Where There's a Will...

April 13, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Shakespeare famously affirmed that his words would live “[s]o long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” but he never promised that they’d keep his acolytes employed. At the Shakespeare Association of America’s 37th Annual Conference last week, attendees related the familiar stories of budget cuts and fruitless job searches that now seem to emanate from every corner of academe (and elsewhere). At the same time, the mood at the conference -- with as many as a thousand attendees, the largest in the association's history – was far from bleak, as professors and graduate students alike expressed optimism for the long term and a shared conviction that the Bard would ultimately carry them through.

The ambiance of the gathering – planned, as always, a year in advance – was at times almost jarring, given the economic circumstances: At the opening reception, held in the National Building Museum's imposing Great Hall, tables piled high with intricate hors d'oeuvres (as well as matzos) and well-stocked open bars in each corner offered a taste of luxury to many who are now, more than ever, growing accustomed to doing without. (It is perhaps not shocking that attendees were delighted at the opportunity to drown a few sorrows at no extra cost; at conference events where drinks were not covered, such as a play reading at the nearby Hawk 'n' Dove bar, the festivities were noticeably more restrained.)

The conference attracts Shakespeareans ranking from first-year Ph.D. candidates to department chairs, and few had good tidings to report – nor did they expect to hear any in the near future.

“The next three to five years will be really grim,” said Lena Cowen Orlin, who is executive director of the SAA and professor of English at Georgetown University. She said there was no way to know yet exactly how bad things would be: “Everybody is kind of holding their breath… there’s just so much uncertainty.”

Of course, there was already plenty of bad news. Many professors reported cuts at their institutions. Kent Cartwright, chair of English at the University of Maryland at College Park and a trustee of the Shakespeare association, said that his department is admitting fewer Ph.D. candidates than in previous years. And there’s more: “We’re talking about cutting the number of courses.”

Arthur Kinney, who is Thomas W. Copeland Professor of Literary History and director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said that his institution, too, was reducing its Ph.D. cohort: “We don’t have a way to give them financial aid.” And the economic crisis has affected what makes an applicant desirable: Kinney noted that those who already possess an M.A. have a new advantage, since they will only need five years of funding as opposed to seven.

Graduate students were also feeling the pain, though many said their institutions were trying hard to protect them. One Ph.D. candidate at a British university said that his school had just completed a beautiful new building to house the humanities, but that budget cuts had left the structure lacking some standard amenities: “They haven’t put in printers. ... We have to walk over to the old building to print.”

For the most part, however, it was the job market that had grad students and new Ph.D.’s worried. Very worried. Asked to comment on the state of her employment prospects, one young woman sighed, “Given how things are going for me, I’d rather not.” Her companion nodded in glum agreement.

Those who anticipated being on the job market in the near future expressed both fear and determination: “I’m just kind of sweating this out and looking forward,” said one. Another declared, “This is what I want and I’m following it no matter what.”

Every graduate student interviewed revealed the same hope and the same strategy: Shakespeare. Those whose research focused on Renaissance drama said they believed that it would make them employable, and repeated the same lines like mantras. “There’s always Brit Lit I.” “Every university needs somebody to teach Shakespeare.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, many Ph.D. candidates who were not specializing in Shakespeare said that they were nonetheless betting on the Bard. One young woman said that although her dissertation bore only a nominal relationship to Shakespeare, her committee had advised her to “play it safe” in job interviews by spinning that connection to the best of her ability. They believed, she added, that the economic circumstances made it imperative for her to sell herself as someone who could teach Shakespeare, regardless of her personal interests. And another student said that his adviser had only consented to his attending the conference – given that the subject of his research had nothing to do with Shakespeare -- because she thought that getting that background would serve him well when it came time to look for a job.

This view of Shakespeare studies as a comparatively secure haven was apparently unanimous among the association's faithful. “It will give them a leg up on the job market,” said Orlin, the executive director. “There will always be a Shakespeare course.”

Such sentiments offer a possible explanation for the conference’s popularity – it was about 33 percent larger than the previous year's event, and Orlin said that overall association membership is up by a similar proportion – as well as its general mood, which was almost defiantly upbeat. Conversations that began with complaints about the economy soon turned to happier topics, as Shakespeareans of every rank expressed a boundless enthusiasm for their area of study and an eagerness to discuss the latest goings-on in the discipline. (Kinney mentioned seeing "a lot more interest in performance and theater"; Cartwright said he was pleased at the emergence of new "efforts to connect formalism with material studies"; and Owen Williams, assistant director at the Folger Institute -- which is part of the Folger Shakespeare Library, an independent research library in Washington that is affiliated with Amherst College -- brought up a different type of trend, "new media Shakespeares," which he said had been garnering much attention of late.)

No one so much as entertained the notion that Shakespeare studies could truly be dented by the economy or anything else – not just because of what Kinney calls “the Bardological industry,” but because Shakespeare’s work remains in a class by itself. “We grow up with the moderns,” said Kinney, “so [they] seem easy and accessible… but [college students] see a Shakespeare play and they’re blown away.”

“Shakespeare remains popular among undergraduates,” agreed Orlin. As for his incomparable prominence and longevity, she offered, “Shakespeare is renewable… he wrote so much more largely than he needed to.”

“I think it’s privileged because people love it,” said one faculty member from a prestigious east coast university. But she declined to be identified in this article, or to offer comment about budget cuts at her institution or job prospects for her students. (Regarding the state of the latter: "I think that's obvious.")

Still, the belief was universal, and perhaps best summed up by Peter Smith, who is reader in Renaissance studies at Nottingham Trent University: "Shakespeare is fireproof."

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