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English, Humanities and non-white guys

January 8, 2009

InsideHigherEd highlights a report called the Humanities Report Indicator, in which they take pains to collect relevant information about the Humanities from the years 1988–2004. I will take just one small point made by Scott Jaschick (IHE) where he indicates that:

Of humanities bachelor’s degrees, the largest share (about one third) are awarded in English. The indicators note that while ethnic, cultural and gender studies have seen dramatic increases in scholarly interest in recent decades, that hasn’t been matched by undergraduate majors, with less than 2 percent of degrees awarded in the humanities going to those fields.

Being an English major, I was/am often asked “what do you do with that?” in a tone of one asking about the utility of a White Elephant gift. To which I would quip “Not much. You want fries?”

Two points to make on this quote: that as an entire third of the Humanities, there are too many English major graduates out there for the available positions. This increases the available pool of adjunct labor, diminishing any incentive for greater pay, better working conditions or more recognition. One does not voluntarily pay more than the market indicates, and the supply-side of English adjuncts is just way too high.

Point two is that since the mid-80’s (I am tracking my entire college exposure with this), the increase in the attention of ethnic, gender or cultural studies was a steep and steady arc. One professor, having had Derrida on his dissertation committee, was told that he (being on a one-year contract) should give it up. The one giving the advice (old-school, crusty prof) further stated that the one-year position would be going to “a woman or minority” soon anyway.

That conversation, overheard and not participated in, has stayed with me. Crusty Prof often used outrageous and inflammatory language, and wasn’t always accurate in his analysis. But I felt, at least at the time, that Crusty Prof was absolutely spot-on correct. One-year contract Prof had already, at this time moved from French Deconstructionist to African American writing in his own scholarship.

Perhaps this is only a necessary phase in the field, where the laudable works (canon) expands to be more comprehensive and interesting. Combined, though, with the adjunct explosion, things don’t look all that appealing in the English major.


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