by Tom McGeveran and Rebecca Traister
"The famous line about the M.L.A. is that you’ve never seen a convention where people drink so much and fuck so little," said Michael Bérubé, an English professor from Penn State University. Mr. Bérubé was on the revolving 49th floor of the Marriott Marquis Hotel at 11 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 29, hanging out with Governors State University professor and fellow Queens native Deborah Holdstein.
"The M.L.A. is about a different kind of performance anxiety," Ms. Holdstein said with a laugh.
Two days earlier, nearly 11,000 English literature and modern-language professors had descended on midtown Manhattan for the start of the Modern Language Association's annual conference, the place where intellectual superstars like Stanley Fish, Elaine Scarry and Kwame Anthony Appiah share hotel space with hundreds of desperate Ph.D.'s interviewing for a meager handful of jobs. The jittery orgy of power, insecurity and angst is the other academy's answer to the Cannes Film Festival, except that as these strivers fan across the city between standing-room-only panels, instead of Anita Ekberg emerging from a fountain, they strain to catch a glimpse of aging Harvard nymph Marjorie Garber emerging from Barneys.
The bacchanal of the bespectacled was back in New York for the first time in a decade, thrilling all those Ph.D.'s who had really planned to find jobs near the city, until the job market crashed and that tenure-track spot at Ball State started looking pretty appealing.
But this year, as the stratified masses of academic hot shots and wannabes
made their reservations at Esca (or Pasta La Vista) and scored tickets to La
Bohème (or The Lord of the Rings), even an alcohol-soaked weekend in
New York did nothing to calm the anxiety. It was palpable among more than just
the job-seekers. Tension over the future of the profession could be felt all the
way to the top of the pecking order, in the person of dashing M.L.A. president,
Harvard professor and well-known Shakespearean Stephen Greenblatt, who in May
sent "A Call to Action" to every M.L.A. member, asking them all to begin to face
a growing crisis in their industry: The academic presses that publish their
esoteric work are shrinking, even as the publish-or-perish system of academic
evaluation and promotion continues unabated, forcing lit professors to do some
As the lobbies of hotels like the Hilton, the Sheraton, the Parker Meridian and the Waldorf-Astoria were transformed into nerd villages, the streets of midtown were littered with women in bright prints and chunky jewelry, talking loudly about post-docs and Homi Bhabha. Clusters of young men pulled their ties tighter as they paced by the elevator banks at the Hilton, waiting for job interviews to begin, folding and unfolding portfolios they’d been rearranging for the last year.
For recent Ph.D.'s looking for positions in the fields of language and literature, the frantic surroundings of the M.L.A. convention offer the only dusty rays of hope. It's a bleak landscape for academic job-seekers in any field, but this year, a flyer in the conference press room trumpeted "the sharpest decline in Language and Literature jobs" since the 1992 recession. The total number of English-language jobs fell from last year’s 983 to 792. Only half of these are tenure-track. These jobs are all that are available for the 977 people who received English doctorates in 2000-2001, not to mention the hundreds of frustrated job-seekers from previous years, on top of those with so-so jobs who are looking to trade up.
"Please don’t talk to me," said a fragile-looking woman crowned in long, dark corkscrew curls who stood near the orange-lit ballroom known as the "job barn" in the Marriott Marquis Hotel, where she was about to be interviewed on Saturday afternoon -- presumably by one of the lesser-endowed schools that didn't spring for a hotel suite in which to conduct their interviewing sessions. "Go upstairs and talk to the people who are already drinking it away."
Already getting soused in the Hilton lobby bar were a group of three friends who had met in the Rutgers Ph.D. program. Julian Koslow, a 35-year-old Milton scholar, had just completed a job interview for a university he wouldn't name. "That's why I’m wedged into my suit," said Mr. Koslow, who was practically gulping his beer and said that he was looking forward to "getting drunk with the hedonistic masses."
