Saturday, October 4, 2014


The job market is bad again this year.

In other news, the Pope is Catholic.

There is a lot of justifiable anger and anguish about the state of affairs, but one line of complaint I don't understand. I first noticed it last year, and it is the one that rails against language and literature jobs that ask for teaching and research competency in more than one language. The most recent example of the genre is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Rebecca Schuman's:

She reads an ad that asks for "“Ph.D. in English required, with an emphasis in Medieval literature. Ability to teach German courses required (graduate coursework in German)." to mean that "So German is now such a dying discipline that they are willing to allow people with no degree in it whatsoever — who’ve taken a graduate reading course or a single German lit course taught in English — to teach it in college. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of people with degrees in German who can’t get hired to do a damn thing."

I read it differently. A scholar of English with interest in German is a totally different, and no less legitimate thing than a scholar of German only. You're going to get really different applicants and really different work, but it doesn't mean that they'll be half-assed or that they'll only have taken one class or that it'll have been in translation. This search committee isn't looking for a Germanist. And it's a little bit reactionary to condemn interdisciplinarity that way, saying that someone whose attention is divided across traditional disciplines won't do anything as well as someone whose attention isn't. In any case, it's a medieval job and modern university disciplinary boundaries have never really suited medieval work to begin with. 

Another ad is this one: “The Department of Modern Languages and Literatures seeks an energetic and engaged full-time Lecturer (non-tenure-track) to cover at least two–preferably three–of the following areas: Chinese Studies; Japanese Studies; Cultural, Art and Film Studies; German Studies; Korean; Italian; Arabic; Vietnamese; Translation Studies; Hispanic Media, and other related fields. This appointment may be renewed one or more additional years.”

Yeah. It is a weird ad, and clearly it means that they have no idea what they're looking for, but the idea of picking two or three things from that list? Not actually so strange in and of itself: Chinese and Japanese cinema? Art, film, and other media in the Hispanic world? Italian and German translation? There are a lot of sensible combinations to be made. Lots of work on medieval Sicily could fall under Italian and Arabic cultural studies. (I even have a colleague here at NYU whose work mainly utilizes what might seem like one of the harder or more distant pairings on this list, Arabic and Chinese, as he writes about Muslims in medieval China.) The fact that it's not a TT job and might not be renewable is a separate issue.  It seems to be short-sighted to say, in effect, "If you're not going to give me a proper job, I'm only going to work in one language." And now that Schuman's said it, it's starting to reverberate in conversations about the state of job market things.

But another example is from last year and was so strange that I still remember it and found it called to mind when I read Schuman's post. These two posts condemn, in outrageously strong and dehumanizing terms, a search committee with the audacity to try to hire a candidate who could teach both Russian and the obviously completely totally unrelated and alien language of German.

I'm not sure what it means to say that German and Russian aren't related to each other. They are both Indo-European languages, even if they don't belong to the same language families under that broader umbrella. But if linguistic proximity is the standard, then it would also be preposterous to advertise a job for someone who works in colonial Latin American literature and ask him to have Spanish and Quechua, or someone who works in medieval Spain and ask her to have Spanish and Arabic, or someone who works on modern Francophone North Africa and have the audacity to think that he should be competent in both Arabic and French, or a historian of translation with Greek and Arabic and Latin, or a student of the enlightenment with French and German, or any of a whole host of Ancient Near East folks with Akkadian and Sumerian, or an Islamicist with Arabic and Persian and Turkish (a bog-standard expectation for Islamic Studies jobs, by the way), or anybody working on Korean in anything other than total linguistic isolation. These are languages that are related to each other by virtue of their sociocultural and historical circumstances, and there is plenty of literature that reflects those circumstances. If you're doing your job right when you're working on any of those times or places, you are de facto working in multiple languages, whether comparatively or polysystemically.

Even if this German-Russian job at Bates were limited strictly to language teaching, that doesn't make it an impossible order nor should we assume that the person filling the post wouldn't have his or her own active research program (because most language lecturers these days are research active because there aren't enough TT jobs) in which those languages relate.

There is also plenty of scholarly, academic precedent for jobs that require multiple languages. For example, this position at Yale, which is a long-standing one (and had been a proper job for a very long time before it was downgraded to a lectureship sometime in the last decade) is in Semitics. The person who gets this job will end up teaching various Aramaic dialects, Ugaritic, and Hebrew. The ad says there's a preference for candidates who could also teach Ethiopic. That's a very traditional, oldest of the old-school kind of job, one in Semitic philology. (Don't tell, but they'll probably end up hiring somebody who turns out to have competency in Greek, too.)

It's not a question of hiring someone with a PhD in French who happens to be a native speaker of Arabic and so can randomly teach Arabic 101 even if it has nothing to do with her work. Nor is it a question of hiring somebody with a PhD in Spanish who has taken one course on Arabic literature in translation to sex up his CV. Or if it is a question of that, then that's actually a very different problem, one of terrible judgment.  Wanting scholars who work in multiple languages and multiple literary traditions (or a single tradition that is carried out, coherently, in diverse languages), per se, is not a problem. There is so very much wrong with the job market right now that inventing non-issues to complain about  seems to be a deflection or a need to prove that *everything* about the job market is wrong rather than just so very many things that it's badly broken. The job market is bad, the system is bad, even if one or two things here or there aren't totally, irredeemably lost.

There are nowhere near enough jobs now, and nowhere near enough tenured and tenure-track faculty to be able to sustain a broad-based, widely accessible system of higher education. However, I don't believe that hiring somebody who can work in Russian and German or Chinese and Korean is a symptom of that problem. Rather, it is an indication that scholarship is moving in an ever-more interdisciplinary direction and no longer being guided by twentieth-century nationalism as its organizing principle.  Literature and language jobs that expect expertise in more than one language are actually a good thing.

Edited 10/5/14, 3:24 pm, to addA colleague of mine shared this post on her Facebook page, and a long discussion ensued. With her permission, I am reproducing that conversation here below the jump...

...because it shows that there is honest and earnest disagreement between people who aren't busy styling themselves as something between Cassandra and Lear's fool, and because it raises a second issue, which is a sort of "secret menu" aspect to job ads. I had read (as you will see below that others did, too) the English/German ad to mean they were looking for an English medievalist with a secondary interest in medieval German, but apparently that may not be the case. I stand by the distinction that I made between multiple competencies and terrible administrative  judgment. Even if the German/English ad does turn out to be an example of the latter, it doesn't negate the value of the former. (Just as a technical note, I've scrubbed everybody's name because I had permission from the colleague who posted and hosted the discussion (and whom you'll see participating in it) but I'm happy to restore them as any of them sees fit.) Click on any section to enlarge to a readable size.

Please feel free to carry on the discussion below.

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