Word is out on the street: the study of literature is dying; English is breathing its last; no more Beowulf, no more Virginia Woolf either. Or not much of it. There are reasons to listen to the auguries. Most of the teaching in English departments now is done by adjuncts. The number of majors is tumbling. The profession’s on fire, and the deans, provosts, and presidents don’t hear the cries or smell the smoke.
Graduate students try the job market, once, twice, and three times. Finally they cop a visiting position, which runs for a year, maybe two. Then it’s back at it again, chasing another temporary gig. Or they end up in three adjunct positions at once, teaching six courses a term at soba-noodle wages. One member of their cadre snags a job with a two-two load, research money, a modest travel account, and the prospect of a life’s employment doing what she loves to do. So maybe I can too. Maybe if I just hold on for one more year, or a couple, the Magic Finger will point to me. Maybe.
Let’s say it’s as bad as the darkest auguries would have us think. Is there, truly, anything that can be done? I think so, though it seems possible that it’s too late and the problems have progressed too far. But there might be something, something, something.
Literature departments should be about literature. There. I’ve said it. My radical response to the current crisis is out and on the table. It won’t solve the problem tomorrow or even the day after. But in time, making English departments about literature—about novels, poems, plays, and the rest—could begin to deliver them from their impending dissolution.
I was in graduate school when the forces of the French Foreign Legion landed on the beach of English departments throughout America. Derrida, Lacan, Foucault: all found homes in these departments. I admire aspects of all three, but anyone who knows them understands that they are devoted overall to the negative, to demystification. Their work sets out to dispel what they take to be illusions. They attempt to show us that it is darker and more difficult out there (and in here) than it seems.
Lacan, Derrida, Foucault: they were read and taught and discussed in English departments, which became avant-garde departments of the humanities. Suddenly English was where the action was. The smartest graduate students showed up and began taking our courses. They couldn’t study Jacques Derrida in philosophy; philosophers held him in contempt. Michel Foucault had little place in departments of sociology or history. And certainly Anglo-American psychology departments had no place for Jacques Lacan, or for Freud either: their denizens were set on turning the discipline into a science, the harder the better. So English was where the intellectual action was.
In 1987, my colleague the philosopher Richard Rorty and I thought nothing of using an English department rubric to offer a course on Freud that included plentiful helpings of Derrida, Lacan, Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson—and even some Freud. There was no literature per se on the syllabus: no novels, no poems, no plays.