The Committee's Charge

What economic, political, and cultural forces have shaped so acute an academic crisis in the midst of a prosperous national economy? And with what strategies can the MLA counter the problem? In 1996, our committee was convened by the Executive Council with the charge of addressing these and related issues. Our eighteen members represent a range of professional positions, institutions, and interests. Some are from four-year liberal arts campuses, some from research universities, some from two-year community colleges; several are graduate students; several are part-timers; some teach foreign languages and literatures, some literature in English, some rhetoric and composition; a few are in temporary positions; others are or have been departmental administrators. Yet despite such differences, we have been united by shared unease about the future of our profession, about our own professional futures, and, indeed, about the future of higher education itself.

We met five times over the last two years, and our investigations, conducted jointly during (and individually between) meetings, focused on a number of distinct but related questions or clusters of questions, of which we summarize the most crucial below:

  • What are the distinguishing characteristics of the job crisis we confront now, in the 1990s? And how has this decade's job crisis affected and been affected by the more general "job system" in academia? In what ways, for example, should we relate the dismal prospects of new PhDs to the striking rise in part-time and temporary employment? How has the changing nature of the student population affected the courses we teach and the manner in which we staff them? How, too, has the current buyer's market in academia influenced tenure decisions at large and small institutions? And how has the market shaped staffing patterns in community colleges as well as four-year colleges and universities granting advanced degrees?
  • What are the differences or similarities between the job crisis that afflicts our discipline (and perhaps the humanities more generally) and the crisis as currently experienced in the sciences, law, and medicine? Similarly, what are the linkages between the current downturn of the academic employment market and the widespread "downsizing" that for some time has characterized the national (even international) job market? Should "our" problem (in the humanities) be contextualized historically as just one aspect of the global labor reorganizations described by such economists and sociologists as Stanley Aronowitz and Jeremy Rifkin, or is it rooted specifically in the demographics and economics of American higher education at the end of the twentieth century?
  • How, if at all, has the shrinkage in the job market reshaped graduate programs around the country, and, just as important, how should it reshape them? Ought some to be capped or closed? Ought others to be redefined as primarily MA programs? Ought most to offer training that would enhance their students' prospects for kinds of undergraduate teaching different from what is done by the students' graduate professors (at research institutions) as well as for careers outside the academy? If so, what kinds of teaching are most students likely to do after earning their degrees? And what are the nonacademic careers for which a PhD in the humanities might constitute appropriate training? More generally, what are the moral and ethical obligations that the poor market imposes on graduate departments in their role as employers (as well as teachers) of graduate student TAs?

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