What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers

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By Jonathan Kramnick

How bad has the academic job market in English gotten? Well, it depends on how you frame the question.

There is no doubt we are at historic lows. In 2007-8, the Modern Language Association advertised 1,826 jobs in English. By 2017-18, that number stood at 828 — a drop of 55 percent in a decade. Unlike previous declines, this one shows no sign of abating. Very recent reports on the shrinking size of the English major indicate that things might get worse. In other words, as bad as the job market is, it may not have hit bottom yet.

Our profession is reshaping itself around this new reality, and no one exactly knows the form it will ultimately take.

Job-market statistics in English reveal both how much we can afford to hire and what we want to hire in. Considered as a whole, the situation is dire — no one would deny that. Yet examined up close, the picture is more multifaceted: There seems to be a reasonable amount of hiring in some fields and very little in others.

I want to emphasize seems. There is a real danger of generalizing from one’s personal, and therefore limited, experience. Even those who read the MLA job list every year, and follow multiple searches in real time, run the risk of confirming their own biases about the direction our profession is heading in.

So what I’ve done to counteract this bias is count the distribution of tenure-track jobs across subfields from 2015 to 2018 on the MLA job lists, and compare the results with the distribution between 1995 and 1998. Twenty years seems like a good comparison set. It registers a generational change in the profession, with Ph.D.s from the former period training and hiring the Ph.D.s from the latter. It also compares one low period to another. There were more tenure-track jobs in the mid-1990s than there are now, but it was still a period of decline after a decade of expansion. The year 1998 marked the beginning of a turnaround from that decline. No such reversal seems to be in the offing at present.

Here are some of my findings about the distribution of jobs in English today versus 20 years ago:

Least surprising: Tenure-track jobs command a smaller portion of the whole today than was the case in 1998. That’s obvious to anyone paying attention but it bears sustained scrutiny. Of the 3,412 jobs advertised between 1995 and 1998, 2,262, or 66 percent, were for tenure-track assistant professors in North America. Of the 2,611 jobs advertised between 2015 and 2018, 1,261, or 48 percent, fit that description. So, what’s going on? It’s not that we are hiring more at the associate- or full-professor ranks. There are more teaching jobs overseas now for U.S. Ph.D.s, but not that many more. The truth is simple and already well known: We hire more contingent instructors now than we used to.

The profession is in flux but its subfields are stable. The basic areas in which people were hired in 2015-18 are unchanged from 1995-98. A few new subfields have emerged and a few old ones have faded. Mostly, however, we hire in the same areas now as we did then: medieval to contemporary; early American to post-1945; African-American, ethnic-American, and world Anglophone/postcolonial. In an earlier column, I discussed the importance of the online wiki for news about the state of any given faculty search. The wiki also provides a market-eye view of the categories of hiring. Take a look. Its breakdown of fields applies as well to the past as it does to the present.

We hire more in writing now. Between 1995 and 1998, the Modern Language Association listed 532 tenure-track jobs in composition, or 23 percent of the total number of tenure-track jobs. Between 2015 and 2018, the MLA listed only 352 such jobs in composition, but they now make up 28 percent of the hiring in English. Between 1995 and 1998, the MLA listed 176 such jobs in creative writing, or 8 percent of the total. Between 2015 and 2018, that number was 197, or 16 percent.

Across the entire discipline, creative writing is the only field in which aggregate job postings have increased over the past 20 years. Its share of the pie has doubled.

The tenure-track "generalist" category is disappearing. Between 1995 and 1998, the MLA listed 211 tenure-track jobs for generalists, or 9.3 percent of the list. Twenty years later, that figure stands at a paltry 44 — only 3.4 percent of the total.

Shifts among the literary fields are noticeable but mostly not extreme. With the exception of creative writing, the total number of tenure-track jobs for every field in English has declined compared with 20 years ago. Most fields have held close to steady with respect to their allotment of the jobs pie in English, but some are faring better than others.

Who is faring well? The subfields that have expanded their share are all outside of literary historical periods:

  • Job lists in 1995-98 had 96 tenure-track jobs in ethnic-American literature (i.e., Latino/a, Asian-American, Native-American literature, or simply ethnic-American), or 4.3 percent of the list, compared with 85 such jobs, or 7 percent, in 2015-18. African-American literature has about the same percentage of job openings (roughly 7 percent) now as it had 20 years ago.
  • The ‘95-98 period saw 79 such jobs advertised in global/post-colonial literature (3.6 percent of the list), compared with 67 (5.25 percent) in 2015-18.
  • In African-American literature, there were 149 tenure-track jobs in ‘95-98 (6.6 percent of the total), compared with 87 positiosn (7 percent) by 2015-18.
  • The ‘95-98 job lists had 49 tenure-track openings in film/media studies (2.75 percent of the total in English) and 46 (or 3.6 percent) in 2015-18.

Some subfields based on historical literary periods are hurting:

  • Tenure-track jobs advertised as early 19th-century, or simply "American," literature have shrunk from 188 positions, or 8 percent of the list, to only 58 openings, or 4.6 percent.
  • Jobs in 19th-century/Victorian have shrunk from 88 (4 percent of the pie) to 23 (1.8 percent).
  • And positions in modernism/20th-century literature have dropped from 114 (5 percent of the total) to 21 (1.7 percent).

New fields have replaced old ones:

  • Thirty tenure-track jobs were available for literary theorists in 1995-99, compared with only five in the last three years.
  • Our current period has offered 29 tenure-track jobs in the digital humanities; there was just one from 1995-98.

What are we to make of these patterns?

The rising proportion of tenure-track jobs in composition and creative writing appears to reflect a change happening within the structure and mission of many departments even as they get smaller. At the same time, these numbers suggest that the jobs crisis may be worse than it seems, since teaching in composition or creative writing often requires degrees that most Ph.D. programs in English don’t offer — such as an M.F.A. or a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition.

The disappearance of generalist jobs marks a similarly grim development. These positions have most likely fallen victim to casualization, as departments that used to hire assistant professors to teach across the curriculum now rely on adjuncts. Training generalists was once the bread and butter of Ph.D. programs outside the R1 circuit. The loss of generalist positions is disproportionately a hit to those programs.

Against that austere backdrop, however, the field structure of English stands out as remarkably and encouragingly firm.

Conservative critics of English departments like to claim that canonical periods and authors are imperiled. Yet hiring patterns show continuing commitments to so-called traditional categories along with those that seem new. For example, the proportion of tenure-track openings in Renaissance/early modern literature is down only 1 percent today, compared with 20 years ago.

Shakespeare is no more at risk than Toni Morrison. The overall decline in faculty jobs in our discipline just exaggerates any incremental or transient shift among various subfields. When all jobs are down more than 50 percent over 10 years, the particular pinch felt in, for example, modernism or Victorian lit gets experienced by job candidates in those fields as sharp indeed.

That pinch is real and urgent. It requires our care and our hardest thinking. But there is no evidence that individual fields need to fight it out, or that any one of them is going extinct.

In other words, we’re all in this together. We ought to do everything we can to understand how best to respond to the shrinking market — how to lobby for more jobs, how to reshape Ph.D. programs, and how to decide whether all such programs can be sustained.

Jonathan Kramnick is a professor of English at Yale University.

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