You might know this person: they are majoring in biology, political science, or economics, but a couple of great courses convince them to shift to English, writing, or East Asian studies. A professor tells them they could and should apply to doctoral programs. They do, and are admitted to at least one they like. They get a teaching package—and also a letter that says, “It is our duty to tell you that, in spite of the value of literary study, programs like ours face a declining number of permanent university jobs. We have just made you an offer; we advise you to consider rejecting it.”
I got one of those letters. I’d decided that literary criticism unveiled mysteries of consciousness that my STEM curriculum did not. I applied to get a PhD, was admitted, got the warning letter, and treated it like the skull-and-crossbones notice on a cigarette pack. I lit up.
I mention this because that letter was written forty years ago. The job market in literary studies had collapsed ten years before that. The “job crisis”—the changing but permanent shortage of tenure-track jobs—has molded literary studies for half a century. It has damaged the careers of several generations of literary scholars and is doing the same to the next.
There are always some jobs, but never nearly enough: every member of every MLA field is aware of the problem and is concerned. And yet after fifty years of employment “crisis,” we have no national policy specifically focused on increasing the number of tenure-track academic jobs.
We have tried to respond. We have shrunk our PhD programs and have encouraged our remaining students to consider nonacademic work. The shrinkage has not ended job shortfalls and has arguably encouraged them by showing we can always “do more with less.” Alt-ac policy looks for help in sectors that are often as precarious as our own. Graduate students have struggled to improve their working conditions through unionization campaigns across the country but obviously shouldn’t be asked to fix the overall job picture.
Faculty members have helped individual job candidates, but we have not fought a national campaign to get the higher ed sector to hire the right number of literary and language scholars with the right proportions of tenure.
Here are a few numbers on the problem. Between 1973 and 2008, the MLA Job List advertised 1,000 to 2,000 jobs per year in each of its two main categories of English and Languages Other Than English (LOTE). (Composition, rhetoric, and writing are listed under English.)
After the financial crisis of 2008, the Job List recovered somewhat; in 2011–12, the totals hit 1,235 in English and 1,128 in LOTE. But since that year, listings have fallen steadily. They have dropped through the previous floor of 1,000 jobs per year, ending at 728 and 683 in 2019–20, before the COVID-19 pandemic crushed them further. The decline of the 2010s is particularly alarming because it began from a valley rather than a peak.
The ratio of tenure-track to non-tenure-track jobs also got worse. Until the financial crisis, MLA English jobs were 75%–80% tenure-track; LOTE jobs were 60%–65% tenure-track. In 2019–20, those ratios were 55% and 43% tenure-track, respectively. The Job List showed 360 and 275 tenure-track jobs in English and LOTE, for a total of 635 tenure-track jobs that year. I don’t need to detail the suffering of MLA job candidates signaled by those numbers.
Meanwhile, PhD completions held fairly steady at around 1,500 per year in English and 500 per year in LOTE, or about 2,000 “MLA” doctorates per year. Between 1998 and 2008 there were more jobs than degrees. Since then, there have been more degrees than jobs.
Before anyone says, “So, we need to cut our doctoral output by another two-thirds to match current demand,” let’s look at the context. It shows that we must help identify and set demand rather than continue to adapt to it.
First, we are producing PhDs at a replacement rate at best. The United States has 1.3 million postsecondary instructors (“Postsecondary Teachers”), of which 58,480 are in English (“25-1123: English Language and Literature Teachers”) and 19,640 are in LOTE (“25-1124: Foreign Language and Literature Teachers”). Assuming that retirements run at 2.5% per year, academia needs to hire 1,462 PhDs just to replace English retirees, with deaths and career changes adding to that total. The same holds for LOTE: 500 PhDs a year matches an estimated annual retirement loss of 491. Two thousand MLA PhDs per year is a minimum number that keeps the profession’s lights on. These are also excessively cheap jobs: there should be 2,000 tenure-track posts, but only half actually are.
