The academic job season is upon us. Graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, and others are poring over job ads for this or that academic position. Some are excited to see a dream job listed. Perhaps others are wondering whether they should modify their materials to suit a job outside their field. No one I know isn't at least a little anxious.
In my neck of the woods (early modern English), there are about a dozen job ads so far. To provide a sense of scale, there are forty or so in rhetoric and composition. This discrepancy is not new, but it does have me thinking about the shifts that have occurred in the humanities, and in English departments, in the last ten years or so. I am wondering whether three trends are closely, even causally, related. The three trends are:
Moreover, to return to the subject of this year's job market, it seems obvious to me that shift #3 has abetted shift #1. Without curricular mandates such as a Shakespeare requirement, students tend to avoid courses in medieval and early modern English. (Which is a bummer for them, because it's really great stuff.) And, in a higher ed culture that constitutionally obeys market imperatives, a perceived (or real but manufactured) lack of demand among students means fewer faculty hires to supply. Here again, the choices leading to #3 above have closed a pipeline for future (and present) scholars of medieval and early modern English.
I should say: it's also the case that the conditions underlying #3 directly affect 1 and 2. For example, the shift in English studies from a "knowledge base" model, wherein students must acquire a basic knowledge of the field before moving to advanced work, to a "capacity base" model, wherein students acquire certain critical and technical (in the best sense) capacities as they study mostly what they please, makes it easy to see texts written and published before 1800 as undesirable and unnecessary. It also makes hiring someone who studies those earlier cultures much less urgent. That said, I think there's evidence for the relationship between curricular changes and the other two changes, especially at institutions where urgency is a function of student credit hour demand.
It seems we are working in a new economics. The curricular constraints that used to guarantee a certain level of "demand" from students for pre-1800 courses have been mostly abandoned. (This is a miniaturized version of the way many of the curricular constraints that used to help university students "find" English and humanities have been abandoned in the new regimes of higher ed.) I'm not sure if this means we have moved from an "unfree" market (in which student choice is constrained by curriculum) to a "free" one (in which student demand determines everything from curriculum on up to, I'm arguing, graduate cohorts and faculty hires). In some ways this seems like just as unfree a market as the previous one, because it ultimately reduces choice to a different set of material factors: time of day courses are offered, whatever the most recent generation of students determined was valuable, whatever is most expedient for completing a degree, whatever sounds easy or cool (how many students avoid Shakespeare because it's difficult!), or simply other curricular factors. This is the danger of some kinds of curricular reform: they offer merely an appearance of freedom. Other thumbs are always on the scale.
So what's to be done? Maybe this deserves a separate post. It seems unlikely (and would be unwise) that departments will reinstitute requirements they set aside for many reasons, most of them good. But it also seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that all we pre-modernists need is better marketing. (For the record, I think we do need better marketing, but I don't think it's a sufficient answer to this problem. This goes for the humanities more broadly.)
One thing I think we need to do is recognize and act upon what I've hinted at several times here: that the problem of pre-modern English is a more specific version of problems in the humanities more broadly. The new economics taking students and faculty away from medieval and early modern studies is the same economics taking energy and resources away from the humanities.
This year, I was promoted with tenure at my university. Many tenured colleagues had warned me that "a change" would occur around this time. I remember one medievalist at another institution proclaiming, "the summer you receive tenure, you will enter a deep, dark depression." I don't know if that's happened (can any sadness be traced to a single source in 2018?), but I can say for sure that this milestone has caused me to do a lot of thinking about the state of the university, the state of my field, and the next few years of my own research work. All this thinking left me wondering, what am I about as a scholar?
I phrase it this way because I know lots of people who leave little uncertainty about what they are about. I think of Claire Bourne, for instance, or Adam Hooks. I think of Erika Lin and Whitney Trettien and Brett Greatley-Hirsch. I'm constantly impressed at the way these great scholars and friends have established a clear sense of what they are about. I'm not sure I have the same kind of focus. So, for whatever they're worth, here are some thoughts I recently composed as I thought over this question:
What am I about as a scholar?
In terms of theory and literary critical methodology, what am I about?
What do I want to accomplish in the next five years?
