rejected proposal for MLA 2023: Issues of Adaptation in Post-Crisis English

The Summer 2021 MLA Newsletter opened with the following question: “Where Have All the Majors Gone?” A subsequent article noted that, from 2009 to 2019, “the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded across all subjects in the discipline fell by 29%.” The article provided plenty of additional data related to the above question, observing that declines in awarded English degrees is, “particularly troubling.” However, what departments might do to reverse this trend remains “unclear.” As the former chair of an English department that no longer exists and as a tenured faculty member in a program on borrowed time, I want to suggest that maybe there is no reversing this trend, that perhaps we need to consider a different question: “What now?”

Such a suggestion and consideration come from the experience and knowledge that the development of unique and in-demand courses, the diversification of teaching appointments, concerted efforts toward enrollment management, and an active and visible presence at every campus event did not prevent the dissolution of my department. And I worry that such actions are unlikely to stop the end of others. So, much as conversations about climate change have moved from prevention to adaptation, similar discussions are overdue in our field. In therefore drawing upon recent, relevant scholarship on the precarious position of English (broadly construed) within higher education, I hope to highlight and invite testaments of disciplinary survival and to identify the coffins to which we cling while facing our future.

books recently read - jan/feb 2022

The Midwest Survival Guide by Charlie Berens

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The City & the City by China Mieville

At the End of the World by Lawrence Millman

Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty by W.L. Rusho

Outside Lies Magic by John P. Stilgoe

After Cooling by Eric Dean Wilson

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

books recently read - nov/dec 2021

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt 

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett 

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang

Futureproof by Kevin Roose 

Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells 

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells 

books recently read - sep/oct 2021

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green 

Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Wall by John Lanchester

The Complete Mushroom Hunter by Gary Lincoff

Fulfillment by Alec MacGillis

Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg 

Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

Stoner by John Williams 

on "The Chair"

I'm annoyed with, frustrated by, and tired of the ridiculously unrealistic "critical" takes on The Chair. Below are some more positive and nuanced responses:

But as it unfolds, The Chair offers far deeper insight into the interpersonal and intergenerational dynamics of campus culture than any novel I’ve read. The show’s dramatic energies are focused on issues of free speech, the changing paradigms of scholarship and teaching, and the prejudice that women faculty and faculty of color face. Yet the subject that gets the most screen time is none of these, nor is it chairing. It’s parenting—although as the series rolls on, we slowly realize that, just possibly, chairing is parenting by other means.

Kevin Dettmar, What The Chair Gets Unexpectedly Right About the Ivory Tower

If we're watching The Chair as Ji-Yoon's story, the portrayal of activist students would exist to shed light on the pressure and complexity of the situation Ji-Yoon is facing as a woman of color in a position of authority, not, as some have interpreted it, as a commentary on activist students in general. That is, Ji-Yoon experiences student activism as high-stakes and unwieldy precisely because she respects their principled stances -- to the point that they intensify her suspicion that, despite her best efforts and intentions, she is not transforming the master's house from the inside (shout out to Audre Lorde).

To operate as if the portrayal of student protesters matters more than how the portrayal illuminates something about Ji-Yoon is to give these characters the primacy

Koritha Mitchell, Stop asking if The Chair is realistic

The show, co-created by Amanda Peet and Harvard Ph.D. Annie Wyman, feels like a real attempt to grapple with the problems of contemporary academia, and the humanities in particular, by someone who has felt invested in them.

Lidija Haas, The Chair Is an Elegy for the Life of the Mind

I don’t know anyone who has gone through the trouble of becoming a professor with the express goal of ending up as a department chair. The role draws on organizational skills that many academics have made a career out of avoiding; it also leeches away time that could be spent researching or teaching...The Chair thrives in scenes where manners and decorum get stripped away and Kim recognizes the futility of her situation. Her strange profession begins to seem relatable. Her face, usually so attentive and patient, evinces rage and disappointment. One complication of institutional diversity is that diverse faces can now lead institutions that are in free fall. 

