As someone who teaches young adult fiction at a university, I am troubled by the recent crop of opinion pieces about adults who read this genre. At Slate, Ruth Graham wants anyone over 18 to be embarrassed to enjoy YA (as those who study, catalog, or publish the genre call it). And on the opinion page of The New York Times, in a piece plaintively titled “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Joel Stein writes “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” Over at The New Republic, at least, Hillary Kelly thinks you should have the courage to read whatever the hell you want.
I like Kelly’s commitment to seeing some continuity between adulthood and childhood. However, both those who defend the adults who now read YA and those who attack them seem to assume that such readers have suddenly departed from a long-established norm of adults reading novels written for adults only.
Whatever you think of YA’s mixed-age readership, there is one thing you should know: there is no 3,000-year history of fiction written for adults. There is barely a 100-year history of such fiction. The adult novel is a relatively new invention, one that is not much older than YA itself. So all the adults now skulking or striding proudly down the ever-expanding YA aisle are not in fact breaking with a long tradition of adult reading. If we look back a couple of centuries, we find that in many ways YA’s mixed-age readership is perfectly normal for the Anglo-American novel. Fiction about young people triumphing over adversity in morally satisfying ways has long been default reading for people of any age who read fiction at all.
Look at the title page of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 breakthrough novel Pamela, which shattered sales records and inspired Pamela fans, teacups, and a multitude of other consumer tie-ins. It proudly announces that the book was written in order to improve “the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES.” And its protagonist, Pamela Andrews herself, is a beautiful and indomitable 16 year-old who confronts the perils, sexual and otherwise, of a hostile world, winning a resounding finale of emotional and material rewards. Sound familiar?
The winning adventures of one plucky young protagonist or another play out through two centuries of the Anglo-American novel. And it’s not just these characters and the arc of their plot that resemble YA, but the ages of these novels’ actual readers as well. From Pamela’s day through the end of the 19th century, these novels were devoured by readers of all ages. They promised to teach moral lessons to inexperienced young people, and we have records of children as young as nine weeping over Pamela. But masses of older people read them as well.
Until recently, even boundaries between more specialized children’s literature and what we now see as literature for adults were quite blurry: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden first appeared in The American Magazine, whose other contributors include Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; E. Nesbit’s Adventures of the Treasure Seekers was first serialized in the similarly eclectic Strand. When Little Women came out in 1869, lawyers, merchants, and office clerks happily chatted at work about the tribulations of the March girls.
People who are shocked by the fact that The Fault In Our Stars has mixed-age market appeal, even after witnessing the sales of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, will be equally shocked by a list of turn-of-the-century American best-sellers. Heidi, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, and Little Lord Fauntleroy topped the charts between 1865 and 1914. Ever since T.S. Eliot, critics have tended to draw a bright line between Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which Eliot called a "boys' book," and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Eliot insists "does not fall into the category of juvenile literature." However, through the first decades of the 20th century, both books were praised as equally fabulous for "boys of all ages" — which meant that they were good for a male of any age whatsoever. Gender, not age, was the criterion for identifying appropriate readers. The "great works of American fiction," the prominent literary critic Leslie Fieldler wrote in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), "are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library."
So what is “adult fiction” and why do we now use it as our standard? Adult fiction has never been a description of what most adults actually read, but rather a fairly new aesthetic and psychological standard riding the coattails of a trendy political ideal. In principle, adulthood is an egalitarian idea. The claim that everyone has the right to vote when they turn 18, for example, implies a more leveling view of the world than does claiming this right as the exclusive property of a few people who own a lot of property. Coming into adulthood is now supposed to mean coming into power, in your personal life and in the wider world. But until quite recently, most people, most of the time, did not expect age alone to bring them much power over much of anything.
Late 19th- and 20th-century public policy and the emerging discipline of psychology charted a new path through life. In particular, universal state-sponsored education structured lives according to a new sense of age. Everyone became part of a cohort: we now read — as we reason, play, and love — at, above, or below grade level. From kindergarten eligibility to child-labor restrictions, from voter registration to old-age pensions, this path created newly precise and standardized age distinctions and invested them with meaning. And the apex of all these developmental schemes is adulthood, which in the 20th century became not only a key legal status, but also an always-out-of-reach personal aspiration — the golden moment when we transcend our lousy judgment, sexual confusion, self-centeredness, and other woes. And in this sense, far from being an egalitarian, leveling sort of idea, adulthood becomes a deliciously elite one: most adults, it turns out, are not adult at all. Modernist novelists of this era like Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce, and the critics who valued them, were the first writers to rely on “adult” as a synonym for “good.”
