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Literature and language scholars feel the pinch

Academics holding their annual meeting in L.A. lament the effects of harsh economic times.

January 08, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times

As 8,000 literature and language professors and scholars gathered in Los Angeles for their annual convention this week, a lot of metaphors were tossed about to describe what many feel is the besieged state of their careers and classrooms during the recession.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn. of America, likened the job market for humanities faculty and students to a "low plateau" and said those in the field face crowded classrooms, program reductions and work furloughs at the nation's cash-strapped colleges and universities.

"The humanities are under greater pressure right now than they would be in economically better times," said Feal, whose organization began its four-day meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center and a nearby hotel on Thursday.

The problem, she said, may be partly the result of a misconception that English and foreign language studies do not prepare students for a range of careers. "Humanities are just as practical as any other majors," Feal said, especially during hard times when people need to be nimble about switching jobs.

The convention, the organization's 126th such meeting, combines a giant job fair for literature, linguistics, writing and foreign language professors with the chance to present academic papers and hear about the fields' latest research. It also allows, for example, professors of medieval Spanish and experts on the novels of Philip Roth to mingle and swap tales of difficult deans and publishing triumphs.

The gathering has sometimes been lampooned as a festival of the politically correct and arcane. This week's 821 seminars include such topics as "Ha, Ha Hungary: Humor in Hungarian Film and Literature," "From Victim to Heroine: Redefining Female Detective Fiction Across Cultures" and "Refiguring Romance: Idioms of Love and Death in Old Norse Literature."

But the economy's effect on college life was a recurrent theme in sessions under the common heading "The Academy in Hard Times." A mixture of pride and defensiveness about teaching was evident, along with anger about what many participants called unnecessary budget slashing, particularly at state colleges and universities.

At one session, UC Santa Barbara English professor Christopher Newfield presented a scenario he said could come to pass a decade from now. In his vision, college students, families and professors will become disgusted by continuing tuition increases, declines in state funding for higher education and what Newfield described as the subsidies undergraduate fees now provide to corporate-linked scientific research.

The antipathy could lead, he predicted, to an "unbundling of universities," resulting in smaller "bootleg" schools seceding from bigger institutions. Such schools, he said, could charge much lower tuition and specialize in undergraduate teaching and the humanities without the costs of big-ticket research and sports.

Newfield said he would prefer that big universities reform themselves and treat undergraduates more fairly. But if that does not happen, he called for a move away from centralization and back to "craft mastery and intellectual independence."

At a seminar called "Teaching American Literature in an Age of Scarcity," Stephanie Foote, an English professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, drew a connection between writer Henry James' glacially paced 1904 novel "The Golden Bowl" and the recession's effect on current college students.

Foote said that so many of her students take on jobs to pay tuition or to help their families that they have less time than earlier generations to read the longer works of the classic writers she teaches. In addition, the Internet and such short-form communication tools as Twitter have reduced students' attention span, she said. So Foote has substituted shorter books, such as James' "The Spoils of Poynton," which is about half the length of the 592-page "The Golden Bowl."

"They feel terrible when they can't do all the work," she said of her students. "This way, they can get a sense of how that [James] narrative works, but I know they can actually do it."

Throughout the convention, the weak job market was on many people's minds. Matching Feal's "low plateau" description, the organization reported that the number of faculty job openings in English and foreign languages across the country was about the same as last year after two years of the steepest declines in four decades. The 2,120 expected openings are nearly 40% below the numbers in 2007-08.

At the same time, the number of doctorates awarded in English is declining, a possible sign that graduate students are seeking careers in fields that offer greater job security.

The tough economy also is causing literature and other humanities departments to defend themselves against cutbacks on campuses around the nation, said Dartmouth College professor Donald Pease, who teaches American literature. But such classes should not be justified only with arguments about students' employability, he emphasized.

"If you don't begin with the assumption that literature itself is a repository of human values that human beings need, then we lose everything," he said.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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