On the Job Market
Positions in multiethnic literature hold firm,while other fields see decline.
There’s good news on the job lists maintained by the Modern Language Association (MLA) for aspiring professors of African American literature and culture: The academy has a job for you. For the second year running, jobs in multiethnic literature have continued to rise, while the percentage of jobs in every other area tracked by the MLA has been declining.
An analysis of the October MLA Job Information List (JIL) — traditionally the month where the largest number of ads, roughly half of the annual total, are posted — shows that British literature continues to rule the roost, accounting for 19.2 percent, or 189, of the 983 jobs listed. And jobs in the teaching of writing — rhetoric and composition — are in second place with 17.2 percent, or 169, of the total. But those figures actually represent sharp declines from peaks of 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in those fields in 2000 (see chart below).
Multiethnic literatures, on the other hand, have been holding firm at around 11 percent of the total — 108 jobs this year — ahead of creative writing with 9.9 percent of the jobs, American literature with 7.8 percent, technical writing with 3.2 percent, and women’s studies with 1.4 percent. Indeed, multiethnic literatures, which includes African American, Afro Caribbean, non-U.S. Anglophone literature, and Asian, Latino and Native American studies, are only a shade off their best year ever — 1998 when the category accounted for nearly 13 percent of the 885 jobs offered in English departments. Even better, the numbers have been remarkably stable since 1995 when they surpassed the 10 percent barrier for the first time ever. And the numbers have yet to dip below the 10 percent mark.
Positions in African American literature have been at the forefront of the growth of multiethnic literature. In 1985, the year the MLA first began tracking jobs in the field, African American literature constituted around 1 percent of the 784 jobs offered in English departments. By 1988, jobs in African American literature were running neck and neck with those offered in American literature, and by the early ’90s the subfield had surpassed American literature.
“That’s not an unusual pattern for an emerging field,” says Dr. Phyllis Franklin, the executive director of the MLA. “The study of African American literature is now a pretty mature field in which very important basic work has been done by scholars. We’ve seen the creation of important reference works, basic studies in key questions in the field, the development of anthologies.”
Indeed, that very “maturity” seems to be what’s fueling the growth of what’s now known as multiethnic literature, as departments that don’t offer the area or that don’t have a specialist dedicated to its teaching increasingly see African American and multiethnic studies as essential to their missions rather than a marginal area of inquiry.
Dr. Hortense Spillers, F.J. Whiton professor of English at Cornell University and senior scholar on the MLA’s Black Literature and Culture executive committee, however, doesn’t see the move toward multiethnic literatures and “race” studies as a dilution or diminution of the goals of African American studies. Far from it, she says: “The field is renewing and reinventing itself. It’s a measure of the way race has taken hold in the academy rather than a measure of its being displaced.”
A Tough Job Market
But it’s widely known that overall English doctorates are experiencing what is rather euphemistically known as a “tough job market.” One has only to consider the figures: The 2000 edition of the Survey of Earned Doctorates notes that between July 1, 1999, and June 30, 2000, there were 1,070 doctorates awarded in English language and literature. Set that figure beside the 983 jobs on this year’s October JIL — particularly considering the fact that the October list only represents about half of the yearly total — and the disparity doesn’t seem unmanageable.
But there’s a rub. Only 483 of the positions on the October JIL were definite tenure-track assistant professor positions. Of the remaining 500, most were jobs at higher ranks, and a handful — around 7.2 percent, Franklin says — were non-tenure track/renewable. So in reality, the number of entry-level jobs in the profession is around 20 percent smaller than the number of graduates eligible for them.
That’s a pattern that has held for nearly a decade and only recently has shown signs of improvement. Still, by any measure, it represents a crisis. Indeed, Franklin says, it’s generally accepted that it can take an average of three years for an English doctorate to attain that elusive entry-level tenure track job.
“Colleges and universities either do not have the funds or they are just not committed to expanding the number of tenure-track jobs,” Franklin says. “Large universities are using either (graduate) students or part-time teachers to teach (college freshmen and sophomores). So our field is graduating goodly numbers of Ph.D.s, and the very institutions that graduate these Ph.D.s are not hiring them.”
And what about jobs in the African American/multiethnic studies field? Is that a situation, too, where the relative prosperity is more apparent than real?
Deep in the appendices of the 2000 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the numbers tell an interesting tale: 105 English language and literature doctorates were awarded to minorities in 1999-2000, 31 to Asian Americans, 44 to African Americans, 28 to Latino Americans and two to American Indians.
Assuming that all those people plan to teach area/ethnic studies — an assumption that’s by no means a safe one — and recalling that the October job list represents only about half the jobs actually offered in any given year, then graduates in area and ethnic studies seem to be in a good position.
A MATTER Of CHOICES
Jennifer Wilks, a graduate student at Cornell who works on African American and Afro-Caribbean women writing between the world wars, sent out 18 applications in 2001 and got five interviews at the MLA convention, held last month in New Orleans.
She found the experience “exhausting.”