In playing down plots that reward good deeds and punish bad ones (and in playing up ambiguity, formal complexity, and explicit sex), the Modernists were not writing for an existing adult audience. They were calling it into being. They were fighting to demolish the mixed-age audience they had inherited: "Nothing is so striking in a survey of this field, and nothing is so much to be borne in mind, as that the larger part of the great multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls," lamented Henry James. Eventually, the Modernists prevailed — in ideals about reading if not actual practice. Their new idea of the adult novel meant that other kinds of novels became suddenly and conspicuously non-adult, enabling all the guilty pleasures of the self-consciously crossover reader that flourish so vigorously today.
Modernist ideas about adult reading were especially appealing to mid-20th-century English departments. They took root in part because they were helpful in establishing the profession of literary criticism as an adult affair, a proper part of the intellectual life of the university, in contrast to the poorly rewarded child-centered work of primary and secondary education.
So, as a market phenomenon that cashes in on a high-stakes, intensively calibrated sense of age, YA is indeed a late-20th- and 21st-century thing. But there is nothing new at all about great numbers of fully grown people reading fiction that was not written for adults. What is fairly new is the value we place on a particular sense of adulthood. There are lots of interesting arguments to have about what makes any novel bad, good, or great. Using age as shorthand for aesthetic quality is not the best way to frame these arguments. Since the ideal of adulthood is now so important, whenever another YA book tops the best-seller lists, the opinion pieces on mixed-age readership will continue to fly. But awareness of the complex history of age and reading may help to deepen the discussions we have about the place of YA in an English department’s curriculum.
Ask anyone professing the humanities today and you come to understand that a medieval dimness looms. If this is the end-times for the ice sheets at our poles — and it is — many of us also understand that the melt can be found closer to home, in the elimination of language and classics departments, for instance, and in the philistinism represented by governors such as Rick Scott of Florida and Patrick McCrory of North Carolina, who apparently see in the humanities a waste of time and taxpayer subsidies. In the name of efficiency and job creation, according to their logic, taxpayers can no longer afford to support bleary-eyed poets, Latin history radicals, and brie-nibbling Francophiles.
That there is a general and widespread acceptance in the United States that what is good for corporate America is good for the country is perhaps inarguable, and this is why men like Governors Scott and McCrory are dangerous. They merely invoke a longstanding and not-so-ugly stereotype: the pointy-headed humanist whose work, if you can call it that, is irrelevant. Among the many easy targets, English departments and their ilk are convenient and mostly defenseless. Few will rise to rush the barricades with us, least of all the hard-headed realists who understand the difficulties of running a business, which is what the university is, anyway.
I wish, therefore, to propose a solution that will save money, save the humanities, and perhaps make the world a better place: Close the business schools.
The Market Argument
We are told that something called “the market” is responsible for the great disparities in pay between humanities professors and business professors. To a humanist, however, this market is the great mystifier; we find no evidence of an “invisible hand” that magically allocates resources within the university. The market argument for pay differentials between business professors and historians (average pay in 2014 for full professors at all institutions: $123,233 and $86,636, respectively, a difference of almost 30 percent; average at research institutions is $160,705 and $102,981, a difference of 36 percent), for instance, fails to convince that a market is operating. This is because administrators and trustees who set salaries based upon what the market can bear, or what it calls for, or what it demands, are actually subsidizing those of us who are who are manifestly out of the market.
Your average finance professor, for instance, is not a part of this market; indeed, she is a member of the artificial market created by colleges and universities themselves, the same institutions that tout the importance of critical thinking and of creating the well-rounded individual whose liberal arts study will ostensibly make her into a productive member of our democracy. But the administrators who buy the argument that the market allocates upward of 20, 30, or 40 percent more for the business professor than it does her colleague in the humanities have failed to be the example they tout: they are not thinking.
The higher education market for business professors and legal scholars, for instance, is one in which the professor is paid as if she took her services and sold them on what is commonly call the market. Which is where she, and her talents, manifestly are not. She is here, in the building next to ours, teaching our students and doing the same work we are. If my daughter cuts our lawn, she does not get paid as if she were cutting the neighbor’s lawn.
