Moving Beyond Venting

As beleaguered humanities professors gather at MLA conclave, the talk is of budget cuts, tough questions and sometimes uncomfortable strategies.
January 7, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- Thursday was a day for tough questions as literary and language scholars gathered here for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Amid budget cuts, program eliminations and a terrible job market for new Ph.D.s, many scholars were engaged in some soul-searching.

"Who cares about the Gilded Age? Who can afford the time to read a 900-page novel about people who move from the drawing room to the dining room?" asked Stephanie Foote, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who in fact specializes in the literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When students are taking too many courses (so they can finish their degrees) and working too many hours at jobs (to pay for college), how can they relate? And if they don't, what happens to literature? she asked.

Foote spoke on a panel on "Teaching American Literature in an Age of Scarcity," one of a series of sessions here today on the theme of "The Academy in Hard Times." And she was among a number of speakers who talked frankly about having to rethink the way they promote scholarly subjects that are dear to them -- and how to protect programs and teaching lines that might once have been unassailable. A decade ago, Foote said, she never worried that someone who signed up for one of her courses wouldn't be interested in the subject matter. Now, she said, students ask, "Why does this matter?"

To Foote and others here, literature does matter. But her point that the "scarcity" of her panel's title needs to be applied to student time and not just departmental budgets was striking. Many here were arguing that it was time for such questions as "Why does this matter?" and for some self-scrutiny.

To be sure, there was no shortage of venting -- there were plenty of hallway conversations and session barbs about miserly legislators, ignorant Tea Partiers and narrow-minded college presidents. The Radical Caucus was circulating a handout noting the need for its "forthright critique of capitalism." And it seems that everyone here knows of a great program on the chopping block, a talented adjunct who lost all his sections and the promising grad student who isn't here because she didn't get any interviews.

But many of the sessions moved quickly beyond the venting or at least mixed in with the applause lines discussions of what a future might look like in which budgets aren't restored anytime soon -- but in which the humanities might still be valued.

In Foote's session, a paper by one of her colleagues at Illinois, Dale Bauer (who couldn't make the meeting and had her paper read), also talked about the way the economy and other trends have changed what she teaches. "We are told to keep students in the seats of our classes," she said, and yet students have so many demands on their time. That means shorter novels are assigned, that the syllabus features the novel she has taught successfully in the past but not the more challenging work that she would like to try.

Bauer discussed her work on the university committee that reviews tenure and promotion decisions -- and noted that the fundamental requirements (such as the key requirement of having written two books) haven't changed, even as faculty members don't have as much time or research support as they did in the past. Is it time, she asked, to focus more on teaching and less on research?

Foote asked why the creation of a syllabus for an exciting new course shouldn't be seen as "an intellectual research project" and count in the way that only traditional publishing does now.

Making Writing Central

If Americanists were considering whether they need to pay more attention to teaching, writing program directors (already focused on teaching) were talking about "recession-proofing" their programs, in the words of Randall McClure, chair of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University.

McClure (while admitting that he is a "glass half full" kind of person) said that the creation of independent writing programs and the recent popularity of undergraduate writing majors need to be seen as advantages. Unlike more tradition-bound programs, writing programs can change quickly -- and thereby strengthen themselves. Take first-year writing courses, which are seen by many faculty members as something to be avoided. Writing programs should put the first-year curriculum front and center, and build excitement about them. He said programs should be teaching writing in residence halls, sponsoring student writing contests, and creating new sections linking writing to different academic majors or student interests.

"Being more visible," and doing so with gusto, will help programs, attract more students, and identify writing as central, not just a "service course" that someone needs to teach.

Likewise, he said, it's important to remember that even amid the terrible budget cuts of the past two years, colleges are still getting new money for priority areas, such as online or hybrid instruction or new certificate programs. Writing programs should be looking at these priorities and making proposals to be part of them, he said.

Picking Your Battles

A session on "Why Can't We Teach What We Are Trained to Teach? Program Consolidation, Elimination, Realignment," featured several stories about successful campaigns to save threatened programs, such as a noted University of Toronto comparative literature program that was slated for consolidation but that has survived. At the same time, speakers talked about deciding which battles to fight, and which arguments are the most effective.

