My tenure case was approved by the department and university in February, and the new contract officially began this month.

I feel fortunate, certainly. My colleagues are friendly and generous; my university is materially committed to the humanities; my students are bright and driven to do good in the world. In 2014, my current position was my only offer of employment, a continual reminder that it could have turned out otherwise. It is still turning out otherwise for many brilliant friends and acquaintances who have been seeking full-time academic jobs every year since then.

I feel responsible for helping to improve the conditions under which my colleagues labor and my students learn. I am part of a faculty group engaged in holding our university to its own commitment to social justice. This summer I began attending organizing meetings of the Boston chapter of March For Our Lives, a non-partisan group that opposes gun violence, racism, economic inequality, and education inequity. I have been learning a lot.

Andrew Goldstone said it best in a blog post directed at “faculty with tenure and a conscience”:

On July 1, my job security improved. I am now part of the ludicrously small proportion of the academic workface with tenure: 21% in the U.S. in 2015, according to this AAUP chart based on IPEDS data, as against 57% part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty (the other 22% are grad students and junior faculty on the tenure track). I first applied for full-time academic jobs in the fall of 2008—that glorious season! Though private and public university management used the financial crisis to justify the austerity they imposed, austerity did not end with the official end of the Great Recession, at least when it comes to hiring faculty into good jobs. The MLA’s most recent report on its Job Information list begins by remarking that four years of decline in both English and foreign-language job ads brings numbers to “another new low,” having sunk beneath the level of the “troughs” of earlier decades. “How’s the market this year?” the senior academics ask Ph.D.-job-seekers, as though they were asking about the weather. But as with the weather, short-term fluctuations do not disguise the menacing trend.

I have spent the entirety of my academic career so far watching the intensified hollowing-out of my profession. The destruction is not limited to those friends and grad-school colleagues whose “job hunt” turned up nothing—or turned up academic jobs which make the same demands as the tenure track without the same job security. The harm can be counted, too, in the numberless person-hours every academic I know has spent tailoring job application materials, drafting custom syllabuses, and performing all the other rituals of applicant abjection. If you care about the work scholars do, the atmosphere is demoralizing. It is, to be sure, worse in worse jobs: when I was a part-time adjunct, I found the isolation particularly depressing, and I liked my “individualized” health insurance plan even less. But even in a good job with outstanding colleagues and students all around, something eats away at the ordinary routines of my academic life: all the day-to-day work of simply doing the job (teaching the students, carrying on the research, going to the meetings, the meetings, the meetings) takes on more than a tinge of denial, something for the few of us who have good academic jobs to do while we wait for the last curtain to fall on professional scholarship. Nor is it encouraging to witness the parade of more active forms of denial: bad-faith solutions, illusory comforts, and intellectualized excuses for selfishness.

But mostly I regret the good work that could have been done by all of us in a better, more just system. It is hard to be optimistic about the possibility of bringing such a system into existence, but faculty with tenure and a conscience ought to put to good use the protections, such as they are, that they have from being sanctioned for openly addressing and seeking to change the conditions of the university. Change, and not defense alone, must be the aim. The latest headlines draw our attention to attacks on faculty coming from reactionary forces outside the university. Protecting our colleagues and our students from these attacks is an urgent task. But we should recognize that the very same corporatizing process that has eaten away at tenure has increased the vulnerability of faculty to political attacks, since those attacks work by pressuring an administrative class that has fewer and fewer common interests with the people who do the research and the teaching. Management protects the brand, not the faculty. Organized action by faculty and students is the best hope for guarding what is worthy in the university and remaking the rest in the name of the public good.

Tenure can hardly be said to confer any special perspective or (Cthulhu forbid) leadership role in such a movement for the public good. Discouragingly, experience suggests rather the opposite about the capacity of the tenured faculty for leading radical change. Still, I recognize a debt. What I owe to everyone else who should have been “coming up” at the same time as I did is this: pursuing the collective interest in more just academic institutions, even if this sometimes conflicts with the narrow interests of the ever-shrinking group who share my academic rank.

[Also see Andrew’s statistical accounting of the hollowing-out of literary studies, which makes the important point that the problem isn’t the quantity but the quality of academic jobs.]

formalism is historicism

I thought I’d write a bit about these two terms, since they come up often in the classroom and have become foundational to my research.

Formalism and historicism are labels for methodologies in literary studies. The labels, and the methods of reading they are supposed to indicate, have histories. Those histories, in some sense, add up to the history of the field itself. Formalism and historicism are usually thought of as mutually exclusive modes locked in a long-term inverse relation: an “Old” Historicism reigned in the late nineteenth century, followed by the valorization of the literary text as a self-contained object in the “New” Criticism of the early/mid twentieth century, followed by the revaluation of historical context in the “New” Historicism and various strands of cultural studies since the 1960s and 1970s. Lately, predictably, there is a “New” Formalism afoot.

I understand what the terms formalism and historicism are trying to mean on the level of shorthand, gestalt. Formalism refers to a critical method that seeks to understand literature as such. Historicism refers to a critical method that works toward the literary from other dimensions of human experience.

vase face

Yet upon reflection, these procedures are the same procedure, akin to shading in a figure vs. shading in all the space around it. For “historicism,” how can one work toward some object/category, the literary, without some prior understanding of its nature (even including the claim that it has no special nature)? And for “formalism,” in what terms can one understand literature apart from the terms given to human experience, which is historical experience? So formalism and historicism may arguably be describing opposite starting points for the act of literary interpretation, but they are not describing opposite end points. Excellent scholarship that takes up the mantle of formalism looks a lot like excellent scholarship that takes up the mantle of historicism. I’m not the first one to notice this (see further reading).

My research on English poetry looks at the history of literary form, a topic that makes no sense at all within the formalism/historicism dichotomy strictly considered.

If I might be permitted a speculative conclusion: What really seems to be at stake in the two terms is a symbolic political struggle. It’s a struggle between those who feel literary studies devotes too much energy to the category that organizes it, the literary, and those who feel literary studies devotes too much energy elsewhere, to the worlds of social power, politics, and identity. The struggle is political because these are urgent matters, which go directly to the value and ethics of humanistic study. That’s why versions of “historicism” and “formalism” keep see-sawing in disciplinary history, each a reaction to a perceived flaw in the last manifestation of the other. But the struggle is symbolic because in practice–the practice of scholarship, as I read it–form and history can only be defined in terms of one another.

further reading

Liu, Alan. “The Power of Formalism: The New Historicism.” ELH 56 (1989): 721-71.

Mann, Jill. “The Inescapability of Form.” In Readings in Medieval Textuality: Essays in Honour of A. C. Spearing, ed. Cristina Maria Cervone and D. Vance Smith (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2016), pp. 119-34.

Strier, Richard. “Afterword: How Formalism Became a Dirty Word, and Why We Can’t Do without It.” In Renaissance Literature and its Formal Engagements, ed. Mark David Rasmussen (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 207-15.