The business professor has sacrificed the blandishments of the other market for that of the university, where she can work softer hours, have her December/January vacation, go to London during the summer on a fellowship or university grant, and generally live something approaching the good life — which is what being employed by a college or university allows the lucky who earn tenure. She avoids the other market — eschews the long hours in the office, the demands of travel, the oppressive corporate state — so that she can pick up her kids from school on occasion, sleep in on a Saturday, and turn off her smartphone. She may be part of a machine, but it is a university machine, and as machines go she could do worse. This “market” is better than the other one.
But does she bring more value to the university? Does she generate more student hours? These are questions that administrators and business professors do not ask. Why? Because they wouldn’t like the answers. They would find that she is an expensive acquisition. Unless she is one of the Wharton superstars and appears on CNN Money and is quoted in The Wall Street Journal, there’s a good chance that the university isn’t getting its money’s worth.
The Moral Argument
There is another argument for wishing our business professor adieu. She is ostensibly training the next crop of financiers and M.B.A.s whose machinations have arguably had no salutary effects on this democracy. I understand that I am casting a wide net here, grouping the good with the bad, blaming the recent implosion of the world economy on business schools. One could, perhaps, lay equal blame on the mathematicians and quantitative analysts who created the derivative algorithms and mortgage packages that even the M.B.A.s themselves don’t understand, though there’s a good chance that business school graduates hired these alpha number crunchers.
Our investment bankers and their ilk will have to take the fall because, well, they should have known better. If only because, at bottom, they are responsible — with their easy cash and credit, their drive-through mortgages, and, worst of all, their betting against the very system they knew was hopelessly constructed. And they were trained at our universities, many of them, probably at our best universities, the Harvards and Princetons and Dartmouths, where — it is increasingly apparent — the brightest students go to learn how to destroy the world.
I am not arguing that students shouldn’t take classes in accounting, marketing, and economics. An understanding of these subjects holds value. They are honorable subjects often horribly applied. In the wrong hands they become tools less of enlightenment and liberation than ruthless self-interest. And when you have groups of like-minded economic pirates banding together in the name of self-interest, they form a corporation, that is, a person. That person, it is now apparent, cannot be relied upon to do the right thing; that person cannot be held accountable.
It’s not as if this is news. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens saw this problem, and he wrote A Christmas Carol to address it. The hero of Dickens’s novella is Jacob Marley, who returns from the grave to warn his tightfisted partner Ebenezer Scrooge that he might want to change his ways. When Scrooge tells Marley that he was always a “good man of business,” Marley brings down the thunder: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
In closing the business schools, may the former professors of finance bring to the market a more human side (or, apropos of Dickens, a more ghostly side). Whether or not they do, though, closing the business schools is a necessary first step in righting the social and economic injustices perpetuated not by capitalism but by those who have used it to rend the very social fabric that nourishes them. By planting the seeds of corporate and financial tyranny, our business schools, operating as so many of them do in collusion with a too-big-to-fail mentality, have become the enemy of democracy. They must be closed, since, as Jacob Marley reminds us, we all live in the business world.
II. Save the Humanities
Closing the business schools will allow us to turn our attention more fully to the state of the humanities and their apparent demise. The 2013 report released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which asserts that “the humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future.” As if that’s going to sell.
In the wake of the academy’s report, The New York Times dutifully ran three columns on the humanities — by David Brooks, Verlyn Klinkeborg, and Stanley Fish — which dove into the wreck and surveyed the damage in fairly predictable ways (excepting Fish, whose unpredictability is predictable). Brooks remembers when they used to teach Seneca and Catullus, and Klinkeborg looks back on the good old days when everyone treasured literature and literary study. Those days are gone, he argues, because “the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities,” and because “writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities,” though it apparently is not anymore. Why writing well isn’t a fundamental principle of life is perhaps a better question.
We might therefore ask: Aside from the typical obeisance to something called “critical thinking,” what are the humanities supposed to do?
I propose that one of the beauties of the liberal arts degree is that it is meant to do nothing. I would like to think, therefore, that the typical humanities major reads because she is interested in knowledge for purposes outside of the pervasive instrumentalism now fouling higher education. She does not read philosophy because she wants, necessarily, to become a philosopher; she does not read poetry to become a poet, though she may dream of it; she does not study art history, usually, to become an art historian, though she may one day take this road.