Second, this minimal hiring damages the intellectual health of our disciplines. The United States has around 4,300 higher education institutions. In the 2019–20 Job List, they collectively advertised the following numbers of tenure-track assistant professor positions: 11 in Arabic, 10 in Russian, 9 in Chinese, 3 in Korean, and 1 in Hebrew. “Big” European languages got 48, 22, and 106 posts (French, German, and Spanish). How about languages with ancient and dynamic cultures and many speakers in the United States—Persian, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, Hausa, Xhosa? They share a total of 12 listings in “other languages.” These microscopic figures mark a de facto policy rejection of language competency and global scholarship outside of a tiny elite. They should inspire outrage and action, not consent to further PhD cuts.
Third, MLA job declines should not be traced directly to declines in undergraduate majoring and then naturalized as a response to market forces. The declines are real: the degree share of all humanities fields combined has fallen from 12% to 10.2% since 1987, for a decline of 15%. English majoring is down 28% from its late 2000s peak; LOTE is down 26% (“Indicator II-03C”). But job declines exceeded major declines by 50%. Enrollment declines were a fraction of major declines—about one-third of major declines in the last published MLA survey of LOTE enrollments (Looney and Lusin). Enrollments better reflect actual teaching workloads. Hidden behind headline numbers of declining majors is a reality on many campuses of increasing workloads for the remaining literature and language workforce. This threatens the quality of our teaching and the future of our scholarship.
Many factors have paralyzed our collective response to the fifty-year crisis. I want to close by encouraging us to break free of one particular internal factor, even as we continue to address external ones.
External factors include the culture wars’ renewed smearing of central MLA practices like teaching the literatures of slavery or abolition or queer sexualities or migration or Islam or even the Spanish language. They include a debt crisis that inhibits students’ ability to take risks on their true-love subjects that won’t maximize future income. But these external factors have been made more toxic by an internal one: academic administrators’ policy of strategic ambiguity toward the value of majoring in literature and languages.
Everyone from presidents to advisers agrees that the humanities are central to the university—while implying that their main time is past, or that they are floundering, or that they are in some ways a deficient form of knowledge in the age of data science, and that students are rational to major elsewhere. We hear many variations on a regretful discourse of our autumnal passing.
This discourse translates into material administrative nonsupport for tenure-track instruction and internally funded research in literature, writing, and language. It is not the only—but it is the immediate—cause of the new crash in job numbers and the new wave of adjunctification. This discourse is simply wrong about the intellectual, personal, and social value of research and teaching in MLA fields that will be central to building a future we’d like to inhabit, and yet it is steadily undermining that teaching and research.
We can’t by ourselves end the culture wars or reverse decades of perverse debt-based funding policy. But we can consult systematically with each other about the elimination of tenure-track positions and the downsizing or closure of programs in our fields. We can contest every single retreat from and underselling of the study of literature and languages at the thousands of locations where that occurs. We can develop alternative policies that would work better for our students, our societies, and our job seekers.
I propose the following steps to pursue over the next five to seven years:
Develop a national information system for the state of the profession. This will mean calculating the strength of all subfields by type of appointment. We will be able to adapt the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF) to our disciplines, once it is restarted through the CHIPS Act. This will also mean creating a map of the research-funding terrain. We could use data from an expansion of the existing National Science Foundation survey for research-and-development funding.
Develop a national assessment of teaching and research needs in all subfields. This would enable us to describe our diverse scholarly goals while deriving budget requirements from these goals—instead of cutting these goals to fit preset budgets.
Establish and affirm the principle of hiring 100% of our PhD output, with 75% of those on the tenure-track (following proposed federal legislation). We have cut our doctoral programs to the bone and have no surplus PhD holders. We must keep a running tab on “hiring gaps” and create a narrative of insufficient hiring that communicates teaching and research needs.
Our profession has never built a national infrastructure like this, and it won’t be easy. But doing so can give us a policy visibility and weight that will make chronic underhiring more difficult and that will enable a process of rebuilding.