I’m going to take this as a back-handed compliment

Via Digital Digs, I came across this article in The Nation, “Professing Literature in 2008,” which is about the 20th anniversary of the Gerald Graff book Professing Literature and which laments the sorry state of English departments. At least from the point of view of a literature professor.

Here’s a long quote, one I find especially interesting as one of those comp/rhet specialists:

There’s no better way to take the profession’s temperature, it seems to me, than by scanning the Modern Language Association Job Information List, the quarterly catalog of faculty openings in American English departments. If you want to know where an institution is at, take a look at what it wants. The most striking fact about this year’s list is that the lion’s share of positions is in rhetoric and composition. That is, not in a field of literature at all but in the teaching of expository writing, the “service” component of an English department’s role within the university. Add communications and professional and technical writing, and you’ve got more than a third of the list. Another large fraction of openings, perhaps 15 percent, is in creative writing. Apparently, kids may not want to read anymore, but they all want to write. And watch. Forward-thinking English departments long ago decided to grab film studies before it got away, and the list continues to reflect that bit of subterfuge.

That’s more than half the list, and we still haven’t gotten to any, well, literature. When we do, we find that the largest share of what’s left, nearly a third, is in American literature.

Yes indeed– can you imagine English being something beyond literature?

Well, three brief thoughts on this:

  • In the early 1990s, I went into a PhD program in composition and rhetoric and not literature for a bunch of different reasons, but one of them was what I already knew about the job market as a relative outsider. I vividly recall a lunch I had with my dissertation director in about October 1995 about the job market where I was expressing my anxieties and concerns. She waved a spoon at me and didn’t even look up from her soup and said “you’ll be fine.” When I asked more about this, she just pointed out to me that people in my field had been in demand since the mid 1970s and that no one who graduated from my program had not gotten a tenure-track job. In other words, the “new” rise of these wacky and marginal fields like composition and rhetoric is not, um, new.
  • It would be tempting to dismiss the author of this article, William Deresiewicz, as some old fogey who can be excused a bit for being out of touch with contemporary trends in English studies. But interestingly, as his homepage indicates, Deresiewicz is only 10 years out of his PhD program. You’d think that someone like that would be a tad more up to date on trends in his field. Sadly, I don’t think that Deresiewicz is really all that unusual among my colleagues in fields like British literature.
  • This seems to me to be another reason as to why we’re seeing a rise of “Writing” departments across the country, and why I think that the free-standing writing department– one that includes first year composition, undergraduate majors, and graduate programs– will be the norm by the end of my career.
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