She may be in the minority, but she studies these subjects because of the pleasure it gives her. Reading literature, or studying philosophy, or viewing art, or watching films — and thinking about them — are pleasurable things. What a delight to subsidize something that gives her immediate and future joy instead of spending capital on a course of study that might someday allow her to make more money so that she can do the things she wants to do at some distant time. Henry David Thoreau said it best: “This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.” If you want to be a poet, be done with it.
Does she suffer for this pleasure?
It is an unfortunate fact of our political and cultural economy that she probably does. Her parents wonder helplessly what she is up to and they threaten to cut off her tuition unless she comes to her senses. The governor and legislature of her state tell her that she is wasting her time and that she is unemployable. She goes to her advisers, who, if they are in the humanities, tell her that the companies her parents revere love to hire our kind, that we know how to think critically and write clearly and solve problems.
And it isn’t that they are lying, exactly (except to themselves). They simply aren’t telling her the whole truth: that she will almost surely never have the kind of financial success that her peers in business or engineering or medicine will have; that she will have enormous regrets barely ameliorated by the thought that she carries the fire; that the digital humanities will not save her, either, though they may help make her life slightly more interesting.
It is with this problem in mind that I argue for a vision of the university as a place where the humanities are more than tolerated, where they are celebrated as intrinsic to something other than vocationalism, as a place in which the ideology that inheres to the industrial model in all things can and ought to be dismantled and its various parts put back together into something resembling a university and not a factory floor.
Instead of making the case that the humanities gives students the skills to “succeed in a rapidly changing world,” I want to invoke the wisdom of Walt Whitman, one of the great philosophers of seeming inactivity, who wrote: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”
What does it mean to loafe? Whitman is reclining and relaxing, but he is also active: he “invites” his soul and “observes” the world around him. This conjunction of observation and contemplation with an invitation to the soul is the key here; using our time, energy, and intellectual faculties to attend to our world is the root of successful living. A world of contemplative loafers is one that can potentially make clear-eyed moral and ethical judgments of the sort that we need, judgments that deny the conflation of economic value with other notions of value.
Whitman would rather hang out with the men who brought in the catch than listen to the disputations of science or catch the fish himself: “You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.” While I am not necessarily advocating a life of sloth, I’m not arguing against it, either. I respect the art of study for its own sake and revere the thinker who does nothing worthwhile, if by worthwhile we mean something like growing the economy. Making a living rather than living is the sign of desperation.
William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford. He is author of Grounded Vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy (University of Alabama Press, 2011).
The Modern Language Association report on the Ph.D. in languages and literatures has already succeeded in sparking a lively debate. Some commentators have welcomed the report’s general findings, while others have taken issue with its specific recommendations. Beyond these differences, a broad consensus has emerged that the current situation is unsustainable, and this recognition is key to moving forward. The relationship of doctoral education to the deteriorating conditions of the academic workforce demands transformative changes. If doctoral study is to thrive in more than a handful of elite institutions, the profession as a whole and at multiple levels must adopt a reform agenda. The urgency of change was the premise of the task force report, and change is what the critics of the report also demand.
The agreement goes even further. Like its critics, the members of the MLA task force that produced the report point to the persistently weak job market and the importance of advocating an increase in tenure-track positions. The report similarly criticizes the casualization of academic labor and the poor working conditions of most contingent faculty members. This advocacy stands explicitly in the tradition of the MLA, which in recent decades has analyzed and criticized these developments while providing resources such as the Committee on Contingent Labor’s two recent projects: “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members” and a 2013 special issue of the ADE and ADFL Bulletin on contingent labor. I know my colleagues on the MLA Executive Council are committed to pursuing activism in this area and leading the scholarly association network toward collective action .
Yet the report does more than call for advocacy. It also calls for change within graduate programs, and this is where the consensus breaks down. Some critics of the report have staked out the position that the MLA should focus primarily on job market and working conditions issues and not on the academic programs in which our members teach and study. While the task force report underscores the importance of the labor question, it also recommends that the MLA engage the profession in considering internal reforms to serve graduate students more effectively. The difference between what the report says and what its critics argue is particularly clear on three points.
