The Absurd Paradox at the Heart of Every English Department

“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

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The study of the English language and Western literature, once the tip of the spear in the liberal arts, is stuck in a rut in the United States.

You can get a feel for the plight of the English major by browsing the discussion topics chosen by the Association of Departments of English (ADE), the field’s nationwide umbrella organization, for its 2019 seminar series:

  • “Responding to the Decline in English Enrollments and Majors” is the title of one ADE workshop held in early June 2019; it was led by Lori Askeland, Associate Professor in English at Wittenberg University, Ohio, and Samuel Cohen, Associate Professor in English at the University of Missouri.
  • Also in June 2019, Gregory Jay, Chair of the English Department at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, organized a workshop with two colleagues called: “If You Build It, Will They Come? Attracting Students to the English Major.”
  • Meanwhile, a discussion group moderated by Stacy Hartman of the City University of New York was called “What Can Faculty Members Do about the Graduate Student Mental Health Crisis?”
  • And Robyn Warhol, Department Chair and Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio State University, hosted a discussion group suggesting that mental health issues are not just limited to English students, but afflict the faculty as well: “Divas, Malcontents, and Other Troubled and Troubling Department Members” was the title of her ADE group.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence from my own time as a graduate student in the English Department at a large American university gives me the confidence to state that these topics are highly representative of the general atmosphere in English, and that great exhaustion and disappointment exists.

One afternoon, probably during my second of a three-year Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing, I returned to my desk after a fire alarm went off unexpectedly in our building to find that the Chair of the English Department had dashed off an all-hands email to explain the disruption. The Chair’s email began with this highly motivational statement:

“Of course, the idea of [the English Department] actually burning down (though preferably when there’s no-one in it) is not without its attractions…”

I’d been wondering whether I ought to spend more time in academia after getting my MFA, but this was as clear a sign as any that the self-loathing I’d sensed in the halls and classrooms was real, and it started right at the top.

Department heads and tenured professors have taken for granted the significant expansion in college funding and the job openings that were available throughout the second half of the 20th century, causing them to unconsciously project the antiquated notion that the intellectual efforts of today’s English professors are in high demand.

In fact, the funding and expansion the American university system enjoyed in decades past has largely evaporated, and universities are no longer growing in the humanities but looking to cut their fat and obtain English teaching services at the lowest possible expense.

This doesn’t stop English majors from doubling down on their questionable decision as undergraduates, going on to graduate studies in English like gamblers chasing their losses in hopes of eventually hitting it big. As a result, thousands of PhDs in English compete every year for a very limited number of tenure-track job openings, causing great career angst among even very competitive candidates and likely contributing to “the graduate student mental health crisis” noted by the ADE session above.

Relevance, Anyone?

One of the biggest objections to the study of English today, and what may very well be a major contribution to the decline in English majors noted by the ADE in last year’s seminar, is the increasing difficulty departments are having drawing a clear bridge between the study of English and the business of eventually making enough money to move out of your parent’s house.

In my opinion this is in large part because the academy has placed few limitations on what constitutes legitimate research in English, gleefully encouraging graduate students to immerse themselves in the study of graphic novels, zombies, text-message etiquette, and Beyoncé lyrics in order to hold the interest of both the graduate students themselves and the undergraduate students they teach.

Unlike a field of actual knowledge such as astronomy, where practitioners are limited by their instruments, telescope time, and the current understanding of physics itself — and where certain topics, though perhaps interesting, are generally shunned by serious scientists — the need for technical proficiency in the English language is minimized and the stakes are kept extremely low.

Rather than developing a research agenda and strategically attempting to grow the field using realistic assumptions, increasing the field’s legitimacy by focusing on the development of hard skills that can benefit both graduate and undergraduate students beyond academia, tenured faculty and academic leaders — who themselves often do not have much experience outside the Ivory Tower — do not push for more stringent success standards, research topics, or grading criteria.

This lack of interest in success metrics is contagious, as graduate students in English are left worrying about being cool and relevant enough for their students and the tenured English faculty who can make or break their academic careers, obsessively checking their teacher ratings on and broadcasting to their Facebook friends whenever a student has praised them for a class or a semester well-taught.

English graduate students, many of whom I met and have followed via social media in the years since I graduated with an MFA, have struggled for years as adjuncts, lecturers, fellows, and teaching assistants, earning paltry wages while chasing the golden ring of a tenure track job. A few of them make it, and the vast majority of them — even very intelligent, very qualified candidates — eventually move on to something else that pays the bills and puts a dent in their student debt.

I do not mean to suggest that the entire field of English, the length and the breadth, is a failure.

Indeed, when the study of English interfaces with the acquisition of technical proficiency and the undertaking of projects that can be successfully defined and measured there is great promise — the digital humanities, for example, can improve literacy in the digital age and use computer technology to make previously difficult-to-access archival information available to everyone.

