How Has the Erosion of Tenure Affected Literary Scholarship?

Last fall the AAUP published data revealing that, as of 2016, 73% of instructional positions in higher education were off the tenure track. Even at R1 institutions, only 22% of faculty were tenured, with an additional 8% on the tenure track. Furthermore, the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty has dwindled over time as universities have turned increasingly to part-time labor.

Most literary scholars are well aware of the adjunctification of the professoriate. But how does it shape the literary scholarship and criticism that we write?

The most obvious point regards quantity. According to a “publish-or-perish” market ideology, the best strategy for untenured scholars seeking tenured positions is to secure as many reputable publications as possible. Anyone with an interest in “keeping up” with their field knows that there’s no shortage of new scholarship!

But this leads to a more interesting question: What happens when the great majority of published scholarship is written by untenured scholars?

This has long been a well-known problem for academic journal editors. Once scholars get tenure—and especially if they attain the status of full professor—they have little professional obligation or even incentive to submit their work through the often-unpleasant process of anonymous reader reports. Untenured scholars, meanwhile, and especially those on the job market, aggressively submit to journals because the blind peer-review process is especially valued by hiring committees. The scholarly “article,” therefore, is a genre dominated by writers without the kind of comprehensive field knowledge that comes with decades of research experience.

Due to the ever-increasing numbers of untenured scholars striving to publish journal articles, the competition to find a home for one’s work in a top-tier venue is severe. This means that a “modest” contribution to knowledge in one’s field—e.g. a clever close reading of a lesser-known poem or short story—is unlikely to appeal to editors. The “stakes” of one’s argument are expected to be high. Compelling articles nowadays offer revolutionary challenges to established fields and introduce new conceptual terms applicable to scholars across fields and disciplines.

The proliferation of articles by junior scholars claiming to revolutionize or reconceptualize the profession isn’t really a problem. Far more worrisome is the suggestion that decades of study—the digestion of literally thousands of books—bears little “market value” in the arena of scholarly publication. To what extent should the production of good scholarship require dozens of years of devoted reading?

Without rigorously connecting all the dots, I might simply point to two scholarly trends that have risen alongside the growth of the untenured professoriate.

The first is New Historicism, particularly the aspect of it that celebrates the revelations afforded from a very specifically cultivated cultural-archival context (e.g. what farm equipment manuals from the 1880s can show us about regionalist fiction)—bold and arresting conclusions, in other words, that can be drawn from temporally manageable research inquiries. This approach is of course very different from the less manageable “Old Historicist” approach that privileged an authorial context: If you want to write an article on Nathaniel Hawthorne, you begin by reading all of Hawthorne’s writings and all extant scholarship on Hawthorne.

The second (and more recent) trend is Computational Literary Studies. As Nan Da’s recent takedown makes clear, the promotion of a computer program that can swiftly “analyze” a corpus of a thousand novels should be balanced against the fact that an English professor reading two novels per week could get through a thousand novels in a decade—more slowly than a computer, certainly, but the point is that a tenured professor can peruse a remarkable quantity of literature during his or her career.

So in other words, the percentage of scholarship by tenured professors doesn’t just determine the level of “academic freedom” that can be applied to critical arguments. It also determines the kinds of research that seem reasonable—or even possible—for scholarly work.

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