Sojourns: On Recessions and Intellectual History: The Case of English

News stories sometimes provide strange anecdotes. One that has often been useful for me came from the flurry of coverage after the arrest of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in 1996. As everyone now knows, this odd duck was for a brief time a math professor at the University of California at Berkeley. One of the many articles recounting this fact (I forget which one, alas) included a sentence that went something like this. “After receiving his Ph.D from Harvard in 1967, Kaczynski took a position in the Math Department at the University of California at Berkeley, one of sixteen assistant professors hired in the department that fall.” The story then went on to describe his loneliness amidst the carnival of freaks on Telegraph Avenue, his descent into misanthropy and despair, and so on. But I could hardly make it that past that sentence, tripped up as I was over the sixteen assistant professors hired by the Math department in one year.

For those of you who don’t know much about these things (and why should you?), nowadays an academic department in a university the size of Berkeley hires on average three assistant professors over a five year period, give or take depending on the vicissitudes of budgets, retirements, and so on. Kaczynski’s hire came at the high water mark of the post-war expansion of the American university system, when the baby boomers were all going to college, the economy was doing well, and cold-war dollars poured into higher education. Things would soon change, irrevocably.

Enter the 1970s. Expansion gave way to constriction, the good times to recession. In English Departments (my little corner of the world), the jobs that had been abundant throughout the 1960s disappeared virtually over night. 1971 was a year like any other. 1972 saw effectively no jobs. If you were in graduate school at the time, your fate was decided by the dumb luck of when you defended your dissertation. Had you applied for jobs a year earlier, you might be an assistant professor at Brandeis. Now that the bottom had fallen out, you were lucky to get by as an adjunct. From what I gather, the same was true of other fields as well. Suddenly those dissertations written in a space of six months took six years to finish. Four-year stints in graduate school stretched to a decade. The culture of graduate school, with its attendant malaise and cynicism, was born into the world.

Here’s a little known fact about recessions and graduate school. When job offers plummet, applications for admission swell. Those same factors that constrict hiring at universities ripple across the entire economy. And what is a bright college graduate to do when faced with few prospects? Why go to graduate school of course! The result is somewhat curious. In the midst of job crisis and despair, the number and quality of those wanting to go to graduate school rises. So here’s how things stacked up in English in the 1970s: fewer PhDs were getting jobs, brighter and more interesting BAs were entering graduate programs. No longer a brief period of apprenticeship, graduate school became a place of intellectual ferment. From this ground sprang post-structuralism, literary theory, and the sense that literary study was really beginning to change.

My point in revisiting this history is not to have anything to say about the intellectual content or value of seventies-era literary theory. Nothing could be more boring at this point in time. Rather, I want to point to the interesting convergence of economic recession and intellectual change, especially since we seem to be heading to a recession just now. My argument is simple: more applicants to graduate school + fewer jobs for PhDs = intellectual change. The advantage of this argument is that it is impersonal and structural and thus does not rely on the charismatic influence of great minds. Were Derrida or DeMan not around, in other words, someone else would have fit the bill. The disadvantage is that the equals sign does a lot of heavy lifting. Oh well.

The second great job crisis hit the academy during the recession of the early nineties. I was around for this one. I entered graduate school in 1989. The NY Times ran a story that same year about how a slew of academic retirements were about to produce a boom in jobs. That never happened. By the early nineties, job-crisis talk was all over the place and had produced a small industry of whining and hand-wringing (often by those folks who lucked out in the 60s). To this recession, we may credit the arrival of cultural-studies and historicism. The former was almost dead on arrival but the latter is still the dominant paradigm of literary study.

We are too close to the culture of nineties-era literary study to have much to say about it in comparison to what’s going on now. Without waxing nostalgic, however, I think we can credit something at least provisionally to the combination of more applications from BAs and fewer jobs for PhDs. What I can say for sure is that the job market in English has on balance gotten better over the past decade while applications to grad school have gone down. What this moment will look like to the eyes of the future is of course anyone’s guess. If my argument is true, however, it would be of equal interest to ask what a coming recession might bring.