Change the Culture of Studying English, Change the Culture of Hiring English Professors

Something’s rotten on the job market.

English professors have been hired for over a century based on their experience reading and writing, teaching and publishing. They’ve used this experience to inspire us with words and ideas. They’ve offered us examples of outstanding human beings; human beings so outstanding they’ve often sent us off impassioned to do the same things they do.

And then we try to do what they do. We go to graduate school, write the papers, teach the classes, publish the papers, write the grants, receive the grants, receive the fellowships, go to conferences, plan books, plan classes, participate in departmental politics, the list goes on. All of this in preparation for life as a tenured professor at the forefront of our fields. But something happens when we start applying for membership with the professoriate. More often than not, we don’t make the cut. But why not? We’ve done everything our predecessors did (perhaps even more), and yet we still. can’t. get. hired. So what’s the problem? Go ahead and say “the recession” again and join the rest of Shakespeare’s parrot-teachers, but I think there’s more to it than economics (or teaching parrots). There’s a way of studying English, a culture within our discipline, that dictates the way professors are hired. It is the historical periodization of literature, and it is almost, as Nietzsche would say, dead. The largest bureaucratic block stopping it from passing away peacefully is the traditional model by which universities hire professors based on their knowledge of a particular time period or movement in English literary history; knowledge which is demonstrated by teaching classes and publishing papers.

So what if we changed the culture of hiring professors and instead of hiring professors based on their qualifications for teaching and publishing, hired them based on their work experience at the school of hard knocks? And I’m not talking about prison – although academia seems increasingly like it might send us to prison, either from bankruptcy from all the debt it demands we take on, or from the intellectual insanity it asks us to go through in order to graduate – I’m talking about the real world job market. 

I think we should make it mandatory that professors have non-academic (read: non-teaching, non-publishing) work experience in order to receive a tenure-track position or even begin to teach or publish at the graduate level. Business Departments do it. Med Schools do it. My sense is that English Departments should do it too. But how? After all, what kind of valuable experience can someone who’s worked for 2-3 years as a university administrator, a copywriter, a creative consultant, or a social media manager teach us about reading and writing that a classically trained medievalist, Miltonist, romanticist, modernist, or postmodernist(ist?) cannot? 

The answer is quite a lot. These people are where literary theory meets literary practice. They are the English majors turned field researchers on the state of contemporary letters. They are the successful alumni whose contributions to university English departments (via reputation or cultural capital, as well as good old fashioned cash money) help keep roofs over professors’ classrooms. They are the university administrators, nonprofit leaders, small business owners, and publishing house printers who keep art and literature alive in the popular mind. So why not let them teach us how to use our English majors? There is soon to be a surplus of these alumni who wanted to be professors but couldn’t make the cut and found another career. Why not invite them back (or even just leave the door open for them to become visiting professors) to teach a class about using an English degree to create a new career outside of academia? This would give them an opportunity to fulfill a life dream, provide English departments the opportunity to adapt and evolve, as well as offer English students a new perspective on their post-grad job prospects. Win-win-win.

So what do I plan to do about this? I plan to host a Town Hall meeting for the Graduate Students in English at the University of Arkansas to raise issues about what we want from our professors, especially in relation to career advice. Are intellectual pats on the back and recommendation letters for publishing papers and teaching classes enough? Or do we want career advice from someone in another field where we can use our English degrees? 

My opinion? Pats on the back and rec-letters are supportive gestures, but they’re also part of a pervasive problem where English majors tend to think that words speak louder than actions. Perhaps it’s time that we try to learn the opposite. 


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