Caroline D. Eckhardt, head of comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University, discussed the evolution of that institution's School of Languages and Literatures, which includes comp lit, Asian studies, French and Francophone studies, Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The larger school was created out of those departments -- with shared facilities and support staff, but continued departmental independence on curricular matters.

Among other things, that means that "there is no longer a departmental staff assistant for comparative literature," as was once the case, Eckhardt said. But there is also more talk of collaboration in academics -- for instance looking for ways to combine some of the small, graduate courses or perhaps to create one-credit courses that might help several of the language departments. But comp lit and the language departments have been able to preserve their own values, she said.

The way departments respond to such consolidation proposals will be watched by administrators, she said. "If you feel that what you value the most is having your own departmental staff assistant, that's not going to be seen as important by other people, but a certain part of your curriculum might be."

Keeping programs healthy, she said, may require ending "some familiar ways of doing things," she said.

The issue of program consolidation was much discussed not only at this session, but in lots of caucusing here among those who teach European foreign languages other than Spanish. Many French, Russian, German and Italian programs have been threatened or killed off in the last year (or had graduate programs eliminated while a small undergraduate program survives). And several talked about how administrators have emphasized small graduating classes to justify closures -- and that this may mean language programs benefit from counting their graduates together rather than separately. (Others argued that it was more important to shift the discussion away from a metric of number of degrees, and to find better ways of recognizing how languages contribute to a range of graduate programs in all kinds of disciplines that rely on students becoming fluent. But here too, several said that from a strategic perspective, languages may fare better together.)

How English Professors Think and Talk

Teresa Mangum, associate professor of English at the University of Iowa, said that in considering the vulnerability of language programs, it was important to think about "the possible obligations of the English department."

She noted a new, controversial post in Dissent called "Are English Departments Killing the Humanities?" In the article, Feisal G. Mohamed (an associate professor of English at Illinois) argues that "the English department currently labors under a deep paradox: it devotes much of its intellectual energy to declaring the limits of Anglo-American culture while being structurally wedded to that culture in a way that necessarily privileges it." And he goes on to say that at his institution and others, "English is larger than departments of philosophy, religion, classics, and art history combined. That relationship is quite typical. And its disproportionate size has come at the expense of other disciplines."

Mangum didn't endorse the article and also noted that when English departments embrace the study of other cultures and languages, the reaction from other departments isn't always welcoming, as such additions in English can seem like intrusions elsewhere.

Stepping back, Mangum said that while English professors are quick to say that they value "the humanities" and not just their own field, she said she wasn't always sure that faculty "live that collectivity."

And Mangum said that humanities faculty members may also need to rethink how they talk about the crises of funding not only in higher education but in society. “I don’t want to blame the victim, but again and again I see faculty members in the humanities speak on campus and in public in ways that belittle the larger public and sometimes the sciences and other disciplines," she said.

Mangum said she understood that these comments are made "in frustration" over cut after cut and a feeling of not being understood or appreciated. But she said that the attitude is problematic. Right now in Iowa, she said, there are families "lining up at food banks."

“I don’t want to debate the meaning of class relations in a novel without knowing that the food bank in my community is running out of food," Mangum said. "We need to register more powerfully what our role is in this larger culture, what our values are as people teaching in the humanities." The knowledge and perspective gained from the humanities, she said, "can be the place where we learn compassion."

Like Mangum, many here who were raising questions about how English and language faculty members talk about their work did so out of the conviction that it does matter -- and deserves more support.

Foote, the professor who noted that she now has to answer students' question about why the 19th-century novel matters, said that professors and students benefit from the faculty members admitting that their assumptions can't be taken for granted. "We talk about globalization but many of our students don't know half the countries on the globe," she said. That doesn't mean to stop talking about globalization, but to start explaining it better, she said.

Yes, she said, it's frustrating to be in a world where one has to explain why great novels matter. "But maybe that's something we stopped thinking about and we shouldn't have," she said. "We have to return ... to where our students are coming from."


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