Bait and Switch in English Departments

With the MLA Convention upon us, we are hearing the annual laments for a profession fallen on hard times. I’m afraid I have come to take a very jaundiced view of the whole business.

Over the years I have come to think of the English business works as a massive bait and switch. I, at least, got into the business thinking that I was going to be doing two things. First, I would be engaged in a scholarly enterprise. That is, I was be seeking an ever-better approximation of the truth about a subject. Second, I would be passing on to others something truly important, their very own cultural heritage, from which they might then take delight, solace, and even wisdom. In graduate school I still heard a little about those ideas, but the working assumption was that they were naive pre-post-modernist b.s. There was no truth to be told about literature; all interpretations were equally true, though some might get more attention than others. And that cultural heritage was a genuinely bad thing: nothing but racist, sexist, classist, homophobic veils for the power structure. Power-relationships were the only things that might be real--though why you would study them by reading rhymes and stories was still a mystery. Once I became a professor, the cultural heritage—much less delight, solace, and wisdom—seemed to be the last thing anyone cared about. The administration wanted remedial programs for students who couldn’t write a memo. And the “rhet/comp” specialists the administration hired because they were called writing expects seemed to want to do social work instead of teaching anyone anything. People who wanted to focus on the study of literature were steadily marginalized. All this in itself would make people like me wonder about their life choices, but the academic culture, as least as I experienced it, included few people willing to stand up for either ideas or people and many who just kept their heads down, nodded when required to, and let people's lives be ruined rather than cross either those in power or those in office (not always the same groups, by any means). If I meet a young person who loves literature now, I may tell them to major in English as an undergraduate, but I will never tell one to get a Ph.D. or seek a job in an English Department.