The Bleak State of a Career in an English Department
Every year around Christmas time there’s one thing I look forward to getting more than anything else: my MLA Profession volume. Each year, the Modern Language Association (MLA) publishes a volume that summarizes the state of scholarship in English Departments and attempts to assess the plight of humanities scholarship.
This year’s issue is especially compelling, and frightening. In it, a lengthy report generated by an MLA task force evaluates the process and standards of tenure and promotion in English departments. The task force arrived at some startling conclusions about the tenure process, and it also made some valuable suggestions to departments. According to the report, of all the people who receive doctorate degrees in English, only 60 percent of them ever get a tenure-track job. Of those, roughly two-thirds (38 percent) ever get the chance to be evaluated for tenure and the same place they’ve been hired, and still less (34 percent) actually get tenure. Thus, the task force concludes, “PhDs in the fields represented by the MLA appear to have about a 35 percent change of getting tenure.” This means a lot of turnover, a lot of wasted academic energy.
The report also notes that well over 20 percent of faculty members who are hired for a tenure track position end up leaving to go somewhere else without tenure. Certainly, the circumstances at my own institution lend credibility to this statistic. So ultimately, it looks like me and my English department friends are pursuing a career in which there is (at least initially) a 65 percent failure rate. Why would I embark on such a foolish endeavor? Why is it so hard to get tenure? Why do so many people fail at achieving it?
The task force report is exceptional in articulating reasons why and suggesting things English departments can do so they don’t continue to damage and alienate a generation of junior scholars. The report notes that the publication of a monograph often remains the benchmark for tenure at most, if not all, research institutions (and even in many liberal arts colleges). A longstanding valuing of monographs is bad news for those who haven’t yet cracked the academic press threshold, especially given the knowledge that most academic presses are cutting many of their humanities publications. Libraries across the nation, especially those of smaller colleges, are buying fewer and fewer books; an increasing percentage of their budgets gets earmarked to the exorbitant proprietary online database subscription fees.
The task force recognizes these grim realities, and it encourages departments to reconsider the meaning of productive scholarship. Perhaps it can take place via new media forms, through timeworn genres like the scholarly essay, or through collaborative projects. Further, the task force recognizes that much more mentoring has to take place between senior faculty and junior faculty if the standards of tenure are to be met.
Whether or not this report will make any waves in the profession remains to be seen. I hope it does, though. As it stands, the tenure and promotion process breeds careerism, volitility among faculty ranks. Worse yet, it slows graduate students’ progress toward degree and it negatively affects the quality of undergraduate education.