First, some complain that the report does not call for deep cuts in admissions to doctoral programs. Only such cuts, they argue, could address the weak job market in which there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track positions. In contrast, the task force report insists on maintaining accessibility to doctoral programs: Qualified students with an intellectual dedication to the fields of language and literature should have the opportunity to pursue advanced study. Access to higher education is a hallmark of a democratic society, and it is the precondition of diversity in our fields Still, if critics want to call for the closing of programs, which programs, one might ask, should be eliminated? How will closings not end up disadvantaging public institutions, where the majority of first-generation college students study? Calls to shutter departments rather than reform them most likely will play into the hands of university budget-cutters. The scope of the humanities in higher education in the United States already faces significant reduction. We should be fighting for the humanities rather than closing off advanced study, the key to their sustained presence in colleges and universities.
The labor market critics are proposing what amounts to a guild protectionism: by reducing access to doctorate education, the limited pool of degree holders will be guaranteed abundant and better jobs. This strikes me as a gross miscalculation that will only end with diminished opportunities for all students. In contrast, the MLA report envisions humanities education with a potential for growth in response to the expanded intellectual scope of our fields as well as to society’s changing needs in classrooms and beyond.
A second flashpoint of dispute is time to degree. The report recommends that departments design programs that can be completed in five years and provide sufficient financial support for students to do so. Some commentators have viewed this time frame as an assault on quality. The point, however, is that currently around half of doctoral students take more than a decade to complete the Ph.D., which represents an enormous investment in time with limited prospects for return on the academic job market. Furthermore, there are no legitimate grounds for median time to degree in humanities fields to be significantly longer than in doctoral programs in the natural and social sciences. There would be nothing wrong for humanities scholars to adopt potentially more effective educational practices from these other fields. We language and literature faculty members need to develop and share new ideas for mentoring students, and departments need to ask how programs might be designed more effectively. As the appendix of the report demonstrates, some departments are already leading the way through reform initiatives that integrate the intellectual demands of humanistic study with a prudent rethinking of program structure.
A third point involves career outcomes for graduate students. It should be obvious to all faculty members that, as the MLA's 14 studies of Ph.D. placement make evident, at best only about half of new modern language doctorate recipients find tenure-track positions in the same year that they complete their degrees, and under 40 percent when academic job opportunities contract, as they did in the 1990s and have again since 2008. (Figure 2 in "Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1" shows the summary findings for all 14 surveys, 1978 to 2010.)
Departments have an obligation to make this clear to applicants, yet such candor alone does not absolve departments of the responsibility of providing students with opportunities for professional development that can serve them well on multiple career paths. That is why the report points to possibilities such as curriculums designed to develop transferable skills, enhanced engagement with technology, and more effective use of other resources found throughout the university. The report also underscores the importance of pointing students to diverse career possibilities, not by singling out students for job-market tracking, but instead by engaging the graduate student community in exploring a widened career arc.
Doctoral recipients have a rich set of skills — in communication, research, and leadership — and those who do not find a tenure line should not have to settle for poorly compensated contingent positions. Those who view a job as a college professor as the only legitimate outcome of doctoral education fall into that labor market trap. That’s why the report emphasizes the importance of discussing the broad range of career paths and providing students with the resources they need to expand their employment horizons.
Nonetheless, doctoral study should not be viewed exclusively as the pursuit of a career-oriented credential. It must also involve an intellectual passion for languages and literatures, as defined by our evolving disciplines. This is the foundation of successful graduate study. The qualities cultivated through intensive, long-term research and thoughtful, extended writing are not just transferable to other careers; they are valuable in their own right, just as it would be valuable to our culture as a whole — and particularly to the future of the academy — to have highly educated professionals who appreciate scholarly thoughtfulness and humanistic perspectives working throughout society. It has been pointed out in the public discussion of the report that many of its recommendations are not new. The academic community has been talking about these issues for a long time, and change is already under way. Time to degree is coming down, and some departments are initiating salutary program modifications. The profession has reached a tipping point, and the time has come for broad-based change. Doctoral study in the humanities fields contributes to the quality of society, it answers individual students’ desire for intellectual depth, and it is a vital piece in the intellectual diversity of universities. If we want to preserve it, we need to reform it.
Russell A. Berman is professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. He led the task force that produced the MLA report.
