The distinct stench of decaying sense floated over the Hyatt Regency during the Modern Language Association annual convention in Chicago this year. For me, the smell was oddly reminiscent. I left a secure job as an English academic for the wilderness of writing more than ten years ago. Going back to academia was a bit like going back to the old hometown that has fallen on hard times: it’s mostly the same people, they’re just older. The town drunk’s still there. The local restaurant’s lousier than you remember. Of the friends who stayed, some have flourished, others look battered. But, of course, I don’t live there anymore so its problems aren’t really mine. And what problems. The MLA this year took, as its principal subject, the death of its own significance.
Any which way you care to look at them, the humanities in the United States are in radical, sharp decline. The number of history students is down about 45 per cent since 2007, the number of English students has halved since the late 1990s. The job market is uncoupled from the number of PhDs granted. One professor at the 134th MLA convention in January asked us to imagine an MA seminar with eight students in it. Of those eight, four will drop out, two will go on to complete PhDs and then find work outside academia, one will suffer as a short-contract academic worker, and the last will find work as a traditional tenured faculty member.