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Ivory towers are feeling the economic pinch

Applicants outnumber college teaching jobs as the Modern Language Assn. meets.

January 01, 2009|Larry Gordon

SAN FRANCISCO — Shakespeare, Edith Wharton and Internet poetry were supposed to be among the main topics of discussion at the largest gathering of humanities professors in the nation. But the sour economy and shrunken job market for academics proved to be more dramatic than any novel or play.

An estimated 8,500 professors and wannabe professors of English literature, composition and foreign languages gathered for the annual meeting this week of the Modern Language Assn., a convention that traditionally combines high-flying literary debate with a gargantuan employment fair. Job-seekers were disappointed that many colleges had reduced or canceled faculty hirings because of shrinking endowments and state funding cuts.

"It's definitely a tough year," said Rosemary G. Feal, the association's executive director. Faculty jobs in English language and literature listed for this year's meeting fell 22.2% from last year and foreign language positions dropped 19.6%, she said. Those were the steepest declines since the association started employment listings 34 years ago.

The projected openings -- 1,420 in English and 1,350 in foreign languages -- are not historic lows, she said. But deepening the uncertainty, an increasing share of English department jobs are for part-time or temporary positions that do not include the possibility of lifetime tenure, according to an association report released at the four-day convention, which ran through Tuesday at several downtown San Francisco hotels.

Feal's advice to young people with PhDs? "My immediate response to anyone looking for a job is bon courage, as we say in French, good courage," she said, adding that prospects may improve in a year or two.

The immediate outlook seemed a bit grim for recent doctoral graduates, including Katy Masuga, 33, who went to the convention without any concrete interviews scheduled. Some of the 40 positions she had applied for had since been canceled and she was scouring last-minute employment postings at a job center at the Fairmont San Francisco Hotel.

After earning a comparative literature doctorate last year at the University of Washington with a specialty in 20th century English, French and German writers, she is teaching there part-time and hoping for something more secure. "I have no clue what I'll be doing next year at all," she said.

Israel Sanz, who is finishing his doctorate at UC Berkeley in Spanish and linguistics, applied for 29 jobs before the convention and learned that five of those searches had been canceled and others had more than 200 applicants each. "This is something people this year are very aware of, that the economic situation is affecting universities, both public universities and private universities," he said.

Still, Sanz, 29, was able to land six interviews at the meeting and said he was "feeling optimistic because I've gotten positive feedback." Yet given the economic crisis, "you never know," he added.

With more than 800 seminars on such topics as "Psychoanalysis and Science Fiction," "Putting Feminism Back into Queer Studies" and "Ecosystemic Shakespeares," the MLA convention has been praised as a showcase of American intellectual life and ridiculed as a hotbed of political correctness and academic obscurities.

Yet behind that veneer, it also is a job market not much different from computer sales conventions, for instance, although more white wine may be consumed at the language association's social functions.

The tight job market has proved to be a boon for campuses that are hiring.

John Holland, the director of USC's writing program, said he was interviewing more candidates altogether and more highly qualified ones for the one or two openings he expects, even though those are for three-year renewable contracts, not for tenured spots.

"We are blown away by the quality of the people we are talking to," Holland said as he sat behind a table in a massive ballroom, where about 60 universities and colleges conducted interviews.

In a quieter meeting room, Alan Liu, chairman of UC Santa Barbara's English department, interviewed applicants for two openings, one in British romantic literature and the other in media history. He had received about 180 applications for each before the convention and had anticipated that he would talk to about a dozen for each, with finalists later invited to campus for more meetings, he said.

But Liu said he was very much aware that the state budget deficit could lead to UC cutbacks in hiring. "In that case, all bets are off," he said.

Liu urged young job-seekers not to give up and said he tries to impart the intellectual and social joys of being a professor. "What I say to them is you have to look at this in a comparative picture," he said.

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