We write as a group of concerned scholars in response to the recent Modern Language Association report on doctoral study in modern languages and literatures. We appreciate the efforts of the committee that produced the document and understand the reasoning behind several of its individual recommendations. At the same time, we feel strongly that this document misses two crucial opportunities: (1) To articulate the underlying structural conditions of the crisis it describes (including but not limited to dramatic cuts in education funding, the deep and ongoing reductions of tenure and tenure-track jobs, the systematic exploitation of adjunct and graduate student labor, and the expansion of senior administrative ranks); and (2) To campaign actively for the value of the scholarly practices, individual and collective, of its members. We are not opposed in principle to the ideals of innovation, expansion, diversification and transformation advocated in the report, but we are concerned that these ideals may operate as buzzwords that detract attention from a more fundamental problem: the devaluation of academic labor and the marginalization of humanities scholarship and expertise. We call upon the MLA to advocate rather than capitulate.
Of the numerous responses to the MLA report, many have been critical of its call for doctoral programs to take into account the bleak realities of the academic job market; other responses have congratulated the MLA for its virtual admission of defeat. We take issue with the sense of capitulation that hangs over the report. Whereas we share the committee’s “concern about the future of humanistic study” and its recognition of “structural problems” in higher education, we worry that the report accepts “doubts about the legitimacy of doctoral study” as its starting point.
The report incorporates rather than disputes the frequent and often ad hominem attacks on the legitimacy of the humanities, suggesting that we should change to meet those criticisms rather than challenge them. Its conclusion that doctoral training must be reformed “to bring degree requirements in line with the ever evolving character of our fields” remains unsettlingly passive toward the realities of such an “evolution.” Yet without a more active response from the largest professional humanities organization, the casualization of academic labor and devaluation of humanities scholarship will only increase. Instead of “responding” to these conditions with unrealistic recommendations for change, the MLA should work to combat and change them.
Although we are well aware that no single professional organization has the power to undertake structural changes throughout all of higher education, part of the MLA’s mission is to set the terms of public discourse about the study and teaching of languages and literatures. A language borrowed from the world of business administration — flexible, adaptable, deliver, evolving — pervades the report. Upon what economic realities are such demands based? Year after year there are more students enrolling in colleges and universities in the United States, which implies a greater demand for well-trained, full-time faculty.
And yet each year there are fewer and fewer full-time faculty positions. The MLA report inadvertently justifies this situation rather than redressing it. Where else beside the humanities and social sciences can we hope to find a longer-term vision for higher education? We applaud the MLA recommendations that seek more fully to recognize the public contribution of humanistic scholarship. We take issue with the implication that “nontraditional careers” would be located “outside the confines of the academy,” as those of us who work primarily within the academy do not necessarily feel “confined” by our positions. Moreover, such language itself contributes to the perception that the academy is irredeemably divided from the “real world” — precisely the division we should be working to efface, as it contributes to the devaluation of academic labor, as well as the difficulties that humanities Ph.D.s often face in finding alternative positions.
Two of the primary reforms outlined in the MLA report are a reduction of time to degree and a new, inter- and paradisciplinary approach to training. Both of these, jointly and individually, appear to us as sources of potential erosion of scholarly values.
The MLA is right to point to the financial burdens that an extended period of time to degree presents to graduate students, particularly given the precarity of the academic job market. The report calls on departments to “reimagine the dissertation” as a way to reduce time to degree. This raises several concerns for us about the function of a non-traditional dissertation. Along with the recommendation to “abandon expectation of comprehensive coverage,” it seems possible that a reimagined dissertation would be less than what is now expected — and less valued. For those who seek alt-ac careers, would a non-traditional dissertation be any more of an asset? As long as departments continue to be structured by literary-historical fields and tenure continues to be tied to monographs, a non-traditional dissertation seems likely to do a great disservice to students on the job market and the tenure track.
This concern is compounded by the increased burden placed on doctoral students in the calls for inter- and paradisciplinary training and more teaching. With the report’s recommendations for collaboration across disciplines, sustained work with professionals in libraries, museums, IT, and administration, as well as significant training in new digital methodologies, we cannot see how time to degree could be reduced without abandoning training in the study of literatures and languages themselves. Moreover, such new career training places increased burdens on graduate program faculty (directors, in particular). The report somehow expects faculty to provide training for students in areas where faculty themselves may not be adequately trained. Moreover, the MLA’s recommendation that Ph.D. programs “use the whole university” by seeking out non-faculty with diverse expertise to mentor graduate students does not address whether and how these individuals are to be compensated for this substantial additional demand on their labor time.
