Let's invest in literature
The Tucson Festival of Books was canceled due to authors pulling out last minute amid concerns over COVID-19. However, the stories are published online for the journalist that wish to use these as clips.
I recently asked a friend and former professor of mine if it was worth it to pursue a Ph.D. in English. He replied, “I would compare the job market to a dumpster fire, but a dumpster fire can be contained.”
That artful reply is borne out by some of the figures. A 2018 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education writes that the number of jobs in English are down 55% (!!!) from the previous decade. Compounding this decline is that an even fewer percentage of those jobs are for tenure-track positions, just 48% compared to 66% in 1998.
What gives? The easy and cynical explanation is that people simply aren’t interested in literature anymore. While it is true that Americans are reading less than previous decades, that doesn’t explain the ailing English academic job market. After all, what people enjoy doing doesn’t always (or often) translate to what they pursue professionally.
Still, there is a basic supply and demand problem. Students aren’t majoring in English as much as they used to, a number that hasn’t been helped by a bad economy. But this problem cannot be solved by the market, because universities are not mom-and-pop businesses that shudder after a bad quarter. Universities keep producing English doctorates to teach undergraduate courses and perform research. And people continue to join these programs because they are funded. This all leads to an oversaturated job market and underemployed experts.
So what can be done? Those who say “This is proof literature isn’t profitable! Major in STEM!” are short-term thinkers whose brains have been subsumed by profit-motive thinking. This ignores, of course, that the job market for English professors was once a lot better not that long ago.
In 2008-09, there were nearly double the amount of job listings on the Modern Language Associations job board. The number itself isn’t high, but we must consider how relatively few people are able and willing to pursue a doctorate in the subject.
This is to say that job markets can be created. The high pay of rocket scientists does not exist because each of us every day requires a rocket, but because as a society we have determined that space exploration is worth the investment.
This didn’t happen overnight, but took years of propaganda and continued government subsidy. (For the record, I’ll go with Musician Gil Scott Heron on the issue of space exploration, and English doctorates have done more to improve my life than any rocket scientist.)
The other point that should hardly need saying is that having a sophisticated literary culture is a good thing. It helps us understand the world around us, and ourselves. Politics, history and economics are all informed by literature, as well as psychology and even neuroscience. We could go further, especially in today’s mediatized world, and say that politics, economics and science are primarily narratives — but then, well, we’d have to ask an English Ph.D.
So while you enjoy the Tucson Festival of Books, take a minute to think about how we can improve our literary world. One way is to invest in the humanities, especially English. This means a concerted effort to advertise the major by the university and to put pressure on our government to invest in literary art and research.
The job market may be a dumpster fire. But we lit the match, and we can stop the fire.
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