One of Mr. Koslow's companions was Ryan Walsh, who has not yet completed his dissertation on Shakespeare's history plays and will not be on the job market until next year. Mr. Walsh, in a comfy sweater, surveyed the hundreds of potential colleagues chatting each other up in the bar and lobby. He was a little slack-jawed.
"I cannot imagine having to do this," said Mr. Walsh, who said that at least the attitude of the conference was "high-tension, high-release."
Their friend Tom Harris said that he'd dropped out of the Rutgers program to become a private investigator, a job which he characterized as "involving long periods of boredom punctuated by terror." Mr. Koslow, looking calmer now that most of his beer had disappeared and his tie was looser, agreed with The Observer that this description also applied to the academy, except "there's less terror, more despair."
Across the bar, two Columbia University A.B.D.'s ("All But Dissertation"), Penny Vlagopoulos and Stefanie Sobelle, were drinking, smoking and chatting with Maurice Lee, a UCLA Ph.D. who scored his current job at the University of Missouri during M.L.A. 2000.
Ms. Sobelle and Ms. Vlagopoulos, who were there to support friends who were giving papers or interviewing, had been to several panels already and found themselves bugged by the fakeness on display at the convention. "People aren't willing to admit it when they don’t know something," said Ms. Sobelle.
"You get the sense that everyone's in on some big secret that you're not a part of," said Ms. Vlagopoulos.
"Or that they're all playing a practical joke on you," added Ms.
In person, M.L.A. capo di tutti capi Stephen Greenblatt hardly seems well-cast in the part of the bringer of bad news. A solidly built man approaching 60, with salt-and-pepper hair, he still oozes the engaged, articulate charm that helped make him a Wunderkind scholar at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980's. In 1997, Mr. Greenblatt moved east with his second wife, Ramie Targoff, whom imaginative gossips claim is an heiress and a former Chanel model. Ms. Targoff teaches in the English department at Brandeis University and gave a paper called "Resurrecting Donne" at an M.L.A. session that she led, called "Remaking the Metaphysicals."
"My emphasis this year [as M.L.A. president] has been about M.L.A. and the larger world," said Mr. Greenblatt, his warm, crinkly eyes looking like they belong to a man who knows how to appreciate life's aesthetic pleasures. Sitting back in a chair in a conference room on Saturday morning at the Hilton, Mr. Greenblatt explained his position on the crisis in the field. "We should not be thinking about looking inward but about the ways that literature and the teaching of language are intellectually and culturally and socially part of the larger world."
To that end, he hosted a series of panels that featured some of his close friends and colleagues from other disciplines. One included historian Natalie Zemon Davis, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, anthropologist Clifford Geertz and philosopher Bernard Williams -- not one of them a member of an English department.
"We need to remind ourselves and gesture toward the fact that this is not an esoteric private club," said Mr. Greenblatt. "It's as big as the people riding on the subways with their noses in books, or at home watching television shows. Our culture is saturated with the making and consuming of stories."
But as Mr. Greenblatt tried to demonstrate the warm fuzzy openness of a field long written off for its remote, abstract self-absorption, fear still rumbled under the surface of the convention. Much of it stemmed from the fact that academic presses, the profession's organ for self-expression -- and for anointing the next generation -- are in serious danger. Funding cutbacks have taken their predictable toll. Inter-library loan systems now mean that libraries buy single copies of academic books, while professors routinely Xerox course pack materials rather than asking their students to buy expensive volumes. And after decades of steadily increasing expectations about scholarly productivity, there's a glut of books about the narrowest and most specialized of subjects -- books that might professionally appeal to only a small handful of an author's colleagues. Some presses are cutting their humanities lines, leaving fewer and fewer spots for which prospective scholars must compete.
"The day may have passed when a scholar can just sit down and say, ‘I think I'd like to write about this," said one senior professor with a number of books under her belt. "It used to be that if the work was good, you could just assume that it would get published."