Furthermore, interdisciplinary scholarship, done well, requires mastering multiple disciplines, something for which most doctoral students do not have the time — or funding — even under current conditions. The report calls for “sufficient teaching opportunities…accompanied by course work, practical experience, and mentoring.” Again, leaving aside how graduate student teaching is bound up with the deterioration of full-time faculty employment, this stipulation also increases rather than decreases time to degree.
The national average of 9+ years to complete a humanities degree seems shocking and insupportable to many, and we are certainly not advocating that graduate students routinely remain in school for a decade or more. That said, the MLA report’s emphasis on reduction of time to degree would potentially homogenize the variety of intellectual pursuits essential to doctoral education, and would put pedagogical and research training into greater tension. There are a variety of factors that extend time in graduate school, from language acquisition to archival research to precisely the sort of pedagogical and alternative/extra-disciplinary training that the MLA report advocates. Moreover, the report’s lack of guidelines for how program administrators are supposed to balance an increase in areas of Ph.D. training with a sharp reduction in time to degree makes this into something of a hollow recommendation.
We are also concerned that the report focuses upon the “professional” need for program redesign at the expense of programs’ intellectual needs — and at the expense of labor issues. While the MLA is clearly responding to the bleak outlook for full-time professorial employment, it suggests adjusting ourselves and graduate education to that “reality,” rather than calling for a broad-based critical and potentially transformative engagement with current conditions. This seems to stem from two issues: a focus on elite Ph.D. programs and a failure to link various issues of teaching to issues of academic labor.
Behind the question of whether Ph.D. programs can be said to “devalue” teaching is the link between graduate teaching and labor practices. While we agree that it is crucial for graduate students to be well-trained teachers, this aspect of graduate training cannot be severed from academic labor conditions. Too often the instrumental use of graduate students as teachers is pushed by (the ever-growing ranks of) senior administrators to justify expenditures in the form of stipends and tuition remission and to provide cheap labor in the place of full-time faculty. Graduate student teaching is a significant part of the contingent labor problem that plagues universities in the 21st century. While the report acknowledges the issue of contingent labor, it is too frequently bracketed from the rest of the salient points.
In an effort to engage positively with the report, we offer here a list of suggested steps faculty — and the MLA — can take to deal with the structural issues we face, rather than simply accommodating ourselves to the devaluation of our disciplines and of academic labor.
1. Public advocacy. This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.
2. Independent metrics. We propose that the MLA designate a task force to develop a more viable set of “outcomes assessment” guidelines and metrics for evaluating the success of humanities graduate programs. This was Gerald Graff's platform as MLA president in 2008, but remains under-implemented and relevant today.
3. Reduced program size. Short- and possibly long-term reductions in admissions so that cohorts are smaller and have summer funding. Propose alternative curricular strategies for sustaining smaller graduate cohorts: e.g., reduced teaching credit (rather than cancelation) for under-enrolled graduate seminars; team-taught graduate seminars, and so on. Here we expressly disagree with the MLA report’s refusal to consider recommending a reduction is cohort size; we find this impractical to the point of irresponsibility. To accomplish expanded training in fewer years, it is imperative that Ph.D. students be given additional support and funding. Already-strapped programs will simply be unable to find the resources to increase funding and support without reducing cohort size.
4. Organized labor. Actively support the unionization of part-time/adjunct faculty, support that should stretch across all ranks of faculty. We acknowledge that certain aspects of organization must come from contingent faculty, but we insist that for broad structural changes, institutions like the MLA as well as tenured and tenure-track faculty must be involved in the process to change the culture of higher education. For the MLA, this might include speaking out against anti-union colleges and universities.
5. Alt-ac integration. Reimagine alt-ac as a fundamental extension of the sphere of the humanities — rather than as an alternative to it — in sustaining intellectual environments. This means: advocacy in the classroom, the association, the department, the scholarly network, the publishing “market,” and the university itself. Extend the scope of humanities research throughout the education system, arts and cultural organizations, and such — occupying, rebuilding, and refitting existing ones as well as infusing public discourse. We affirm the report’s insistence on recognizing the broad diversity of career paths — not simply to provide Ph.D.s with more access to jobs but also as a means of infusing and transforming public discourse with the aim of revaluing an expanded vision of intellectual labor in the humanities.
6. Direct action. The academic labor situation is clearly at a breaking point which cannot be remedied by the MLA alone. Structural transformation will require action on many fronts — strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach, including work across universities as well as within individual institutions.