In the classes I teach, I often make a version of this proclamation: to understand the world today, you have to study the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is, I say with considerable grandeur, irresponsible and even damaging to emphasize contemporaneity at the expense of the relatively recent past. Typically I appeal to some kind of metaphor to express how important the early modern period must be to those who want to consider themselves educated, literate, critical, informed, thoughtful, wise, woke, smart, insightful, engaging, engaged, and so on: the early modern world is the foundation on which the contemporary world is built. It is the wood in which the fires of postmodern society burn. It is the roux that makes the twenty-first century soup taste as it does. It is the violence that precedes the, well, violence. It is the stage on which the actors of the last four-hundred years performed the play of modernity. I won't pretend that each of these metaphors makes the same claim about the importance of early modernity. Part of the fun is that they model the situation differently. The response is usually a mix of annoyance (is that why we have to read Shakespeare?!), skepticism (that simply can't be!! This stuff is so old!!) and ignorance (wait, there was a Civil War in England?). The latter response is most common.
If asked, of course, most people would agree that the Renaissance is a crucial period in human histories and cultures. But values and priorities come out most clearly in the hard choices: curriculum (pre-1800 writing and Shakespeare have been given less and less emphasis in recent years), hiring (there used to be six early modernists at my university; now there are two), and what we might call marketing (emphasizing contemporaneity and skills rather than a historically-oriented body of knowledge). In what I'm told was a controversial essay in the Chronicle (and in American Affairs before that), Justin Stover recently pointed out that the humanities is being "squeezed on both sides." I don't think it's untrue to observe that this has become especially true of fields like mine, which for a long time were considered "central" to the humanities. My own experience tells me that folks are more indifferent than hostile, though in both cases, as I suggested, ignorance underlies the response.
There are very good reasons why “Renaissance English Literature” is no longer considered the central point of literary and cultural history, but here are a few equally good reasons to keep studying early modern English literature and history. In no particular order, and with no commentary. The exclamations are my way of indicating that the importance of these should be obvious to you.
What shall I saye? Wee had rather bee whole sinners than halfe Christians. White is counted no colour: so zeale is counted no vertue. But meere hypocrisie is counted true Christianitie: and true Christianitie is counted but hypocrisie. Our wealth is in an Epha, our zeale is in a Gomer. Our sinne like an Oake, our faith like a Mustard seede. They which haue no religion are counted honest men: for they count it as easie a mater to be a Christian as to saie the Lordes prayer, the Apostles Creede, the tenne Commaundementes, and goe to the church, this is countrie Diuinitie, this is Citie Diuinitie, and I say Saint Clements Diuinitie. He which can sweare that the Pope is Antichrist, and that flesh is good on Fridaies, is a protestant at least, a Christian everie inche: hee hath zeale, knowledge and religion in Folio (sig. Hhh5r).
This is "silver-tongued" Henry Smith discussing zeal in a sermon (printed in 1593). This passage comes from Smith's sermon on "The Dialogue betweene Paul and Agrippa" in Acts 26:26-29. The sermon is a great example of Smith's ability to turn single words into powerful displays of exhortation and admonition. In this case, he picks up on the words "almost" and "altogether" in the passage--Agrippa says to Paul, "Almost thou perswadest me to become a Christian" and Paul replies, "I would to God, that not onely thou, but also all that heare me this daie were both almost, and altogether such as I am." Smith works his way into arguing that folks in his time are content with "almost." This lack of zeal leads to the situation described in the somewhat confusing passage above.
What interests me here is the final phrase, Smith's claim that in the present, almost-oriented situation, someone who merely swears the Pope is antichrist and that flesh is acceptable to eat on Fridays is a "Christian euerie inche" and has "zeale, knowledge and religion in Folio." Smith of course doesn't think such a thing; he is calling attention to the wrongheadedness of the "almost" culture, in part by reference to the folio format. As I have been working on the language of books, I have found that most writers use "X in folio" in surprising ways. Specifically, they frequently use the folio format (as Smith wryly does here) to signal something other than fullness and richness. Typically, the end point of a reference to the folio format is to minimize or reduce, rather than to enhance or enlarge. Smith's reference to folio here resembles Shakespeare's in Don Armado's line, "I am for whole books in folio." In both cases, a big book functions, ultimately, as a sign of intellectual poverty.
The blog is a dying medium. It peaked several years back and is now in something like decline. Except for a few exceptional cases, it's difficult to reach readers with a blog. At least, this is what I intuit from the present media ecosystem. I recall a moment, sometime around 2010, when I realized I could spend my entire day, every day, reading the blogs of people I knew personally. (It calls to mind similar moments in the past, noted by scholars like Roger Chartier and Andrew Piper, when a surfeit of books made reading everything feel as impossible as it actually was.)
So, why blog? I have a few reasons.