Academic Grumblings: on English Departments & William Deresiewicz in Quillette

William Deresiewicz has made a career out of his inability to land a decent job as an English professor. Many call this a “grift,” but he’s one of the few ex-academics I will read whenever he publishes a new article. I like him, even if now he’s writing in Quillette. The article is titled “Why I Left Academia (Since You’re Wondering).” “I didn’t have a choice,” he writes, honestly. “Thousands of people are driven out of the profession every year.”

Yes, Deresiewicz is a little whiny, but basically correct, about the state of the humanities: among the young professoriate, whole fields are beset by desperate careerism and a manic quest for the slimmest thread of relevance.

Sure, Deresiewicz is quick to blame “literary theory,” the conservative bête noire that has become a meaningless category, and he’s a tad out of touch with the discipline, insofar as it exists. The literary theory he read decades ago in grad school (at Columbia?) is no longer really in vogue. Literary works and literary theories in the humanities are always going in and out of “vogue,” and although this can create problems, it’s also inevitable. Trends and recycled trends have always spun through the profession, even back when literature departments were more conservative. And despite what he claims, I don’t think many English profs have written much about Buffy in over a decade—that was kind of an early 2000s things, if I recall—but Deresiewicz readily admits that he has been out of the game for a while. My impression from academic Twitter is that English departments are getting less political, less pop cultural, more focused on literature, and even more obsessed with professionalization, careerism, and narrow specialization than they were even ten years ago.

Today, a career in an English department requires an inexhaustible ability to hustle. The most successful professors accept positions at remote colleges (sometimes in departments other than English literature), teach hundreds of students a semester (some of these professors rarely get to teach a literature course), write hard scholarship in their spare time, maintain a constructive presence on academic Twitter, and publish thoughtful articles in online outlets like the LA Review of Books. The LA Review of Books reaches an academic audience but also a general audience, which is gratifying to young scholars today. This type of career is increasingly typical of (the decreasing number of) successful, young professors with stellar qualifications. And even then, prominent dinosaurs like Rita Felski still describe all these successful, mid-career professors as “para-academics” because they occasionally write for general audiences, because they aren’t teaching 1-1 loads at Ivy League or equivalent institutions, and because they don’t devote themselves entirely to hard scholarship.

In short, the field of English is full of a) extremely kind, helpful, passionate, and hard-working people who have devoted their lives to their students and to scholarship and writing, and b) the absolute worst people on the planet.

Despite the fact that he left academia, Deresiewicz enjoyed (and frankly continues to enjoy) wild success. He got a tenure-track job at Yale. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Tenure applications at Yale aren’t a formality, as they are at many mid-tier universities and even some top-tier universities. It’s just that, unlike “back in the day,” a stint and Yale no longer guarantees you a position at a good state school in rural Idaho. Nothing guarantees you any kind of academic job right now. If you didn’t specialize in college composition and if you don’t have years of experience working at a community college or a tech school, you’re unlikely to land a full-time teaching position anywhere.

Like Deresiewicz, I always hated the careerism in English departments much more than I hated the ideological battles, which I actually enjoyed. Deresiewicz writes:

…what disgusted me the most was not the intellectual corruption. It was the careerism. It was the sense that all of this—all the posturing, all the position-taking—was nothing more than a professional game. The goal was advancement, not truth. The worst mistake was to think for yourself. People said things that they obviously didn’t believe, or wouldn’t have believed if they had bothered to subject them to the test of their own experience—that language is incapable of making meaning, that the self is a construct—but that the climate forced them to avow. Students stuck their fingers in the air to see which way the theoretical winds were blowing, designing their dissertations to catch the swell of the latest trend. … People claimed to aim to change the world, to exert some influence outside of the academy, when it was perfectly clear that their highest ambition was tenure. One of the students I started with, among the smartest and most well-read in the class, was a strong feminist who really did want to change the world. She left after a year to go to law school, where she felt that she actually could.

This rings very true.

So if Deresiewicz is so happy to be done with academia, why is he still writing about it? Because academia, especially in fields like the humanities where your degrees cannot be leveraged on the private market, operates like a cult. This is a common claim, that academia is a cult, but it’s very true in my own experience. I can only compare it to my time as an Evangelical Christian. When you’re in it, it completely encompasses your entire existence, your entire value system, your entire perception of reality. Even when you decide to leave, you have years of therapy and deprogramming to look forward to. You can never really get the voice of the academic out of your head, telling you that you’ve failed, that you’re worthless.

The comments on Deresiewicz’s article are typical of Quillette comment sections, which are usually pigsties of navel-gazing fancy-boy weirdos who accuse others of being navel-gazing fancy-boy weirdos. One of the commenters, who I can only assume despises all those “they/them, xe/xem” pronouns, insists on referring to themselves in the royal “we/our”—you can’t make this stuff up. (Perhaps the fact that “Deresiewicz” is Jewish puts him at extra risk of nasty comments with the Quillette crowd.)

