Students considering graduate school for the humanities may have cause to hesitate. The Modern Language Association (MLA) recently issued their 2009-2010 “Job Information List” with dismal results for available university faculty positions in English, foreign language and literature.
Comprised of the world’s largest membership of professors and students in language and literature, the MLA’s job forecasting saw a 37 percent decrease in the number of positions available for these humanities’ departments.
The decline marks the organization’s greatest decrease in the 35 years they have been releasing the list.
The effects of the MLA’s findings are present in UC Davis’ humanities division.
“In an average year we have been searching for between 10 and 20 faculty positions [for the humanities division],” said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of the division of humanities, arts and cultural studies at UC Davis. “This year we are searching for one.”
Professor and Chair of the UC Davis Department of French and Italian, Julia Simon, said the department has seen a decrease in faculty positions.
“In the short run, [less faculty] means more difficulty getting into smaller classes,” Simon said. “I hope it won’t mean that students have a difficult time completing requirements for the major, but it may.”
Simon said, upper-division courses, generally regarded as more intimate than larger lower-division classes, may have 30 or 40 students instead of the 25 they presently house. The possibility that first-year students may have a more difficult time signing up for language classes is another issue Simon said must now be contemplated.
With the economic crisis weighing heavily on universities, the humanities is one of the first divisions that falls prey to budget cuts said UC Santa Barbara English Professor Christopher Newfield in a 2009 MLA Profession Journal. Seen as less economically viable than their physical and social science counterparts, the humanities tend to receive much less financial assistance from outside sources such as grants and research awards.
“Unfortunately, many universities value the faculty in the social sciences and physical sciences more than they do the faculty in the humanities because of outside grant money,” Simon said. “Comparatively speaking there is very, very little money available to humanities faculty for research.”
Newfield spelled out the difference between research awards for the arts and humanities in a public university, approximately $1.5 million, compared with the natural sciences, close to $55.5 million.
Along with the diminished budget, the availability of tenure-track professorships has also taken a nosedive.
This lack of hiring puts a particular strain on students pursuing graduate degrees in literature and language. Alysia Garrison, a current Ph.D. candidate in English and associate instructor at UC Davis, is president of the MLA Graduate Student Caucus. The organization is allied with the MLA in order to represent the interests of graduate students in the modern languages.
“Getting a job interview at all in this market is a major coup,” Garrison said.
One of the reasons why, Garrison noted, is due to tenure-track positions being replaced by adjunct and graduate student labor.
“Things look bleak for recent literature Ph.D.s. Less than half of new Ph.D.s will find tenure-track jobs,” Garrison said. “This year’s job market was particularly dire; the worst in decades.”
The UC Davis humanities division encompasses 21 departments, which include all of the languages, arts, ethnic studies and women and gender studies. There are currently 221 faculty members.
Unlike many other disciplines that prepare students for a specific profession, majors in the humanities revolve around critical thinking, analysis and speculation. The lack of a specialized career path is a fundamental tenet behind the questioning of its practicality.
Nonetheless, Simon and Owens both maintain that the humanities are vital to other disciplines and to everyday life.
“How is someone going to be an effective physician without excellent communication skills, empathy and an understanding of what make us human,” Simon said.
Owens echoed Simon’s feelings. She conceded that some believe in times of economic distress the humanities must prove its value. However, Owens said that the impact of the humanities can be felt everywhere, from culture to history to the values of society to ethics.
“The humanities help us understand what it means to be human,” Owens said.
KELLEY REES can be reached at email@example.com.