At 61, the English literature professor D.G. Myers has had his academic career brought to an abrupt end. There is no money left to pay him. But it’s not quite that simple:
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to seven percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up forty-five percent of the faculty. The imbalance cannot last. PhD programs go on awarding PhD’s to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university—a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report—pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach thirteen courses a year.) If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, nine of every ten PhD programs in English should be closed down—immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:• Poems about Cities• Studies in Narrative: The End of the World in Literature & History• Studies in Film: Seductions: Film/Gender/Desire• The Original Walking Dead in Victorian England• Contemporary Literatures and Cultures: North American Imperialisms and Colonialisms• Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: Family as Origin and Invention• Women Writing: Nags, Hags, and Vixens• The Image on the Page• Bodies, Selves, Texts• Consumer Culture and Globalization• The Western: Looking Awry• Dreams and Middle English Dream Visions
… The Minnesota course list does not indicate a whole world of knowledge. It indicates a miscellany of short-lived faculty enthusiasms.
If you read the piece, you’ll see that this is not the griping of a right-wing crank, but the lament of a scholar who sees his loss of employment, and the circumstances surrounding it, as indicative of a more thoroughgoing collapse. More:
In 1976, in his early eighties, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essaysThe Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously any more, but nor does anyone ask the obvious followup. If English literature is not a common pursuit—not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title—then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After twenty-four years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge—plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context”—I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed. As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
The distinction is a fine one, but a crucial one. Myers is not complaining about literature professors giving themselves over to the study of minute topics within the tradition; in fact, he praises that in this piece. He is objecting to the loss of the idea that there is any tradition worth studying and passing on.
This makes me reflect on how reading The Divine Comedy has electrified my imagination about the possibilities of literature. I could not imagine entering graduate school wanting to study literature to know more about Dante, and the canon, and learning how to pursue truth and the reality of things through the study of literature, only to be confronted by the kind of courses and enthusiasms Myers highlights. If there is a collapse in the university humanities — and it seems as if that is coming very soon, if not already upon us — then one has to reflect on how the humanities departments have brought it on themselves.
I can easily see making the case for why one should study Dante, and Shakespeare, and Milton, and Austen, and all the others. I cannot see why anyone should study that trendy bullshit above until and unless they’ve mastered the Tradition.
[H/T: The Browser]