Friday, May 17, 2019

A Few Scattered Reflections at Mid-Career

Full Professor...

I just got word that the Board of Trustees approved my promotion: I am to be a Professor of English. Not Assistant, not Associate any longer: Full Professor.

Woohoo... but this post is not exactly a victory lap. Humanities fields are at a crossroads right now, and there are some serious issues to contend with. Some of what follows are some things that have been on my mind this year as I've been considering what comes next for us all as humanists.

To begin with, what does "Full Professor" mean? Friends and family have been asking me this over the past year or so since I submitted my file. (I am the only academic in my extended family -- and actually, the first and only Ph.D.)  In the short run, all it means is that I don’t have to submit any more files listing all my activities for review by the university. Over the years, I put together three pre-tenure reappointment review files, two tenure review files (long story), two post-tenure triennial review files, and a full professor promotion file. Both the tenure review files and the full promotion files were also sent out to anonymous readers at other institutions who had to write letters. Every senior member in my department also had to write letters of support on my behalf; my chair had to write letters of support; the tenure and promotion committee did its own evaluations. At this point -- finally -- there are no more files to do, and no more evaluative letters have to be written on my behalf. I've apparently been evaluated enough!

In the long term, being full professor means you’re eligible for certain leadership roles in the department and in the university as a whole. It also means you’re a full citizen of the university and pretty much committed to the institution.

“Committed to the institution” should not be a shock, since I’ve now been on the faculty at Lehigh University for seventeen years! I am of course deeply grateful to everyone who helped me along the way. (For some particular names, see the acknowledgments page of my Mira Nair book. It could as well be an acknowledgments page for the past few years as a whole.)

I am lucky… I survived. 

I know how very lucky I am. I came out of a prestigious Ph.D. program and had a good amount of momentum going into the job market. I was also lucky to be doing it in a time of relative plenty in terms of job availability. I do not know how someone with my unwieldy dissertation project would fare if I had to do it again today. And the department where I landed has been flexible and supportive -- I didn’t really realize the extent of that support until I went up for tenure.

Admittedly, I have some war stories (I think we all do). Some of them I wrote about earlier, and I won’t rehash them here. My job is now pretty secure. But what about our graduate students, who face an academic job market that has been consistently shrinking? What about subsequent generations? Even as I celebrate getting this far, it’s hard not to think that the road ahead is troubled.



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Where Did All The English Majors Go?

One of the most dramatic shifts we’ve all been grappling with has been the nationwide decline of Humanities majors – History, English, Philosophy, Modern Languages, and Religion have all seen steep declines in the numbers of undergraduates signing up all around the country.

In my own department as we've seen the number of majors drop pretty dramatically, we’ve started to become much more serious in thinking about the value of the English major to our students – in terms of developing critical thinking and analytical skills, in terms of teaching students how to communicate clearly and well – in written texts and orally. And we’ve started following much more attentively where they go after they graduate. We’re also starting to rethink our major requirements, though it's unclear whether that will make much of a difference.

Part of the change comes from a general cultural shift away from the idea of a liberal arts education. Students increasingly come to college looking for credentials that will lead to straightforward career access. That’s why the Economics major has become the largest major at most schools, and why so many Arts & Sciences students at Lehigh transfer into the Business College, or try to. Admittedly, skyrocketing tuition and the fact that many of our students are going into debt to be at college are real factors in this turn towards “practical” majors. But those factors are only part of the problem; another very real shift is in decline of the idea that college is designed to provide a broad, liberal arts education. To try and address that, I designed a freshman seminar called “What Am I Doing Here? The Value of a Liberal Arts Education,” which I’ve now taught three times. The point of that course is to try and get in students’ heads that their time at university can be a special opportunity to think about learning in broad terms – specialization can wait.

Specifically with respect to literary studies, there’s no getting around what amounts to another huge cultural shift: to my eye, it seems like most young people today don’t see the same value specifically in literary history and the culture of books they once did. After generations of culture wars hand-wringing (going back to the 1980s), it seems that the cultural cachet of having read Chaucer or Milton that was still present in the culture I grew up in is actually starting to fade. We can talk about critical skills and writing, and sell our students on their job prospects if they graduate with an English major (and as I say, the job prospects are pretty good). But we are not – yet! – a Department of Critical Thinking and Writing.

For me, the decline in enrollments started to hit home six or seven years ago, when courses I had earlier taught to full rooms – survey courses we think of as the gateway to the major (“British Literature 1800 to the Present”) started coming up close to empty. Meanwhile, colleagues teaching classes in African American literature or the Medical Humanities continued to have wait-lists.

After I had a couple of my classes get cancelled due to low enrollments around 2015-2016, I went through a period where I felt deep anxiety in what I had previously thought was a strength – coming up with courses on interesting topics that would draw students. That’s been alleviated a little in the past couple of years, as courses I’ve taught on topics like “Global Literature and Film” and this spring’s “New Brown America: Race and Immigration in the 21st Century” both had decent enrollments. But what will happen the next time it's my turn to teach a conventional survey course? The anxiety monster will be back. Better get used to it? (I'd rather not. What can we be doing differently?)