Hua Hsu, Sandra Oh's Masterly Performance of Empathy in The Chair 

But as much as the characters are—wonderfully—never cynical about the study of literature, they are also exhausted by the situations they find themselves in, both personally and professionally, and especially where those two spheres collide. The current pandemic permanently damaged the academic careers of parents (mostly women) who had to abandon their (our) research to take care of their (our) children, and forced faculty to teach in windowless classrooms to hundreds of students without mask or vaccine requirements. None of that is in this show, yet even so, it depicts the study of literature as unsustainable. I wish it were clearer to the viewer that it’s unsustainable because it’s not supported. 

Johannah Winant, Moby-Done 

hate to say i told you so

For the time being, this will be a space for checking myself against reality. I want to make sure I have the story straight, that I’m not finally losing my mind eighteen months into the pandemic. 

So, yesterday, my new department chair emailed all faculty members about the agenda for an upcoming meeting. The message ended with the following question: “Can your discipline realistically complete its deliberations about a program revision in time to meet the October 29 deadline?” 

I anticipated this prompt in comments I made during an English department meeting in late April as well as emails I sent in early May. My anticipation arrived in the form of concern over colleagues’ capacity to do the work of curricular development amid whatever new efforts arose as a result of the College’s reorganization.

At present, there is a call for volunteers to serve on four different ad hoc committees at the department level. Faculty are also managing another semester of uncomfortable teaching, whether they returned to in-person instruction or not. And program revision is no small task, particularly when accounting for three different specializations among more than a dozen faculty members. 

This is why I pushed for proceeding with program work in May. At that time, I was engaged, invested, and ready to get shit done. I took the liberty of completing both official and unofficial documents on the department’s behalf. I suggested that we have an initial proposal and market analysis information ready for review by June 30th. Assuming a positive outcome in our final action as the English department, we could then signal our new program to the College and request that the appropriate associate provost begin work on the market analysis. Through July and August, we could work on the program proposal proper with the intent to provide our new department with that document as well as the market analysis in early September. We’d therefore be well in advance of the October deadline and likely prepared to announce a new or revised major in Winter 2022 and months before the sunsetting of our current programs. 

But none of that happened.

At this point, I’m no longer interested in program revision. Beyond my summer bitterness, here’s why: I have six students in my business communications class that expressed a love for reading and writing but all of them are majoring in finance or management. I also have a dozen students in my first year writing class that are “English intolerant,” as one put it. There are, of course, a number of factors at play here, but the elements are so interrelated as to comprise an intractable issue. I think now that declining enrollments in English constitute a sociocultural problem that cannot be adequately addressed by a handful of faculty at a regional campus of one of the top universities in the country. No matter the amount of effort we commit, the problem persists because a career-oriented narrative remains dominant. And students are either too stubborn or too scared to be persuaded otherwise.

I can’t and won’t blame the younger generations, though. There will always be students who buck the trend, but I doubt their numbers have ever been sufficient to maintain a program anywhere but the most prestigious institutions. Given the discipline’s origins as well as its resistance to change, perhaps English was always destined to be a program for the elites. 

But maybe the week I spend on how the descriptions of whaling in Moby Dick contribute to the overall story will stay with my technical writing students. Maybe the selections from Frankenstein I assign to engineering and entrepreneurship majors will keep their future hubris in check. Maybe that will be enough for them, and for me. 

ten years ago: Dr. James Schirmer interview on twitter and sports

Description: University of Michigan-Flint assistant professor of English Dr. James Schirmer talks about using twitter in a college classroom and how twitter impacts the way we watch sports.