The MLA report offers as its motivation the “persistent criticism from within the academy and from a larger public” that doctoral study has received. If there is one thing that scholars in languages and literature are trained to receive, interpret, and produce, it is criticism. It is time for the MLA and its members to take a strong stand against the political and institutional forces that threaten the humanities’ growth, in order to maintain and reimagine the institutional and intellectual environments in which we all can thrive.
The following are the authors of this essay:
Hester Blum, associate professor of English, Pennsylvania State University
Sarah Chinn, associate professor of English, Hunter College of the City University of New York
Brian Connolly, associate professor of history, University of South Florida
Jonathan P. Eburne, associate professor of Comparative Literature and English, and Director of Graduate Studies for Comparative Literature, Penn State University
Joseph Fruscione, editor of the “Adjuncts Interviewing Adjuncts” column at Inside Higher Ed (formerly of George Washington University)
Jennifer Greiman, associate professor of English and director of English graduate studies, State University of New York at Albany
Jeffrey Insko, associate professor of English, Oakland University
Dana Luciano, associate professor of English, Georgetown University
Justine S. Murison, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Lisi M. Schoenbach, associate professor of English, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
To: Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Subject: Trigger Warnings
In order to anticipate potential liability issues rising from the teaching of humanities and social science courses, we have reviewed the syllabuses across your college’s departments, with particular attention given to the impacting of racial and ethnic themes on our clientele’s (aka students’) emotional well-being. We have provisionally concluded that the English department can continue to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice, while taking into careful consideration the sensibilities of African-American, Jewish and related niche audiences.
But in the course of our investigation, we found other reasons to anticipate future legal and public relations challenges for the university. With the support of the offices of student services and marketing and communications, which coordinated several focus groups, we found several books that could become the subject of class action suits. Please find below five examples from our full list that, if present campus trends continue, will raise red flags.
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
Students were disturbed by Homer’s “relentless” depiction of mayhem and gore: “Like the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine is definitely a more likable mutant than Achilles,” concluded one respondent. Several students objected to the treatment of women -- mostly relegated to domestic activities or war booty -- and demanded to know if there were other epic poems by blind Archaic Greek bards that offered examples of female empowerment.
Also, a small but vocal number of students wearing PETA t-shirts protested the “inhumane” treatment of the dog Argo, left to die on a dung heap. Given the youthful impressionability of our customer base, we find potential problems with the Lotus-eater episode, as well as the character Helen’s liberal use of pharmacological agents.
Anonymous' "The Book of Job"
“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions. The mounting suspense in waiting for God to reply adversely impacted many students (as did the irritation factor supplied by Job’s friends).
While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers -- which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence -- all matters of concern for our office.
Though we were informed this work combines the two “Homeric” poems in one, the focus groups concluded it was somehow longer. Respondents were disturbed by the negative depiction of the character Dido -- “If she, like, died ‘before her time,’ how fair is that?” -- while the character Juno also elicited negative comments: “Clearly the product of a harsh patriarchal society determined to depict independent women as hysterical and dangerous.”
More generally, respondents were disoriented by Virgil’s habit, in the words of one participant, “to undermine the Roman values he pretends to uphold.” We find sufficient grounds for concern that students might argue they cannot be expected to give clear answers on their final exam if Virgil could not give any in his final poem. Our staff also suggests that more litigious individuals will claim that if Virgil could leave his poem unfinished, they could do the same with their exam.
Machiavelli's The Prince
Several students spoke of their emotional distress after reading the author’s claim that if a ruler obeys “something resembling good it will lead to his ruin, while something resembling vice will lead to power.” Other students, however, announced their decision to run for president of their fraternity and sorority chapters.
Significant liability potential resides in the author’s use of Cesare Borgia as a role model: his praise of Borgia’s public “dicing and slicing” (in one participant’s phrase) of a subordinate does not reflect the “brand” values of our university.
Our office for students with special needs signaled its concern over the presence of two characters with disabilities -- they lost “their shanks in the Ardennes” -- who are confined to garbage pails. The office also worries that two other characters -- one who cannot sit down, the other who cannot stand up -- appear indifferent to this situation.
We cannot decide which is more problematic for the university: those respondents left despondent by the play’s existential desolation, epistemological doubts and ethical despair, and those respondents who kept giggling. In general, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to the trigger warning controversy, we can’t go on or must go on.
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.