Going forward, every English department will eventually have to reckon with the cultural shift I’m talking about. One of the reasons the academic job market in humanities fields has been so bad is that Deans and Provosts have been looking at the steep declines in enrollments and majors and starting to pull back on resources and hiring slots. Add it up, and it’s a decade or more of very talented young scholars not getting the kinds of academic jobs they should have gotten. In my own circle, this started with the shock of seeing incredibly gifted writers and thinkers like Scott Eric Kaufman (RIP) and Aaron Bady (still very much with us!) dropping out of academia a few years ago. But since then, the annals of Quit Lit have just continued to grow and grow.

Humanities departments are shrinking and may shrink further. It’s not ‘extinction’ exactly, but the situation does force us to consider where we are and argue for our value to the institution. I do think our skills will always be in demand in some capacity – even if students aren’t interested in literature qua literature, they will always need help -- lots of it! -- to learn how to write. They also do seem quite interested in taking courses that deal with the issues of the day – race, gender/sexuality, popular culture, social justice – even if that doesn’t always translate to a good quantity of committed majors.

To survive, English departments might need to rethink the centrality of the literary canon and literary historical periods in favor of thematic interdisciplinary focal points: race studies; gender and sexuality; social justice; environmental humanities; health/wellness/disability; and popular culture are a few areas that come to mind. We’ll probably also need to privilege and prioritize the teaching of writing much more than we currently do. (My own department, with its focus on “Literature and Social Justice” and its vibrant writing program is actually well-positioned to make this transition – though we have a ways to go to actually redefine what we do to draw in new majors.)

To be clear, I’m not saying we stop teaching Chaucer or cater exclusively to what we think students are interested in talking about (i.e., Game of Thrones). Rather, we have to be much more attentive to the ‘why’ of canonical literature – we can’t assume the students will want to put in the time to understand difficult historical works because they’re interested in the cultural capital that comes with that anymore. But there are other good reasons to approach those materials. Some might be linked to what we understand as their connection to present-day social issues. But I’ve also been struck, in online conversations about popular narratives like Game of Thrones and the Avengers movies over the past few weeks, how serious lay readers (or more precisely, viewers) are about things like narrative closure and character development. Millions of people, who may or may not have taken many English classes in college, have very strong views about whether or not the show adequately prepared us for Daenerys Targaryen’s genocidal rage in the penultimate episode. And people have very strong feelings about what constitutes a 'good ending' to a series they've been watching for close to a decade... Game of Thrones is a highly problematic text of course, but couldn’t we make the case that we might want to study questions of narrative form and closure and character psychology in texts like King Lear or To the Lighthouse because they might give us tools for understanding what we find disconcerting in materials that are more popular and contemporary?

Where will we be ten, twenty years from now? Who knows? Anyone want to form a committee with me to make some plans about the Future of the Humanities? 

Oh, speaking of committees…

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Committee Work

Somewhere along the line, I started to like work that gets called “administration” more than I did earlier in my career. At some point, especially in a smaller department, you realize that the thing that you think of as “somebody else’s job” actually isn’t. (And yes, I also came to realize some years ago that a disproportionate share of the work I once didn’t think was important ended up being done by women colleagues … Not cool.)

A lot of this is on my mind because, alongside the promotion, I am also taking on a new responsibility as the Director of Graduate Studies in the English department later this summer. It’s going to be a challenge following the footsteps of Jenna Lay, who has worked very hard to keep our graduate program moving in the right direction. Jenna has been particularly key in helping the department rethink how we approach career outcomes for our Ph.D. and M.A. students. As a result of some thoughtful policies and planning, we now have considerably fewer Ph.D. graduates going into adjunct work than we did at the height of the recession, and more students with various forms of full time work, including administrative and hybrid (admin + teaching) positions. Considering just how awful the academic job market in English has been since 2008, we’ve done pretty well in recent years placing our students in full-time positions (of all kinds). We’ve also done pretty well placing M.A. students in Ph.D. programs elsewhere; we probably have more work to do to ensure that our M.A. students heading for careers outside of academia get good career advice.

We are the grown-ups now. Students depend on us for smart mentorship, for reliable advice, and for a certain amount of emotional support and comradeship. Part of my sense of coming to enjoy my service work entails embracing all of these roles -- and coming to see them as my job.

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‘What are you working on these days?’ The Mid-Career Research Redirect

I envy colleagues who have picked out a particular lane and stuck to it, becoming experts in a particular range of authors or texts as they approach mid-career. I’ve been more all over the map. My digital humanities work and my book on Mira Nair both do come out of my ongoing interest in postcolonial studies and migration/immigration. But the mid-career redirect has meant that even at this point I’m not always quite comfortable in my own disciplinary shoes. Maybe that’s a good thing?

