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.