Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The guild system

The single-most annoying thing I encounter while applying for English PhD programs (apart from the standard applications that ask people like me the same questions they ask potential master's students in bioengineering) is the adherence to what I call the "Oh My God No One Should Ever Go Into My Field Ever Because It's Impossible To Get A Job And Your Pets Will Starve To Death" party line (henceforward OMGNOSEGIMFEBIITGAJAYPWSTD). I think it's present in every field to some extent or another, and psychologically, it probably originates in a scarcity mentality: "All these whippersnappers invading my turf will make it harder for me to justify barely skating by." In the academy the problem should theoretically tone itself down because of tenure and the virtual impossibility of replacing moribund dead weight with something a little more invigorating. In that case, why do I see an article every other day in The Chronicle/Inside Higher Ed/various grad school fora about how literature is a dying field, professionally speaking?

  1. It is. The job market in the humanities has never been particularly good. It probably never will be particularly good. What I object to in the above formulation is the tense of the verb "to die." In high school, one of my English teachers regaled us with the pseudoprofundity that we were all, young and old, healthy and tuberculosed, dying a little each day, and I'll choose to adapt it in this here context. Malaise is an integral part of the study of English literature, and only by its removal from the lives of graduate students and assistant professors could English literature really be deemed "dead." How's that for a reversal?
  2. Tenure is, counterintuitively, the problem. Just because one can sail by on the capital of a book published 15 years ago doesn't mean that one doesn't feel slightly guilty about it at department meetings. All those young scramblers bring one face to face with one's indolence, as well as one's outdated tendency to overuse the third person academic singular, and convince one that even if one's drive and vigor wasn't being spent on porn and fancy lobsters, one would have a hard time reinserting one's self back into a radically different field. Guilt. It's always what's for dinner.
Once I'm done with these Harvard and Yale apps, I'll track down some examples of what I mean, but for now, please accept the following brief article, rewritten from the source material, as definitive proof of the phenomenon:

English Department Sees Decline in Majors
by Jane Striver '11

For the fourth subsequent year, the English Department at St. Moldy's Technical College and/or University reports a record decline in St. Moldy's students choosing to major in English Studies, as the department renamed itself last year.

"This is terrible, terrible, terrible," said Julian Hollingsby IV, Professor Emeritus. "So terrible. Probably we will all go home and kill ourselves in the bath."

Other professors were more sanguine about the department's prospects for attracting St. Moldy's brightest and best. "Temporary reversal," said Emmeline Chow, current head of the department. "Next year, when we change our name to English and Diaspora Studies, the students of St. Moldy's and the federal government will begin recognizing our extraordinary relevance to contemporary culture. Then our coffers will flow with the cold, hard cash we need to fix that leak in the hallway."

But graduate students in the department put on a typical display of ennui and black turtlenecked-starvation. "No one should ever major in English, ever," said one student, on the condition of anonymity. "Especially anyone who might apply now for Fall 2008 admission and still manage to finish her dissertation before me."

Undergraduates had mixed feelings about the report. "Hey, do you know that girl? You know, the one with the long braid who wears the clogs all of the time? Is she an English major? If she is, I'm there, man," said Gregory Legacy '12, who is still undeclared. "I bet she is. She looks like the type."

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 6:16 PM