I forget which leftist thinker remarked some years ago that conservatives stormed Washington, while leftists stormed the English Department. While the first half of this statement may be contested, the second half is dead on the mark. There are few traditional academic disciplines today that have fallen further into the fever swaps of leftist ideology than English literature, which has had the effect of driving students away from the field en masse.
The Washington Post last week ran a long feature about the Modern Language Association (MLA), the major academic body for English literature and related disciplines (such as foreign languages). The story, written by Jacob Brogan, who has a Ph.D in English from Cornell but works at the Post’s Outlook page no doubt because an academic post was not forthcoming, does its best to obscure the leftist rot in English departments, but can’t quite pull it off. Some samples:
The panel in progress — “Lessing and the Intersectionality of Gender and Cultural Diversity” — had another 20 minutes to go, just enough time for questions. But no hands were raised, and no one was holding forth. In fact, the room was free of any sign of life. The seats were empty, the table uncluttered by notes or napkins. Even the hotel corridor outside, lined with rooms hosting other sessions, was silent.
Who would sit through such drivel, unless you are one of panelists needing a venue to spout your drivel?
For decades, the conference was the ground zero of professional life for literature scholars. Thousands descended on it to engage with the latest research and catch wind of the newest trends while listening to papers. . . It was here, too, that rising scholars would meet with acquisition editors from the various university presses, pitching them on books that could make them into stars — or at least earn them tenure.
Even in the good years, the convention was a bad place for graduate students searching for work. . . But those jobs mostly don’t exist anymore. Thanks to shrinking department budgets, declining enrollments, and other, more malignant antipathies, tenure track openings have evaporated, leaving many casting about for underpaid adjunct employment. That process has been underway for years, but it has only accelerated in the past decade. Hiring last peaked in 2007-2008, when the MLA’s jobs report recorded 3,506 openings across English and other languages. By 2019-2020, the most recent year for which data is available, that number had fallen to 1,411 — only half of which were for tenured or tenure track positions — even as graduate programs continued to award new PhDs. Attendance at the MLA fell at a similar rate, a decline only compounded as departments began to shift interviews online even before the pandemic: In 1968, the conference’s attendance swelled to 11,750. By 2020, only 4,395 attendees showed up.
I wonder if it ever occurs to anyone in the field that maybe it was something they said—have been saying for 30 years now? Is it merely a coincidence that the handful of conservative professors of literature tend to have over-subscribed lecture courses (like Gary Saul Morson at Northwestern)?