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English, Foreign Language Job Seekers Face Major Decline in Available Positions

English, Foreign Language Job Seekers Face Major Decline in Available Positions
By Kendra Hamilton

There were probably plenty of long faces at the annual convention for professors of English and foreign languages last month, as new data indicated the current crop of job seekers would face the toughest job market since the recession of the early 1990s.

Jobs in English declined 19 percent, from 983 in 2001 to 792 in 2002, while those in foreign languages fell 21 percent, from 675 to 535, according to the most comprehensive listing of available openings in those fields, the Modern Language Association’s October 2002 Job Information List.

And while the MLA’s executive director, Dr. Rosemary Feal, cautions that the October list is not the final word for job seekers — the hiring cycle actually runs from July 1 to June 30, so the situation may not be as dire as the October figures indicate — she also admits job seekers have few reasons for optimism.

For one, the data collected reflect jobs advertised as of October 2001, but many of those positions have not actually been funded yet. That is to say they’d be vulnerable to freezes or outright elimination if the states’ budgetary woes deepen — a prospect that seems likely.

And while there’s a patch of blue in this dark sky — less competition for jobs because the number of doctoral recipients fell slightly in 2001, to 977 in English and 619 in foreign languages, down from 1,070 and 641 the previous year — job-seeking pressures remain intense.

For example, tenure-track assistant professorships, the most desirable of the entry-level positions, account for only about half of the jobs posted on the MLA list: 50.6 percent of the positions in English and 52.1 percent of those in foreign languages, to be precise.

Then, too, there’s a large backlog of candidates in the job-seeking pipeline. Last year, for example, only 44 percent of the jobs in English and 45 percent of those in foreign languages went to individuals in the 2001-2002 doctoral cohort. The rest of the jobs went to ABDs (all but dissertation) and individuals who had been searching for jobs for up to five years.

A detailed analysis of the MLA job list by specialty area offers an interesting snapshot of the state of the profession. For job seekers in English, the overall number of positions is down.

Percentagewise, however, specialists in British literature — the single largest chunk of English doctoral recipients — got a break this year, as that area’s share of available positions increased. Those jobs are 20 percent of the total, compared with 19 percent last year. The percentage of jobs in American literature increased to 10 percent of the total, while job growth in multiethnic literature and rhetoric and composition, meanwhile, remained flat at 11 percent and 17 percent of the total.

In the foreign languages sector, Spanish departments have the highest undergraduate enrollment and thus the largest share of job openings — more than all the other foreign language departments combined. But this year’s job list reveals a slight shift in emphasis. The number of jobs in Spanish has taken a surprising downturn from its high water mark, 50 percent of the positions in 1999-2000. This year, Spanish claims only 42 percent of the total, compared with 14, 9 and 2 percent, respectively, for French, German and Russian.

Commenting on the downturn, Feal calls the figures “disappointing, but at the same time, not surprising” for many reasons, both short term and long.

“You can trace (this year’s slump) directly to the public universities,” she notes, adding, “The publics normally represent about 60 percent of the jobs on the list. This year, they’re only 53 percent. In fact, funding to the publics is the lowest it’s been in a decade.”

In addition, the current slump occurs in a larger context — that of a nearly three-decades-long decline in the number of tenure-track university jobs.

The fact is inescapable that though students entering doctoral programs in English overwhelmingly desire jobs as English professors —79.7 percent, according to a 2000 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts — those jobs are disappearing. And they started disappearing not in the recessions of the early 1990s and ’80s, but as far back as 1975, at the end of a remarkable 20-year expansion period for higher education, according to the MLA’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Professionalization of the Ph.D.

In other words, the English and foreign language departments of the nation’s universities have been cranking out far more doctorate holders than the nation’s college classrooms are capable of absorbing, and they’ve been doing so for a long time.

Feal explains that the MLA is doing what it can to address the issue: helping departments gather the numbers that inform the hard decisions about whether and where to downsize; helping job candidates with mock interviews and job information workshops; working with organizations like the Coalition on the Academic Workforce to advocate for part-timers, adjuncts and lecturers.

“But while on the one hand, I’m glad to enumerate all the ways we’re helping, I also want to add the obvious: that we at the MLA don’t control the job market,” Feal says.

The problems of the current job market have roots that are long and deep and tangled up in questions of institutional purpose and identity. But the most important long-term trend in creating the current situation, Feal says, has been the decisive swing in hiring away from full-time, tenure-track faculty to part-time, adjunct, temporary faculty.

“When it comes to the teaching of undergraduates regardless of field, if you ask how many classes are taught by tenured professors, the number has been shrinking. And nothing will change until (the stakeholders) demand it. That is, state legislatures, universities in their internal allocations, and parents seeking a quality education for their children have to demand a change,” Feal adds.

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