“I was prepared to answer questions about my work,” Wilks says. “I was not prepared for the amount of stamina it required to appear bright and engaged, interested and interesting” day in and day out over the four-day convention.
Wilks, who plans to defend her dissertation later this spring, didn’t want to mention the schools where she had interviewed or reveal her first choice. But she did say she felt pretty good about her chances.
So did Vince Woodard, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin who is doing a provocative project on the role of the shape-shifter figure in precolonial West and Central Africa and its transformation into a freedom-fighting figure in the antebellum U.S. context.
Woodard, who will defend his dissertation in February, sent out 18 applications and also got five interviews. But he says networking at conferences and readings — he’s a poet as well as a scholar — played an unexpectedly large role in helping him to get interviews. “Had I known what I know now, I would have made an even greater effort” to network, he adds.
Woodard notes that he felt really good about the number of jobs available. “There were around 140, the last time I counted,” he says. And that meant he could pick and choose.
“The Midwest, I didn’t really look at, and particular places in the South because of the history,” he says. And he was particularly careful to avoid places that had no African Americanist or that traditionally had only one.
“I was strongly warned by my adviser to be wary of places that bring in a single person and want them to bear full responsibility for constructing the concentration, advising all the students, serving on all the committees,” he says.
On the other hand, Dr. Paul Tewksbury, who completed his work in 2001 on the literature of the Civil Rights Movement at Louisiana State University, says he was actively seeking out Midwestern schools and schools that were just beginning to establish an African Americanist specialty in his job search.
That’s partly because Tewksbury, who is White, felt that top schools and large Research I schools would be vying for African American prospects. He sent out 45 applications and got five interviews, most of them with baccalaureate schools, though there was one research school in the mix.
What surprised Tewksbury the most was that he didn’t feel like “the token White boy (in the interview), which actually I thought was a bit strange. I thought more places would have asked, ‘How are you going to handle the race question in the classroom?’ No one even brought it up.
“I’m glad that didn’t happen,” he says. “But at the same time it seems stupid that we’re all pretending I’m not White when I am and the search committees are White and, at least in the Midwest, the students are White, too. It’s part of the problem with the system. The interview is not the place to deal with it. But I was aware of the dynamic.”
Feeling the Pressure
Search committees, meanwhile, are feeling the pressure to compete for candidates in varying ways. Few are in the position of Dr. George Yudice, a professor at New York University, who’s chairman of the committee searching for a candidate to hold a joint appointment in English and American studies. The position’s rank is open, and the committee received 140 applications. Five candidates have been invited for campus visits.
Indeed, most search committees would likely feel more in common with Dr. Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, interim director of the African American studies program at George Mason University, or Dr. Chris Vanden Bossche, chairman of the English department at the University of Notre Dame — schools that are facing African Americanist searches in a highly competitive environment.
For George Mason’s McKenzie, the key word is speed. The school received 80 applications for its African Americanist position. But “we know we’ve got to move quickly on these candidates, otherwise, we’re going to lose them.”
Indeed, one of the people the school had planned to interview has taken his name out of contention already. “He’s decided to go elsewhere, which says to me that the search committee I put together has good instincts,” she says. But she adds, “When the market is as hot as it is right now, you have to move quickly, make yourself look attractive, make sure that the candidates know all the things you have going for you.”
Of course, part of what George Mason has going for it is its setting in suburban Washington, D.C., home to one of the largest and most affluent concentrations of African Americans in the nation. And then, too, there’s the African American studies program — at 10 years of age, a mature program, offering a full array of courses, lectures and programs.
Notre Dame’s Vanden Bossche should be so lucky as to have those selling points. While his school has stellar academic credentials and a reputation as one of the warmest, most collegial campuses in the nation, Vanden Bossche says that it has been an uphill battle to expand his department’s African American studies concentration since the untimely death of Dr. Erskine Peters, the department’s senior African Americanist, four years ago.
“We talk a lot about Chicago in interviews — how it’s only 90 miles away,” he says.
The department’s goal four years ago was to hire two African Americanists — one senior and one junior — to replace Peters. But, Vanden Bossche notes, the “why would they come here question” kept coming up in relation to the candidates the committee most desired. Finally, after an exhausting and eventually losing search, which pitted Notre Dame against the University of Michigan and Brown University over hot prospects, the committee took a second look at its strategy.
“We realized we could wait forever” for a high-quality senior candidate, Vanden Bossche says. So, recognizing the fact that “more people than ever are being trained these days,” the department has decided to grow its own senior scholars — that is, find excellent young scholars, nurture and help them develop.
Dr. Antoinette Irving, hired two years ago, is the nucleus of the African Americanist specialty. This year, Notre Dame is looking for another junior scholar to complement her work. And Vanden Bossche feels good about the chances of finding the right person — the school received 72 applications and three candidates are coming for campus visits.
If things don’t work out, however, Vanden Bossche and Notre Dame won’t give up.
“If we have to search again, our next step will be to go to conferences, court them, make sure they know the great things that are happening at Notre Dame,” he says. “We’ll do what we have to do.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com