• September 1, 2014

The Moral Panic in Literary Studies

Over the past two decades, most academic disciplines have maintained the numbers of their tenure-track faculty members or added minimally, while hiring a lot more non-tenure-track faculty members, causing the percentage of tenurable professors to fall. But English literary studies is one of the few disciplines to lose actual tenure-track positions, not just as a percentage but in real numbers.

According to the most recent comprehensive report on staffing by the Modern Language Association and the Association of Departments of English, published in 2008, English lost 3,000 tenure-track positions from 1993 to 2004, roughly 10 percent of the total. Even that understates the case, since more than a third of the new tenurable hires have not been in traditional literary fields but in composition, rhetoric, theory, cultural studies, new media, and digital humanities. Combined with evidence of lowered public interest in reading traditional literature and plummeting enrollment in traditional English majors, many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a "moral panic" in defense of traditional literary studies.

By far the most intense anxiety involves composition and rhetoric, which account for most of the new tenure-track hires. When the term "moral panic" emerged as a keyword of British cultural studies, in the 1960s, it was initially applied to individual outbreaks of irrational mass anxiety, such as those induced by youth culture, drug use, crime, immigration, sexual behavior, and so on. By the end of the last century, however, the sociologist Kenneth Thompson had argued that manipulative talk of crises was the defining feature of the era, which he dubbed "the age of moral panics."

Normally, panic discourse involves real or perceived threats to a group identified with some aspect of the dominant social order (such as literature faculty members facing the declining cultural capital of their work). Reacting with a disproportionate degree of hostility and resentment, the group generates scapegoats and fake solutions intended to maintain its power and influence in the status quo (such as literature faculty members’ embracing "alternate careers" for their doctoral students). As Jock Young and the late Stuart Hall put it, claims of crisis usually aim to whip up support for policing the perceived cause—often in expensive and draconian fashion, as in the "war on drugs."

Last year, at my institution, Emory University, the traditionally trained lit students typically received zero or one invitation to an MLA interview. Most didn’t even come close to winning campus interviews—much less tenure-track jobs—even coming from a top-25 program with support packages that rival those at Yale, Duke, and Stanford.

Some of the Emory students who eventually get tenure-track jobs do so after years of on-the-job retraining in comp-rhet, pedagogy, and new media, commonly in the Brittain Fellowship postdoctoral program, down the road at Georgia Tech. But since 2005, only two in five of those who graduated from Emory with Ph.D.’s in English have landed tenure-track jobs. The research university employing the most English Ph.D.’s from Emory is Emory itself—in staff positions.

One senior member of our English faculty took a look at this situation and published a response in the moral-panic genre, representing feelings widely held by his colleagues. By his account, literary studies is being "devalued and dismissed" as a result of English departments’ being "reconceived as being primarily in the business of teaching expository writing." Furthermore, he wrote, there’s an insidious rush "to make literary studies an outpost of ‘digital scholarship.’ "

Don’t ask me what that last part means, but it’s clear that the villains of the piece have spent their careers in rhetoric, composition, comparative media studies, and digital publication. The amazing thing about the panic at Emory? Most colleges like it have three to five graduate faculty members in those areas; Emory went a decade without even one, and it grudgingly broke that tradition only on the eve of accreditation and program review.

That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.

Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.

In the past year or two, in meetings with English graduate faculty members and students at would-be top programs similar to ours, I’ve had innumerable conversations with otherwise rational but anxious people who consider those involved in the renaissance of comp-rhet or digital publication as dullards not good enough to read poetry, as lowbrow opportunists, or—worse—as saintly philanthropists who "should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing."

Sometimes the discourse seems paranoid. Not long ago, a department administrator explained to me why he had declined to cooperate in a search that would have recruited some of the best young scholars in composition: "We just don’t want to hire any of those people who hate literature, who want to come here and tear everything down." Telling him that I’ve never met an actual comp-rhet scholar who hated literature—that most enjoy literature and sometimes teach it—wouldn’t shake his determination.

The odd thing is that one hears little informed discussion from the Modern Language Association or most of its elected leadership about the role of comp-rhet research faculty members in the revival of English majors, minors, and graduate programs.

The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production.

It has its home in programs that have had enough institutional power to keep themselves insulated from epochal change, the handful of graduate programs that have retained enough prestige and maintained their old-boy network sufficiently to keep placing most of their students. It also survives in places that, like Emory, had that kind of placement muscle a couple of decades ago.

If universities like mine are still offering doctorates in English 10 years from now, the programs won’t resemble the lit-only degrees at Yale or Columbia. They’ll emulate those at lower-ranked institutions that have more success in placing their students, like Clemson or the University of Pittsburgh, where English has tracks in media and comp-rhet, together with top research faculty members selected only for expertise in their fields, not loyalty to a pedagogy from the 1950s.

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University.

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