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Academia Jobs Forecast Bleak

In one of many consequences of the national economic downturn on higher education, the Modern Language Association (MLA) projects a significant drop in faculty opportunities in English and foreign languages and literature, according to a report released today.

In the steepest decline in more than three decades, the positions advertised in MLA’s Job Information List – an authoritative collection of faculty positions in languages and literature at the nation’s colleges and universities – are expected to plummet by 37 percent this academic year.

This comes after the job list had a 26-percent drop last year, the second biggest backslide since its launch in the 1975-76 academic year.

“It’s disheartening to see how steep this decline is,” MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal said. If you take the decline in overall positions and couple that with the decline over many years of the tenure-track position, then you see the picture is indeed very bleak.”

The decrease, Feal said, can largely be attributed to the nation’s troubled economy. Feal said she expects to see the situation turn around once the economic recovery effort hits colleges and universities. However, it’s unclear to what extent the drop in postings is due to circumstances other than the economy, such as colleges and universities choosing to instead advertise on their own Web sites rather than paying for MLA’s service.

Since the job list’s inception 35 years ago, the number of faculty openings advertised annually by English and foreign language departments has fluctuated between 1,000 and 2,000 positions, according to the MLA report.

This academic year, an estimated 900 positions in English language and literatures are expected to be advertised, the report said. By contrast, there were 1,380 open positions listed last year and the 2007-08 year hit a record 1,826 jobs.

The situation is similarly bleak for positions in languages and literatures other than English, which are projected to drop 39 percent from last year’s openings. While the two previous academic years boasted job postings for 1,680 openings in 2007-08 and 1,227 last year, the latest projection hovers around 750.

In addition to an overall drop in positions, fewer tenure-track jobs are available as more colleges and universities make contingent hires based on the needs of a particular course or semester, Feal said. Since 1997, tenure-track assistant professor positions have typically made up between 55 and 65 percent of the positions departments announce in the MLA job list. Yet in the job list’s October 2009 iteration, tenure-track openings in English and foreign languages accounted for 53 and 48.5 percent of the listings, respectively.

“We’re seeing more positions that are not tenure-track,” Feal said.

The hiring slowdown could have implications for the diversity of faculties, Feal said. “It’s obviously a great worry that as the number of jobs has been decreasing in the academy, the number of opportunities for ethnic minorities is similarly closing,” she said. Though some fields in English that are doing the most hiring, such as rhetoric and composition and multiethnic literature, are those in which under-represented minorities frequently receive degrees, Feal said colleges and universities should work to ensure the diversity of their faculties keeps with their mission, even in this economy.

One bright spot in the MLA’s report was the continuing increase in faculty positions available in a wider array of world languages. Over the past decade, starting at about the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, interest in languages from Middle Eastern and Asian nations, and even ancient cultures has increased at colleges and universities, Feal said. The trend is a “healthy sign” that students are taking a more global perspective to their studies, she said.

While Spanish remains the most commonly studied foreign language, the percentage of faculty jobs in Spanish declined from a high of 50.3 percent in 2000 to 35.5 percent in 2009, according to the report. That shift made way for an increase over the same period in positions in other languages, such as Chinese (from 1.4 to 9.5 percent) and Arabic (0.5 to 3 percent).

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