Thursday, September 23, 2010

Teaching Shakespeare and the New Normal

cross-posted at Dagblog

My profession has a lot of annual rituals, some obvious and some not, and one of them happened the week before last: the annual job list went live (and, in another annual ritual, came precariously close to crashing for the first afternoon).

The start of college classes in the fall also means the beginning of the hiring season for university faculty; most full-time jobs, and most of the good ones, are posted a full year in advance. If you want a job teaching Shakespeare to college students, you start looking at the job list in September. Ten days ago, a list of almost every college and university hiring English professors for fall of 2011 went live, and everybody trying to get one of those jobs took a look. The list gets updated throughout the next month or so, and there will be a second, shorter list in the spring. But the fall list basically gives you a sense of where the job market is this year.

I read the list every year, for a lot of reasons. When my department is hiring, I check to see who else is hiring in the same field that year. And I check the list for Renaissance literature out of professional curiosity. It tells me what kinds of jobs are out there, in what numbers, and what kinds of schools have the resources to hire people. It suggests details about some of my colleague's careers: who is being replaced at a school they've left, who has a good shot to get a permanent job at the place where they're a visiting assistant. It tells me which sub-specializations are currently fashionable with hiring committees, and which are out of favor. I read the list to see what's out there for younger friends who are looking for their first jobs. And I read the list because although it's been years since I've been in those friends' shoes, looking at the list with a churning mix of anxiety, hope, and basic need for a salary, it still feels like it was only weeks ago. Three months, tops.

For years, since long before I started reading it, the list has been much, much shorter than the list of people needing or deserving jobs. My first day teaching as an assistant professor, one of my students informed me in class that a hundred and fifty people had applied for my job. I don't know what reaction he wanted, but the truth is, this is what normal has become in my profession: everyone who has a job had to beat out at least a hundred and fifty people to get it. And there certainly weren't a hundred and fifty jobs for professors of Renaissance literature that year. Far from it. The mismatch between the number of jobs and the number of (highly qualified) job-seekers comes from twenty or thirty years of colleges shrinking their faculties, replacing full-time salaried jobs with underpaid "part-time" teachers. Many of the hundred and fifty people passed over for my job became "part-timers" somewhere, usually at three or four different schools every semester. One result is that even PhDs who do well at Ivy League universities can easily end up with only piece work, or with nothing at all. The other result is that I'm the only Renaissance lit scholar at a university which once had four or five of them. The second fact helps explain the first.

Since the economy cratered, my profession hasn't even been able to sustain that
threadbare and desperate version of normal. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, well after the hiring process had begun, universities behaved like any other employer. They panicked about taking on more salaries, and so jobs that were already in mid-search were canceled. Even coveted jobs at rich and famous universities had the plug pulled. What had been about five dozen jobs teaching Shakespeare or Milton became four dozen, or less, although there were still the same hundred and fifty or two hundred or two hundred and seventy-five people trying to get them.

We've been waiting for the rebound, like any other sector of the economy. It definitely didn't come last year, when there weren't even four dozen jobs advertised in the fall. There were still 200 smart young Shakespeareans, Miltonists and Tamburlaine experts out there looking for work. In fact, there were more, because the forty or so who'd gotten jobs the previous year had been replaced by two or three times that many new PhDs. But last year's national conference, where the face-to-face job interviews begin, looked like Hamelin after the Pied Piper left town: almost no young people in sight. In this economy, it's become almost impossible for new literature professors to start a career. An entire cohort of young people who might have been valuable and productive teachers and thinkers are being forced out of the profession.

At the same time, the other part of the academic job market, the hiring of senior faculty away from other institutions, stopped nearly dead. This is a much smaller market, with higher prices, for the relatively small fraction of scholars who can make salary demands or change jobs because universities compete for their services. These are the people who do high-profile research, bring in major grants or prestigious awards, and who can attract and train doctoral students. Schools who can afford it will pay a premium to make sure they have enough of those faculty. But since 2008, the faculty raids recruitment of senior scholars has been on hold. No one's had the money.