Part of the problem is the fact that postcolonial studies itself has been a difficult field to be in. We lack a strong professional organization or an annual conference in the U.S., so it’s tough to develop a strong sense of intellectual community the way colleagues who are in more established periods can at period-oriented conferences. I try and keep up with some significant books that seem to be making a major intervention, but on the whole it’s been hard to measure the health of “postcolonial studies.” Has postcolonial studies finally and definitively been displaced by “globality” studies? Are we all supposed to say “decolonial” now instead of “postcolonial”? Where are we exactly?

Many of the people I’ve known since early in my career – people who have been prominent in the field but not quite international superstars – have come to feel alienated by what they perceive as postcolonial studies’ neglect in favor of shinier new toys (like... the Digital Humanities). Postcolonialists who are doing well tend to be the ones who exploring new sub-fields or interdisciplinary fields (postcolonial ecocriticism; postcolonial digital humanities). My own interests and background have taken me much more into thinking about migration and diaspora (hence the Mira Nair book – more on that below).

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Modernist Studies is Fun. But what the heck is Modernism?

I also identify as a modernist. This space feels healthier, at least on the surface, in the sense that the Modernist Studies Association is a pretty vibrant conference that I can usually get to (especially if it’s being held in an accessible city in the US). I’ve gone to the MSA pretty regularly over the past decade. Alongside people who are roughly my peers, I’ve enjoyed getting to know scholars in the next generation through the conference (it also helps that many of them are active on Twitter). But Modernist studies has had pretty serious definition problems that remain unresolved. Over the past twenty years or so, modernism has expanded geographically and chronologically, and come to be more inclusive of a broad array of writing and creative work not traditionally understood as ‘modernist’ (genre materials; realist fiction written during modernism; ‘late modernism’; non-European writing that doesn’t neatly fit European periodization…). Given how broad the field has become, it’s not always entirely clear why we still privilege the ‘m word’ when what we increasingly really mean is something more like “Global Literature, Art, and Visual Media 1890-1960.”


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‘You Wrote a Book About a Filmmaker? I Didn’t Know You Did Film’

My first response to the quandaries I was encountering was to go a bit sideways. So about ten years ago, I started writing a book about the filmmaker Mira Nair. My starting point, initially, was a sense that Nair was the best of the Indian diasporic filmmakers -- and someone who’d made several groundbreaking films I loved, including Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, and Mississippi Masala. The first draft of the book was flawed in lots of ways, but particularly glaring was the fact that I was reading Nair’s films as essentially works of postcolonial literature -- it was all focused on dialogue, plot, and historical sources. As I got some harsh readers’ reports from the first press I sent the book to, I realized I had to spend some time learning how to do visual analysis -- on reading the films as films. I also needed an actual thesis. That took time (think: years), but I finally did some major rewriting and came up with what I think is a much better product.

Eventually (it took me more than five years to get to this point!) I realized that there were two themes I was seeing as central to Nair’s filmmaking career, one being her interest in documentary realism (even in fiction films), and the other being her exploration of South Asian diasporic narratives. I took these two parallel themes and married them together -- Nair’s cinema vérité (documentary realism) and her diasporic investments came together as “diaspora vérité.”

I’m proud of the final outcome, and grateful to the University Press of Mississippi for publishing it. (Special thanks to my editor at the press, Vijay Shah. And to the anonymous readers, you know who you are. I owe you.)

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The Digital Turn

Another mid-career shift has entailed diving into Digital Humanities scholarship and the DH intellectual community. It’s helped a great deal that this is largely a new community, lacking the deep sense of ‘tradition’ that keeps fields like modernist studies anchored in place. There are of course DH journals and various fiefdoms in the field; there are stars whose globetrotting and publishing accomplishments would make David Lodge’s Morris Zapp jealous (I am not one of them).  There are, in short, problems in DH. But on the whole it feels like easier going to step into a conversation that's still relatively fresh than to make a new intervention on, say, the concept of the subaltern.

One of the oddities of entering DH as a noob is that in some ways I am not so new. I started blogging in 2004 -- a time when many of my colleagues didn’t actually know what a “blog” was or why anyone would do that seriously. Not many people were posting about postcolonial literature at the time, so things I wrote about Edward Said’s approach to Orientalism and Homi Bhabha’s concept of Hybridity found a lot of readers, many of them in classrooms (people are still regularly accessing those pages more than a decade later).

So I’ve been digital for a long time, but only directly connected to the “digital humanities” for about three years. If you have a minute, check out the three significant digital projects I’ve been working on, The Kiplings and India, Claude McKay’s Early Poetry, and Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance. (I also have a digital edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane I put together in January.)

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Thanks, everyone. As my Twitter friend Ian P. might say, "Time to relax with some laundry."

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