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.
My previous column, “Research for All,” defined postsecondary education through a necessary combination of research and teaching and called for the gradual but relentless push to build our infrastructure—our working conditions—so that all college teachers have paid time for the scholarship they trained to do. Foregrounding diverse modes of research is also a necessary condition of expanding the share of jobs on the tenure track.
Of course, today our colleges and universities are going in the opposite (and I believe wrong) direction.
It would be understandable for us to downplay a focus on research, given the booming inequality of working conditions in higher education today. Most college instructors are overworked on the instructional part of the job. Only a minority of MLA members are expected to devote most of their best hours to scholarship; still fewer are rewarded or celebrated for it. And yet for us to see research as a minority preserve is to echo a core mistake of US culture, which casts creative intellectuality as the mark of an elite.