Given active Quillette readers’ well-documented obsession with biological hierarchy, the sorting power of the market, and individual responsibility for personal failure (as for their own personal failures, they tend to find ways to blame the “Marxists” who dominate every field of cultural power), Deresiewicz’s commenters are quick to accuse him of bitterness for his failure to achieve status within academia. Many commenters dismiss him for wanting to be a professor in the first place—why even join a profession infested by cultural Marxists?!—even though many of the commenters clearly desire for themselves the kind of culture cache that comes with the professoriate and feel bitter that they find such cache difficult to achieve. (Why else would anyone read Quillette?)

Other commenters dismiss Deresiewicz as lacking the requisite skills to find a good job in academia, for lacking the sheer Nietzschean will to succeed, despite his impressive credentials as a tenure-track professor at Yale and now a successful writer. This is the circular logic of the Jordan Peterson types: if you failed, you must be weak, as evidenced by the fact that you failed. He’s just bitter and resentful, these commenters say (resentfulness is, for some Quillette readers, a defining mark of cultural Marxists and of Jews), even though a) Deresiewicz admits that he’s a little bitter and b) he is clear that he now has his dream job. He gets to do exactly what he wants, which is what most English professors yearn to do. How is that failure?

Furthermore: why do failures not have something valuable to add to conversations about the institutions in which they failed? Don’t they possess insights that the successful people lack?

Nein, Quillette readers would rather just hear from the übermenschen.

One of the commenters advises that Deresiewicz should stop complaining and go teach at a private high school—if he can’t bring himself to do that, they imply, he obviously never cared about teaching in the first place. Did this commenter not read the article? Deresiewicz already has his dream job! Why would a happy published author with time to write give that up to teach high school?

I will say that the list of top-tier and mid-tier colleges to which Deresiewicz applied for tenure-track positions is pretty…short. Why didn’t he apply to openings at truly low-tier state schools in places like, say, the Dakotas, as my wife did? Why didn’t he apply to more than forty-five schools, as my fellow graduate school colleagues (those who got jobs) did?

Naturally, Deresiewicz could reply that expanding his application pool would probably have given him the same result: no job. And he’d be correct. The job market is that bad. You constantly hear stories of graduates who apply to 100+ jobs and get no interviews, or universities who receive 500+ applications for one position, or entire fields (e.g., Modernist literature or late Victorian literature) with only two or three openings on the entire North American continent in a given year. It’s really bad.

And I don’t say that with much regret or bitterness. The field has been dying since at least 1973, when the global economy determined that the GI Bill and the mass education of all college-aged Americans at taxpayer expense was no longer a luxury the United States could afford. Over the past ten years, that death process has accelerated; the discipline is now in hospice. That’s not bitterness on my part, that’s just reality. In a decade or so, I believe there will be no more English departments as we know them outside the most elite universities, who train only the most privileged students.

Am I resentful about being forced out of academia due to a) market realities and b) my own inability to keep up with the scholarship and workload it requires? Yes, a little. But on the whole, I’m massively happier now than I was in academia. Like, it’s crazy how much happier I am now. I get to read anything I want (and yeah, I still read tons of scholarship), I get to write whatever I want in whatever genre I want about whatever topic pleases me, and I get to teach a couple classes at a local community college whenever I get the chance to students whose lives will clearly benefit from the material I’m teaching and from the skills I’m helping them cultivate.

On the whole, I’m extremely optimistic about the future of the humanities. Serious study of art and literature will continue after the demise of the English department because it has survived for thousands of years. It will not go extinct, it will simply take a different form. And part of that form may involve universities. That’s entirely likely.

But right now, there’s absolutely no reason for anyone to get a PhD in the humanities, unless you are in very special circumstances. For instance, you might a) already have a secure university teaching job and b) you can secure full funding in a PhD program while c) keeping your current job. In that case, earning a PhD will d) ensure that you receive a decent raise at your current job and e) bring you great personal satisfaction. I know someone in this circumstance, and he’s the only person I’ve ever advised to pursue a PhD.

On the whole, however, the discipline of English literary studies is dead in the United States, which is one of the only nations where it ever existed. It was dead after 1973 when Nixon turned the dollar into a fully fiat global reserve currency. It was deader when Reaganomics gave cover to U.S. states to dismantle their world-class public university systems. It’s totally dead now that the lower-middle-class is opting for community colleges and tech schools because the cost of higher education is so wildly, immorally exorbitant. And it’s absolutely, beyond resuscitation dead after COVID accelerated the already-inevitable transformation of the American university. It’s done. Game over. I miss it, but only a little.

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