Fewer English Jobs, More Language Jobs

As MLA convention approaches and interviews loom, a mixed picture emerges for key humanities disciplines.
December 18, 2007

The job market for faculty positions in English appears to be getting tighter while the job market in foreign languages appears to be getting broader, with less domination by Spanish.

Those trends are from the annual analysis by the Modern Language Association of positions posted to its Job Information List. For 2007-8, positions in English are expected to be down 4.1 percent while positions in languages will be up 4.3 percent. Not all jobs are posted to the MLA list, so the survey isn't a complete, scientific take on the job market, but because of consistency in which institutions use the list, the survey is typically an excellent snapshot of trends.

While the English numbers have been going up and down in recent years, the total of 1,720 is well above the drought of positions in the mid-1990s, when for six years the total was just above or below 1,100 jobs. This year's total is also well below the 1988-89 high point for jobs of 2,075. While precise breakdowns on specialty areas were not available, British literature remains the most popular type of position, representing about 22 percent of jobs posted.

For foreign languages, the numbers have been moving more steadily upward in recent years. This year's projected total of 1,660 is up 29 percent over the last four years. The language with the greatest number of positions is Spanish. Those slots account for 38.1 percent of all listings. However, this year is the second in a row, and only the second in the last 12 years, in which Spanish jobs accounted for less than 40 percent of positions. With more colleges creating positions to teach Middle Eastern or Asian languages (even though the totals are quite small compared to Spanish and other languages), there is much more diversity in the overall language job pool.

Over all, the statistics also show that the number of new positions in English and languages are as close as they have been since 1997-98. That year, there were 33 more English jobs, and this year there are 60 more English jobs. In 2000-1, there were 346 more positions in English than language jobs. While the gap between new jobs has narrowed, the gap in new doctorates has not. Last year, new English Ph.D.'s outpaced new foreign language Ph.D.'s 954 to 614, according to data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, and the Ph.D. production gap hasn't changed much in recent years. (Ph.D. production for the two categories was largely unchanged last year from the year before, with 6 fewer English Ph.D.'s awarded and 7 more languages Ph.D.'s awarded.)

A key issue for both sectors is that many of the jobs being listed (and likely a larger share of those that are not advertised) are off the tenure track. Continuing a trend of recent years, the percentage of full-time, tenure-track assistant professor jobs (those most sought by new Ph.D.'s for whom the MLA meeting next week is a crucial part of the quest for employment) was 63.6 percent in English and 54.1 percent in languages.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that by far the most "painful" part of her job was realizing from these figures that there are many "wonderful young scholars" who "are so well prepared to teach and who will not have that opportunity" in tenure-track jobs. She said it was important for scholars to reach out to students' parents and others to push for sections to be taught by permanent faculty members who receive appropriate levels of support.

She said that the fundamental issue is that in higher education today "we have a job system where there are simply not enough full-time positions."

In terms of the specific trends this year, Feal said that the English dip was "cause for concern," but not "grave cause for concern." Feal said she believed the decline was not due to decreased need, but to "the increased use of faculty members off the tenure track."

Within the foreign languages, Feal said that she was pleased to see the jobs shifting to more languages. With more high schools teaching Asian and other languages, Feal said, colleges will be facing more demands for more diverse language offerings. Spanish will likely remain the most popular language for some time in terms of instruction, but it's "very healthy" that the percentage of language jobs that are for Spanish is down below 40.

"Students are spreading out their interests," she said. "The more languages we can teach, the better."

Number of Positions in MLA's Job Information List Over Last 10 Years

Year English Foreign Languages
1998-9 1,517 1,192
1999-2000 1,670 1,365
2000-1 1,828 1,482
2001-2 1,732 1,369
2002-3 1,680 1,367
2003-4 1,541 1,285
2004-5 1,739 1,369
2005-6 1,687 1,361
2006-7 1,793 1,591
2007-8 1,720 1,660


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top