Disappearing Jobs

MLA reports 21% drop in positions in English and foreign languages -- steepest decline in 34 years association has collected openings. Percentage of English jobs on tenure track falls.
December 17, 2009

The job picture in the humanities is going from bad to worse.

The Modern Language Association's annual forecast on job listings, being released today, predicts that positions in English language and literature will drop 35 percent from last year, while positions in languages other than English are expected to fall 39 percent this year. Given that both categories saw decreases last year, the two-year decline in available positions is 51 percent in English and 55 percent in foreign languages.

The declines in each of the last two years are the largest ever recorded by the MLA, since it started tracking the trends in the association's Job Information List 35 years ago. The list has also never had fewer notices of openings. The MLA's job list does not include all jobs in English and the humanities, but over time, the ups and downs in openings on the MLA list have been an excellent proxy for judging the overall state of the job market.

"This is a historic low," said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA. "We've never seen a recession like this."

Not only are departments being forced to hold off on searches for open positions, Feal said, but she is hearing that many scholars are delaying retirements because of depleted investment savings. "A lot of retirements aren't happening right now."

Among other findings of the MLA analysis:

  • Of the openings that are being listed, tenure-track assistant professor positions made up 53 percent of the jobs in English and 49 percent of the jobs advertised in foreign languages. Those figures are lower than normal. Since 1997, tenure-track assistant professor positions have made up between 55 and 65 percent of the positions announced by departments. (Many departments that hire adjuncts do not list their positions with the MLA, so the percentage of total openings that are tenure track is almost certainly smaller than this year's MLA figures suggest.)
  • The number of new doctorates awarded in 2008 was up slightly in English (to 965 from 927) and foreign languages (to 627 from 608). While those increases are in line with slight ups and downs in Ph.D. production, they indicate that the number of job seekers is likely to be up at a time when jobs are disappearing. This year's new Ph.D.s will be competing not only against each other, but against those who earned doctorates a year or two ago and who are either unemployed or underemployed.
  • In English the fields with the greatest percentage of positions are rhetoric and composition (20.1 percent), British literature (17.9 percent), multiethnic literature (13.7 percent), creative writing (7.0 percent), and American literature (6.1 percent).
  • The languages other than English with the greatest percentage of positions are Spanish (35.5 percent), French (16.0 percent), Chinese (9.5 percent), German (4.0 percent), Arabic (3.0 percent) and Italian (2.0 percent). This year's data reflect a continuation of a trend in which Spanish, while still tops in foreign language hiring, doesn't dominate as it once did. Spanish jobs made up just over half of foreign language jobs in 2000.

Feal said that she was concerned not only about the lack of jobs, but about the decreasing share of jobs that are on the tenure track. For "the integrity of programs to be maintained," she said, departments need to start hiring -- if not now, then when the downturn ends -- on the tenure track. "We've passed that tipping point where you cannot sustain a high quality overall educational experience when you've got 70 percent or more of the teaching done off the tenure track."

The MLA has been working to draw attention to the growing reliance on adjuncts -- and the need to both improve the way they are treated and provide more tenure-track positions. Feal said these efforts will continue, even amid the gloomy economic and jobs outlook.

A number of departments, Feal said, are trying to create postdoctoral positions for some of their new Ph.D.s, to try to provide "a livable wage" and meaningful work for the next year or two. She applauded these moves to "take responsibility for helping their graduate students."

When the job market is depressed, questions are frequently raised about whether graduate departments should contract a bit. Feal said that programs "should always be asking the question: Do we have the right balance between the numbers of graduate students and the possibility of a good academic career?," and that they should be providing honest, current information about job placements to prospective students. Feal said that she thinks some programs don't conduct regular reviews, and that, if they did, some would cut back.

But Feal cautioned against trying to solve the job market problem by shrinking graduate programs. Many programs are turning out great new professors, whose teaching and research should be advanced. "It would be a shame for academic programs to calibrate the number of students they admit exclusively on short-turn fluctuations. That would be short-sighted and rather sad," she said.

The solution to the problem is "to increase the number of viable academic positions."

Searching for Strategies

Alysia E. Garrison, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California at Davis and president of the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus, said she hears a lot of worry from fellow grad students about the state of the job market. "There is an unspoken fear that the crunch may last longer than one to two years, though no one has an accurate sense of what will happen," she said.

Many grad students are responding as best they can, she said. Many are applying for a wide range of positions -- adjunct jobs and tenure-track jobs, postdocs, anything that will allow them to work in their fields. She also said that students are trying to "package themselves" to be able to apply for more positions, by thinking about how they can fit into various disciplinary interests.

Regardless of strategy, the odds are long. "At least a couple of my friends have applied to upwards of 100 positions in a single year and have landed two, maybe three interviews," she said.

Garrison said it is important for graduate programs to "be honest with students about the challenges of a Ph.D. in the humanities, and provide training for alternatives to the tenure-track job, such as editing and administration." And she said that programs "have an ethical responsibility to fund and support the graduate students they do admit."

Still, she said she would oppose any shrinking of programs. "The declining presence on campus of humanities programs would signal a decline in their importance to the university community," she said. "Admitting fewer graduate students may also justify decisions to cut writing programs and to move toward online delivery models of student instruction, particularly for lower-division writing and literature courses that graduate students have traditionally taught."

It's Not Just the MLA

The MLA is among several humanities disciplines that will hold annual meetings in the next month -- meetings that normally are key times for job interviews. And while final numbers aren't available for other associations, early indications are that they are also seeing large decreases in available jobs.

The American Historical Association is still tallying the results of its jobs survey, but expects it to show a decline in available positions. Officials of the American Philosophical Association did not return calls, but this analysis of the group's job listings suggests a decline on par with that seen by the MLA.

The American Philological Association is seeing indications of a tight job market in the classics. Adam D. Blistein, executive director, said that the number of colleges interviewing for jobs at the group's meeting later this month is expected to be in "the low 40s." That compares to mid-50s last year, and more than 80 and more than 70 in the two years before that.


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