The Modern Language Association is projecting a 5 percent increase in 2011-12 in the number of open positions in both English and foreign languages.
Such gains would be welcome to would-be faculty members in those fields, many of whom have faced a terribly difficulty job market in recent years. But the MLA cautions that these gains represent only a modest start in restoring the level of jobs available before the economic downturn hit in the fall of 2008. The current MLA projections are that the number of new jobs available in this academic year in English and foreign languages will be about one-third below the peak of 2007-8.
For those on the market this year, the contraction of the job market will be evident not only in the still-limited opportunities but in the competition for the positions available. Several years of poor job markets mean that there are plenty of unemployed or underemployed humanities scholars still on the job market after a year or more.
The MLA numbers and estimates are based on the association's Job Information List, in which many departments post their openings. Many jobs are not listed there, but the trends in the list have generally been accurate for the profession as a whole.
In December of previous years, the MLA has released detailed job projections, but the association is only releasing the more limited forecast this year in light of the constant changes in the market; it will do more complete reports at the end of each academic year.
Many departments that do have openings conduct interviews at the MLA annual meeting, which will be in Seattle in January, so this time of year is one in which many on the market hope to hear that they will have an interview. Others blog or tweet  about the lack of jobs. Away from the interview rooms, many sessions at the meeting will be focused on the tough job market. with sessions planned on nonacademic jobs, non-tenure-track jobs, the future of higher education and more.
Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that she considered the 5 percent increase in jobs "a welcome improvement," but "just not enough."
"The lack of tenure-track jobs continues to be a characteristic of the modern university, and it's a trend the MLA deplores," she said. "We think everyone in the academic system needs to be concerned with this trend."
The MLA is currently planning a special task force to examine graduate education, with the goal of examining the purpose of the degree, the nature of the dissertation, and the way programs prepare doctoral students for a variety of careers. While the MLA will pursue this issue, and will continue to push for the creation of more tenure-track jobs, Feal said it was "very frustrating" to feel that all the work done by many education groups concerning the academic job market "has produced little measurable progress."
Feal said that she believes it will take broad societal change to add the necessary support for higher education to create more good academic jobs. "Everyone in the academic system -- and I include the MLA -- everyone has to be concerned with the relative decrease in tenure-track jobs at a time when more students than ever are in higher education," she said. Feal said she worried about many students losing out on the "unique interaction with a scholar-teacher who has the time and support to nurture minds."
True coalitions may have the best chance at changing things, she said. "All the Occupy movements taking place on campuses lead me to think that if tenured professors, administrators, students, faculty members from all ranks and job-seekers join together, then we have a chance for solving some of these huge problems facing us," she said. "We should be one faculty serving all students, and every member of the academic community must do our part to make this happen."