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.