When technical proficiency is combined with an interest in literature of ages past, discoveries that make headlines and attract the attention of university administrators might occur — as with the recent case of Jason Scott-Warren, a lecturer and fellow at Cambridge University, who made a staggeringly important find when he identified extensive hand-written notes on an original 1623 copy of Shakespeare’s first folio of plays as belonging to none other than the epic English poet John Milton, a contemporary of Shakespeare. It has long been known that Milton was influenced by Shakespeare, but to find direct and personal evidence of Milton engaging with Shakespeare’s text “may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times,” according to one of Scott-Warren’s colleagues at nearby Oxford University.

Making an actual discovery in the real world — as opposed to in your own mind — is something that almost no graduate student in English imagines, however.

This is too bad, because it removes a powerful motivator to achieve technical proficiency in something of relevance.

It’s Not Fair to Simply Criticize

So here are some thoughts on a few hard skills an English major can learn. There’s plenty of relevant technical proficiency to gain — it just takes less laziness, less fear, more interest in long-range planning, and higher expectations.

In how many English Departments, for example, can you learn the basics of risk communication?

This is a scientifically validated discipline that involves developing and structuring messages (sometimes in the form of “talking points”) to respond to inquiries and interest during times of crisis, when every word and sentence counts. Learning to be a risk communicator intersects with English in a way that offers students a marketable and recognized skill at the same time it requires creativity, analytical thinking, rhetorical expertise, and an interest in speaking directly to diverse audiences.

And then there’s the concept of “plain language” — a field of evergreen interest among managers who can’t figure out what the hell their employees are trying to say. Although one generally cannot be hired specifically to be a plain language writer, expertise in the topic is certainly better and more recognizable on a resume than just pointing out that you wrote a bunch of essays in your English classes.

If either of these specialized areas of knowledge seem too daunting for the standard English Department to investigate, then how about the absolute lowest-hanging fruit of all — English grammar?

I ask: in what graduate or undergraduate program in English does one have to demonstrate proficiency in English by passing a grammar or copy-editing test?

How many university English departments can go out there and guarantee that their graduates are bang-up editors and grammar fiends?

Grammatical fluency is a marketable skill but most, if not nearly all, English departments do not want to press their undergraduate and graduate students on it for fear, I suppose, that a mandatory copy-editing class would be seen as uncool. Or perhaps they do not want to admit the inconvenient truth — that a large percentage, if not the majority, of graduate students in English probably would not pass a moderately challenging English grammar test.

Maybe similar ideas have already been discussed and proposed by the ADE. I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the concept of actually forcing graduate students in English to demonstrate proficiency in English would be dismissed out of hand for the simple reason that it would be at cross-purposes with the stated goal of attracting more students to the field of study. It would require a total realignment of the field and, at bottom, necessitate making a single core and embarrassing admission.

Here’s the Money Shot

This leads me to something that’s gone unsaid here and that I need to get out in the open — namely, the acknowledgement that the modern English department in America is actually an absurd paradox, an ouroboros.

At the same time English departments purport to teach English, their inhabitants tend to feel dreadful about the history of the West, criticizing colonialism and the grand narratives of white men, which are of course intertwined with issues of racism and civil rights. In this context, the English language is seen, either implicitly or explicitly, as a tool of repression and genocide.

I believe this self-hating, self-defeating intellectual hang-up is the elephant in the room, the unsteady ground that underlies all the other sinkholes the field of English has gotten stuck in. Perhaps there is a lack of confidence in the value of the language itself, perhaps it is too stained with blood.

I’m not saying the critique is unfair or unwarranted.

Rather, I’m saying that the critique has unfortunately become the substance of the discourse, so out of synch with the framework that’s required to grow a successful field of study and to advance the literary and linguistic achievements of the Western and English-speaking world.

Of course, tightening up the ship, intellectually downsizing, making short-term sacrifices for long term gains, setting a research agenda that prioritizes some lines of inquiry over others, is not on the table.

I draw this conclusion based on the title of a discussion presented last year by the ADE’s Gregory Jay. Its title? “Diversifying English for the Twenty-First Century.”

By this I gather that professor Jay believes diversity; inclusion; and basically encouraging students to research whatever they want under the umbrella of English, regardless of applicability, is seen as the solution.

“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” are the lines famously inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Increasingly it seems that this could well describe university English Departments, which shine an idealistic beacon to attract the teeming masses of undergraduate and graduate students searching for direction even though, just like the country that Lady Liberty represents, the over-arching goal is the capitalist exploitation of human blood, sweat, and tears to generate fresh wealth for the owners of the system — a system that many students of English, crushed by their debt and trying to make ends meet, eventually come to know something about.

I’m more than just a writer. Don’t bother looking for me on Twitter. This is my home at the moment.

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