Professors of English literature and language have a complaint, as in Chaucer's "Complaint to His Empty Purse." There aren't enough jobs to go around. Academic presses are cutting back on the number of scholarly books they publish, and professors have to publish or perish. If they can't get a book published they never make it to the tenured track.
More than 11,000 English literature and modern-language professors met in New York City the other day for the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, not to talk about modern language, but about jobs, and why there aren't many. There's been the sharpest decline in language and literary teaching jobs since the 1992 recession, falling from 983 in 2002 to 792 for 2003. Only half of those offer a tenured track. Competition is fierce for the 977 students who have just received their doctorates in English, as well as for those who have been looking for better jobs for years.
Although the learned elites usually blame the economy, there's something much simpler at work here. The professors have lost touch with their audience.
Somewhere in the cracks between the "Derridadaist" and the Neo-Marxist, the Poststructuralist and the Deconstructionist, literature got lost. Between the New Historicist and Biopoeticist, radical feminist and post-colonialist perspectives, the language was hopelessly garbled.
The profs tried to carve niches in gender, ethnic, race, "queer" and multicultural studies, dreaming sugar-plum fantasies of writing readable books that would cross over into the mainstream, but most of them settled into the swamp of arcane language that made lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Literally. (A highly literate curmudgeon of my acquaintance feigns sympathy for these job-hunting Ph.D.s: "It's a shame they've all been thrown on the job market just as all the gasoline stations have gone to self-service.")
English language and literature courses once emphasized teaching what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought in the world." Some writers were dropped from basic anthologies when their work could not stand the test of time and others who had been unfairly neglected were added. It wasn't really difficult to arrive at a consensus of what was the "best that's known and thought."
Critical theories influenced methods for teaching, but developing an appreciation for the flexibility, complexity and versatility of the language was linked to the ultimate goal of understanding great literature. It was the teacher's job to help the student unlock the brilliance of syntax and structure that was the engine for the imagination.
Whether for English majors who supped on literature as a main course or for sophomores who merely snacked on it as appetizer, the purpose of teaching was to enhance an appreciation of life and language through literature. Professors today are more likely to cook up a multicultural stew with politically correct tastes that shrink the appetite with indigestible food for thought.
Stephen Greeenblatt, a Harvard professor who is president of the Modern Language Association, dispatched "A Call to Action" to all his members, suggesting that the problem in academia may be the reliance on "scholarly" books as a requirement for promotion of young scholars. Maybe, but that's only a fraction of the problem. It's the nature of the books and the critical theories behind them that's the problem.
In the hodgepodge known as modern scholarship, students of literature are taught that there is no "Shakespeare himself." The actual author is the reader. There's no such thing as beauty or truth, common sense is the "bourgeois status quo" and there's no distinction between "text" and theory.
While standing in line applying for jobs, these out-of-work Ph.D.s might profitably read "Postmodern Pooh" by Frederick Crews, a hilarious send-up of the arrogant professors of postmodern scholarship. He makes particular fun of Stanley Fish, the scholar celebrity who was wooed away from Duke University to be a dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which aspires to be prestigious, for a salary of $249,000 per. Mr. Fish has never written a crossover book, but he's a "crossover person."
In the Crews satire, he's "N. Mack Hobbs," an MLA star who measures merit by salary and who narrates his rise to fame in an autobiography called "Soldier in the War on Poverty." He belongs to the Marie Antoinette "let 'em speak jargon" school of lit crit. "Left-wing puritanism" is the problem with his colleagues, says Professor Hobbs. "Of course, there's nothing wrong per se with being on the left; I myself am all for multiculturalism, affirmative action and the rest of the progressive agenda, which has never posed much of a threat to my career."
If the reader is writer, if there isn't any Stanley Fish himself and if satire is scholarship, that sounds about right. That giant spinning sound is Chaucer himself. The real one.