Transcript: Initially, it's a four-week assignment where students, I ask them to engage with each other and to communicate with each other and see if we can actually get any kind of worthwhile conversation happening in that tiny constrained space. Because we only have 140 characters to work with, so, it's always interesting to me to see what kinds of conversations students can get into, what kinds of conversations that I can have with them in this very kind of tiny space... I think a lot of them do get a good amount of, I think there are a variety of benefits that come with it. One thing I've noticed, just because I teach a lot of writing courses, is that they do, students tend to become more concise in their writing. They're a little bit clearer, they have a better awareness of who they're talking to, why they're talking to them, what they're trying to talk to them about. And, just on a day-to-day level, if students have any questions, I'm, there's a greater accessibility with them and with me, that they, they feel comfortable talking with me, they feel comfortable talking with each other. So, there's an element of transferability there, that they have this, some degree of comfort communicating with each other in this very specific way, specific medium, but that tends to translate to the class... just a little slice of information, and I think that part of it deals with, too, is that the creators designed it so that it would work better with cellphones and with texting, because that's one of, I think, one of the primary odes of communication, just these very short little bits of information, but then things can kind of explode out of that. And how I use it in an academic context is that I've had quite a few opportunities, publishing opportunities, come up that way, just because of starting conversations and finding out, okay, we both follow this person, so maybe I should pay attention to what they're doing. And this is actually something I advocate for our, some of our graduate students in the MA program, is that if they're interested in things like digital rhetoric, social media, video game studies, that where a lot of the interesting conversations are happening, they are on blogs, but the more day to day, just distribution systems, news items, that where it's happening, it's happening on Twitter... There's always that potential for engagement, like if you're on there, there's always that chance that someone's going to respond to you and, depending upon what you, how you decide to use it, whether you're more social and, you know, say what'd you have for breakfast every morning as, which is is one of the criticisms of it, it's been going, how you use it, you will, you will get followers based on how you use it. A community will develop, based on how you use it, whether you're, you know, a fan of the Detroit Tigers, you'll get maybe, you'll get ten to fifteen people to follow you, just based on that, because, you know, you, you made a couple offhand comments about, you know, a play last night or you engage somebody in a more academic context and talking about video game studies so you will either get attention or, you know, get follows, based on that... You know not everybody is using Twitter, or any other kind of social media for that matter, for, you know, honest and true purposes, that there are some nefarious endeavors trying to break through that, even through Twitter... I'm a big fan of the Detroit Tigers and so I follow Dan Dickerson, Mario Impemba, Rod Allen. I even follow some of the players: Will Rhymes, Casper Wells is on there, Robbie Weinhardt is pitching for Toledo now, he's on there. But, yeah, usually one of the windows that I will have open any time a Tigers game is on is I'll have the Tigers hashtag in a search bar and just see what, what other people are saying about the game, and sometimes I'll say stuff, but sometimes it's usually, it's almost like a secondary spectator sport, just to see what everybody else is saying about it... It's kind of similar to, um, I think it's kind of similar actually to sitting in a bar, you know? And, just, everybody isn't using, is in this one place for this particular purpose and so they're a bit so that you'll hear bits of different conversations going on, but they're all be about the same thing.

books recently read - jul/aug 2021

Leaving Academia by Christopher L. Caterine

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

How We Live Now by Bill Hayes

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley 

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic

Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams

no gods no majors

The Summer 2021 MLA Newsletter opens with the following question: “Where Have All the Majors Gone?” A subsequent article provides plenty of data and demographics related to the question but not much of an actual answer. A three-decades long decline in awarded English degrees is indeed “particularly troubling,” but what departments might do to reverse this trend remains “unclear.”

Maybe there is nothing to be done. When I served as chair of the English department, we had four solid years of enrollment management. Robust returns enabled us to respect and retain the same corps of longtime lecturers while also offering necessary coursework for degree completion. Lecturers and tenure track faculty diversified teaching appointments through first year seminar and honors courses; others developed and directed unique in-demand courses and programs. We employed pretty much every suggestion to reverse our declining enrollments. We participated in welcome events, engagement fairs, mid- and end-of-semester celebrations, and campus-community get-togethers. And we took every opportunity to correct and enlighten provosts, deans, associate deans, parents, and students about the utility and worth of the English major. 

Year after year, we committed ourselves to a collective engagement, but what happened after all that work? Our dean dissolved the department as part of a broader reorganization of the entire college. Enrollment declines continue, causing our lecturer corps to crumble. Faculty in linguistics and literature are set to teach first year composition and business communication alongside colleagues who have PhDs in the field and decades more experience. And my own early summer efforts to propose a new integrated major were met with insufficient support, somehow even causing a colleague I once respected to call me a sellout (to whom or what I don’t know). 

I wish there was something to be learned from these persistent declines as well as the failures to turn them around. But perhaps there’s nothing to be learned. Perhaps there’s nothing to be done. Perhaps it’s time to let it all end.