposal would not ensure enlightened literary scholarship and pedagogy.  But state legislators, and college and university trustees would do no long-term damage by asking what the public or the parents of students get for their taxes or tuition when English departments bulge with professors training large number of Ph.D.’s, avoiding underclass courses, and including political agendas in the classroom and pop-culture subjects in the curriculum.  Or about the relationship between English departments and the world beyond their cloistered classrooms and corridors.  Despite predictable hullabaloos about political encroachment on academic freedom—irony of irony, given post-modernists’ support of politically correct academic speech codes on their campuses and in their classes—such questions would prompt the profession, from English departments up to the MLA, to re-examine what it is that literary study is properly about and what benefits derive from it.  Some accountability for over-producing Ph.D.’s and thereby engendering all sorts of adverse consequences at public expense might well in order.  Perhaps academic vice presidents or college deans should be asked if they are proud of their performance.

I am not sure how to reform departments or the profession, but I shall not shy from putting forth a few unpolished suggestions.  The industrialization of scholarship must stop, to which end academic vice presidents, deans, and chairs should curtail incentives.  They should make Ph.D. admissions responsive to current market conditions and anticipated market fluctuations; and they should assign courses to tenured and tenure-seeking professors accordingly.  They should require that tenure decisions reflect, but not be dominated by, departmental assessments of scholarly promise on the basis of proposals for articles or books, or of papers presented to the department or college, not largely or only on press publication.  They should insist on standards which encourage diversity in interests and approaches, and which give greater weight to teaching and public service.  Being an English professor should mean a commitment to professing not only a love of literature, but also its value in life and in lives.  This return to a more conventional view of the proper practice of the profession would testify to the worth of literature and, more generally, the humanities.

Deans should encourage chairs, and chairs should encourage the professoriate, to revitalize English departments by ending their isolation from the public.  A first step could be recruiting Ph.D. candidates, then hiring professors, with non-academic experience, as many graduate schools in business and public health do.  This first step could help counter the intellectual provincialism and instructional parochialism of English teachers at all academic levels.  The expectation should be that those trained in and teaching English literature can and do address, with knowledge aforethought, scientific, social, and other issues from a humanistic, not a political, perspective.

Another step could be to lower the barriers between professional and amateur scholars.  Deans and chairs can encourage, organize, and support outreach programs.  Some might include former English majors and graduate students, perhaps through alumni programs.  Others might invite local unaffiliated scholars to participate in local panels on appropriate topics.  The NEH could help by supporting such programs and by dedicating a fair share of available funding of scholarly research to unaffiliated scholars.  But it will not; it is committed to serving the self-perpetuating coterie which defines what counts and does not count as scholarship.  So Congress might well ask why it supports research by affiliated scholars only or at all.

Finally, I hope that those who did not have the academic careers for which they had prepared still have or can recover, even at this late date, not only their love of literature, but also any repressed zeal for scholarship; and that, if discovered and encouraged, they can and will contribute to their subjects.  Since they have been absent from academe for some time, their work might be fresh, if only because it might be free of the cultish cant and distracting tics commonplace in so much fashionable work safe from challenge from inside academe and protected from challenge from outside it.  At a time when the study of English has fallen on hard times, the profession should welcome help from any source.  If not, if the profession cannot free itself from its closed shop, and literary study from its political or personal agendas, no one can be a winner, and everyone must be a loser.



[1] Strong language indeed, but a reading of the three essays by black men in the special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, 67.1 (spring 2016) shows them suspicious of latent racism in their white colleagues in English departments across the country, many of whom no doubt express support for an end to racism, sexism, the lot.

[2] (Quoted in Scott Jaschik, “An Economist’s Critique of Job Market for English Ph.D.s,” The Economist [8 Jan 2015]; from Pedagogy [2015], 15.1.)

[3] The gap between my academic studies and my consulting work I bridged with a strong background in mathematics and science, diverse military experience during the Vietnam War, and eclectic reading in science, economics, history, philosophy, and religion.  I still favor what used to be called a well-rounded education.

[4] The only adjustment which the profession made at this time was a change in the structure of membership fees.  Until the early 70’s, the membership fees of the Modern Language Association were the same for all members.  That changed in 1973, when the MLA adopted a fee schedule based on rank, as a proxy for income; the Shakespeare Association of American adopted a similar schedule a few years later.

I am proud to have played a role in that change.  I was elected to the MLA Delegate Assembly in 1971 and served through 1973; I was appointed to or volunteered for the DA’s Economic Review Committee, which it chartered to study income and expenses, and make recommendation to the DA.  I recommended a graduated fee structure, the committee accepted it and proposed it to the DA, and the DA debated it.  MLA President John Hurt Fisher spoke briefly but forcefully to condemn the proposal as a “subsidy” paid by professors to graduate students.  Outraged, I replied that indeed we should discuss subsidies; the one which I wanted to discuss was already in place: professors were over-enrolling Ph.D. candidates with reduced chances of finding employment in the field so that professors could have them teach undergraduate courses so that they could teach upper-class and graduate courses—a subsidy to professors at far higher “fees” to graduate students.  When I finished, the DA burst out in applause, the proposal carried, and William Schaeffer, the MLA Executive Secretary, hurried to me after adjournment to assure me that the Executive Committee would approve the proposal.  It did.

Michael L. HaysMichael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays is formerly an independent consultant in defense, energy, and environment; a full- or part-time teacher for the past forty-five years under diverse auspices; a civic activist for public education as a columnist and blogger; and a retired independent scholar with his doctorate in English, specializing in Shakespeare.

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