This year I opened the list and thought, "At last. The rebound is here." There are several very good jobs on this fall's list including a few outright trophy jobs, the kind a Hollywood movie would use as shorthand for success and a happy ending. And even more noticeably, there are some extremely prestigious senior jobs at major universities, which means some schools not only have the money to hire Shakespeareans again but have the budgets to bid competitively for top Shakespeareans. And since most of such senior-level hiring has always gone on without any public advertising, two or three ads for major jobs like this suggest that there's more faculty raiding courtship of leading figures happening behind the scenes. I though things looked good. Then I looked again.

Most of the jobs on the list are terrific, but that's the problem. It's the ordinary jobs that are missing. The Ivy League is back to hiring the way it did before the crash, but the rest of American higher education is still on a recession budget. In fact, the less elite colleges and universities seem to be hiring even more slowly than they have over the last two years. All told, the list has barely more than two dozen entry-level jobs for Renaissance lit professors, and another ten or so generalist or open-field jobs that a Renaissance specialist could apply for (against an even larger field of competitors). More jobs will trickle in over the next few weeks, but I'm afraid it will only be a trickle: last week's update had only one new job. Maybe this is the beginning of a slow recovery, but this year the news is that the recession is only over if you're rich. The five or ten best jobs are still there, the way they were before the crash. About two thirds of the other jobs are gone. The rich are still rich, but the middle class have become poor and the poor have nothing left.

So the profession of teaching Renaissance lit, anno domini 2010, looks like the American economy at large: the investor class at the top of the pyramid has preserved its wealth, but the recession has only grown deeper for the middle and working classes. It's not an accidental parallel: the elite schools have money to spend again because they are altruistic, non-profit members of the elite investor class, funded by the returns on their large endowments. What's good for Wall Street is good for the Ivy League. I don't begrudge those rich and famous universities their resources. They have important roles to play in American education, and I'm certainly pleased that they are still hiring professors. But those few schools are not and cannot be the whole of American education; higher education needs the rest of the colleges and universities to thrive, too. A recovery that only reaches the tip of the pyramid is not a recovery.

What our "new normal" looks like in higher education is what the "new normal" looks like for the American economy at large: an accelerated version of the regressive class stratification that's been taking place in this country for thirty years. The average schools have been falling behind the top 1 or 2% of universities for at least two decades, just as middle-class incomes have been falling behind the top 1 or 2% of our economic pyramid. The Harvard and Yale English departments certainly haven't shrunk to half the size they were in 1981; plenty of others have. Two years after the crash the "new normal" means normal for that lucky one percent, and new for all the rest of us. But of course, the "new normal" for American education is a movement toward a much older set of arrangements. It is a sudden leap in the otherwise slow backwards march to undo the postwar expansion of American education.

Every year for the last twenty or thirty, American colleges and universities have inched closer to the way things were during the Depression: a handful of powerful old schools, and then a steep dropoff. Anyone who is nostalgic for the colleges of the 1920s and 1930s doesn't know about them. American education was far more elitist in every real sense: it educated many fewer students, and educated them more poorly. Elitism did not advance anybody's education: the Ivies were more socially snobbish, but much less academically rigorous then they have since become, and the lesser schools had far fewer educational resources. There's no reason to go back to that model, ever, but we get closer to it every year.

At the same time, American society as a whole moves closer to the old, failed economic arrangements of the 1920s, with massive concentrations of wealth among a small group, low wages for most workers, and a relatively small and insecure middle class. There is no reason to go back to that either, but we get closer every day. The idea that making a small plutocracy even wealthier will benefit the rest of us is, as events have yet again made obvious, not true. That such an idea gets taken seriously is another triumph of nostalgia over history.

I'm a Renaissance scholar, after all. I spend every working day studying a society in which a tiny handful of people controlled a massive percentage of the resources while most people struggled for necessities. That is not a system for which any rational person should feel nostalgia. The art is great; the recurrent famines, not so much. I've seen what a country with an aristocracy looks like, and I don't want any part of it.

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