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A Tough Job Outlook

January 5, 2011

For those seeking jobs teaching English or foreign languages, the job market remains bleak -- but what passes for good news may be that the number of openings is flat this year, and isn't dropping further after dramatic declines in the previous two years.

That's the conclusion of the annual report on job openings of the Modern Language Association, which tracks its job listings each year as a measure of the health of the market overall. While not all openings are listed with the MLA, its figures for English and foreign languages match the overall rises and falls of available jobs -- especially tenure-track assistant professor openings that are most sought by new Ph.D.s. The association is today releasing its projections for the 2010-11 academic year listings, in advance of the group's annual meeting, which starts Thursday in Los Angeles.

While these findings suggest that the number of openings in English is level compared to 2009-10, the total is 20.3 percent fewer than in 2008-9, and 39.8 percent fewer than in 2007-8. For foreign languages, this year's total, flat compared to 2009-10, is 16.9 percent fewer than the 2008-9 total and 39.3 percent fewer than the total the year before that. (This is the time of year when many disciplinary associations report on their respective job markets -- and the news this week from historians was about a plummeting number of positions, while economists were seeing a recovery.)

Swati Rana, a graduate student in English at the University of California at Berkeley and president of the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus, said that the doctoral students she is talking to are "pretty discouraged by their prospects" for finding jobs. "The situation is particularly difficult because new candidates are having to contend with a backlog of applicants. Many of my colleagues are trying to prepare for the long haul, some of them going out on the market for the third or fourth time. I've also heard about a number of people who have given up on the prospect of working in academia and are transitioning to other fields," she said.

Indeed, earlier this week an anonymous English Ph.D. wrote a "manifesto" on a blog in which she described in a poem her reasons for leaving academe. It ends "Because I am prevented from doing the work I was trained and prepared to do. / Because there are other places where that training and preparation will be rewarded, respected, and used. / Because I am capable of more than I can do here. / Because leaving the system is a reclamation of the dignity and agency it has attempted to take from me.... / I am leaving the academy." (The full manifesto appears as today's Views essay.)

The author, who said she wished to remain anonymous because she is job hunting, is currently in her second one-year visiting position. Two years ago, she applied for 100 positions, and last year for 60 -- landing only a few campus visits and no tenure-track offers. This year, she found fewer and fewer positions related to her scholarly areas of interest, and so she decided recently to stop searching for academic jobs. She's looking for work in publishing, government or libraries.

She is not alone in giving up. One of the comments posted on her poem was from the creator of Selloutyoursoul.com, a website that provides career advice to "lost humanities grad students," and where a recent post noted that many people find the site by typing this phrase into a search engine: "Ph.D. in English Useless Destroyed My Life."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that many "systemic" changes are needed in higher education -- including better public support for the humanities and academe in general, and reforms of graduate education -- to help improve the job market for new Ph.D.s. But she said she realized that those changes won't happen immediately, and that pushing for those changes "doesn't help the individual scholar" who is on the market right now. "It breaks my heart to see people with life passions for the study of language and literature have to struggle so much to find a position that allows them a living wage," she said.

In terms of major changes that departments can execute, Feal said that she hoped more graduate programs would "think more of the teaching mission of higher education" when doctoral students are trained. This means recognizing that most of those Ph.D. students aren't going to find positions where they are expected to write monographs at research universities, but are going to be in faculty jobs where teaching is the focus. So rather than focusing almost entirely on research, graduate programs should be "working with graduate students who have a passion for teaching to help them become prepared for the teaching jobs that exist today," she said.

That may mean a different kind of dissertation, Feal said. She noted that Sidonie Smith, the University of Michigan professor who is president of the MLA, has called for consideration of a range of different kinds of dissertations, including several related essays, the creation of a digital project that might help with scholarship or teaching, collaborative projects with other students or faculty members, translation projects or public scholarship.

In terms of the broad changes many humanities scholars want to see in higher education, the MLA is organizing a series of sessions at this year's annual meeting on the theme of "The Academy in Hard Times." And on Saturday, academic labor activists have organized "A Counter-Conference: Strategies for Defending Higher Education," also in Los Angeles and designed for MLA attendees, which will focus on the impact of budget cuts on the humanities and on those who teach in higher education.

One bit of mildly encouraging news for new English Ph.D.s is that their numbers are shrinking. The MLA jobs report cited new data from the 2009 Survey of Earned Doctorates indicating that in 2009 the number of doctorates awarded in English fell to 896, the first time since 1991 that the total was below 900. That's a drop from 965 in 2008. Still, while that figure may suggest less competition, the large number of unemployed or underemployed Ph.D.s from recent years may minimize the impact of the drop. (The 602 doctorates in languages other than English reflect a total within the range that has been fairly constant in recent years.)

Diversification of Language Openings

One of the larger trends documented in the MLA jobs report is a shift encouraged by the association: the diversification of the areas of expertise sought in language openings. Spanish continues, by far, to have the most openings, at 33.6 percent. But a decade ago, more than half of the language jobs being listed with the MLA were in Spanish. While language educators have always been thrilled by students' interest in Spanish, many have argued that colleges need to offer a range of languages to meet the variety of academic interests of students. Indeed, while the MLA's latest census of language enrollments showed that the popularity of Spanish continues to grow, other languages -- such as Chinese and Arabic -- had larger percentage gains (admittedly from small bases).

As a result, Feal said she was pleased to see that many language positions were in areas other than Spanish, which was followed by French (11.6 percent), German (6.4 percent), Chinese (6.0 percent), Arabic (4.0 percent), Russian (2.8 percent), and Italian (2.4 percent). A decade ago, only 1.4 percent of the language listings were for Chinese and 0.5 percent were for Arabic.

The association also noted a large increase in the last decade (to 26.0 percent from 13.5 percent) in language positions for which no language is specified. Many of these opening are for interdisciplinary language or general education focused positions.

The shift in the specialties sought for language positions "mirrors beautifully our language enrollment survey, which shows the diversity of languages is increasing," Feal said.

 

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