Tomorrow I will step into a classroom to begin the last semester of a 24-year teaching career. Don’t get me wrong. I am not retiring. I am not “burned out.” The truth is rather more banal. Ohio State University will not be renewing my three-year contract when it expires in the spring. The problem is tenure: with another three-year contract, I would become eligible for tenure. In an era of tight budgets, there is neither money nor place for a 61-year-old white male professor who has never really fit in nor tried very hard to. (Leave aside my heterodox politics and hard-to-credit publication record.) My feelings are like glue that will not set. The pieces fall apart in my hands.
This essay is not a contribution to the I-Quit-Academe genre. (A more accurate title in my case would be Academe Quits Me.) Although I have become uncomfortably aware that I am out of step with the purposeful march of the 21st-century university (or maybe I just never adjusted to Ohio State), gladly would I have learned and gladly continued to teach for as long as my students would have had me. The decision, though, was not my students’ to make. And I’m not at all sure that a majority would have voted to keep me around, even if they had been polled. My salary may not be large (a rounding error above the median income for white families in the U.S.), but the university can offer part-time work to three desperate adjuncts for what it pays me. A lifetime of learning has never been cost-effective, and in today’s university—at least on the side of campus where the humanities are badly housed—no other criterion is thinkable.
My experience is a prelude to what will be happening, sooner rather than later, to many of my colleagues. Humanities course enrollments are down to seven percent of full-time student hours, but humanities professors make up forty-five percent of the faculty. The imbalance cannot last. PhD programs go on awarding PhD’s to young men and women who will never find an academic job at a living wage. (A nearby university—a university with a solid ranking from U.S. News and World Report—pays adjuncts $1,500 per course. Just to toe the poverty line a young professor with a husband and a child would have to teach thirteen courses a year.) If only as retribution for the decades-long exploitation of part-time adjuncts and graduate assistants, nine of every ten PhD programs in English should be closed down—immediately. Meanwhile, the senior faculty fiddles away its time teaching precious specialties.
Consider some of the undergraduate courses being offered in English this semester at the University of Minnesota:
To be fair, there are also four sections of Shakespeare being offered there this semester, although these are outnumbered by five sections of Literature of Public Life (whatever that is). Maybe I’m missing something, but this course list does not make me salivate to enroll at Minnesota the way that Addison Schacht salivates to enroll in classics at the University of Chicago in Sam Munson’s 2010 novel The November Criminals:
More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’seventies is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously any more, but nor does anyone ask the obvious followup. If English literature is not a common pursuit—not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title—then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After twenty-four years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge—plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context”—I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed. As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
I feel the loss, keenly, of my self-image. For twenty-four years I have been an English professor. Come the spring, what will I be? My colleagues will barely notice that I am gone, but what they have yet to grasp is that the rest of the university will barely notice when they too are gone, or at least severely reduced in numbers—within the decade, I’d say.