Mr. Greenblatt, who served as a consultant for the movie Shakespeare in Love and who is considered the founder of the lit-crit school of thought known as New Historicism, is himself at the head of his generation's class when it comes to publishing:
He's the author of eight books, including Renaissance Self-Fashioning and Learning to Curse. Mr. Greenblatt has also co-edited The Norton Anthology of English Literature and The Norton Shakespeare.
The fact that the academic presses have been so good to Mr. Greenblatt made his May 28 call to arms even more bracing. The letter, which suggested a rethinking of the system by which departments evaluate young scholars for tenure and promotion based on how many books they have published, elicited hundreds of e-mail replies.
"The response was remarkable," said Mr. Greenblatt on Saturday morning, as he delicately began to explain what was wrong with the system of academic rewards that had catapulted him to celebrity status. "Universities have had the perfectly reasonable expectation that to get tenure -- which is after all a very big commitment and not to be taken lightly -- they want to see evidence of scholarly creativity and promise. An official way of showing that is to publish a scholarly book -- or two or three or 12."
Indeed, benchmarks for young scholars to publish in order to get tenure have increased over the years. "It used to be that you had to have one book," said Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist and friend of Mr. Greenblatt who was part of one of his panels. "Now the expectation is for two or three."
"The question is," said Mr. Greenblatt, "What happens if there's a shrinking
of the possibility of doing this? What happens to a person who has a Ph.D. who
is five or six years into an assistant professorship and wishes to publish
something and the press that would ordinarily publish something like this says
'I'm sorry we’re not doing that anymore' --’what is that person supposed to
There was no doubt at the conference that Mr. Greenblatt is onto an important question. It's just that no one can agree how things can possibly get better. One tenured associate professor at a major university explained that the dearth of publishing options is a problem even after someone gets tenure. In order to get a raise, promotion or a job at another institution, a scholar in the middle of his or her career has to publish a second or a third book. And, she said, with the rumors flying around the conference about presses closing their humanities divisions, or cutting down their lit-crit lists, the panic was high.
The result, she said, was a new power structure.
"The academic-press editors are gods," she said. "Everyone lines up to talk to them, to pitch them. You’ve got two minutes to pitch your book. And if they snub you, it's debilitating. [University of Chicago Press'] Alan Thomas, [Harvard University Press'] Lindsay Waters. These are the celebrities."
The modest, white-bearded Mr. Thomas was having none of that. "That's ridiculous," he said, when The Observer asked him about his "god-like" status. "What we do is serve the people who really matter, the scholars. And basically I think that we feel that we are all in this together."
William Germano, vice president and publishing director of Routledge Press, acknowledged the trouble in publishing but placed some of the blame for the current situation back on the academy. He said that academics had to stop writing books the way they wrote their dissertations -- and that maybe the dissertations themselves are not just too "specialized" for a wide audience, but just plain bad.
"Most dissertations are badly written," he said. "They could be written much better, they could be written with a clearer eye. They're based on proving that one has done homework rather than creating something that can be read."
Mr. Germano, who has just finished work on Marjorie Garber's latest and is currently editing books by Judith Butler and bell hooks, said that he "wanted the pleasure to come back."
"I think there is pleasure in reading intellectual stuff, but the page has to be on the side of the reader," Mr. Germano added.
A few booths down, a marketing associate at another press rolled her eyes. "Do you know how many people have left their dissertations here for someone to look at?" she said.
Over at the Stanford University Press table a few paces down, publishing director Alan Harvey was combating rumors that the press was eliminating its humanities lists. He said that they were only cutting back by about two books a year, and that they had fired two editors and let two editors leave without replacing them. The last thing to go, he said, would be the publishing program itself.
"There is an overall crisis in academic publishing and it's going to be nasty and hard to break," he said.
Mr. Thomas had just spent hours talking to writers in the massive exhibition hall where hundreds of academic publishers shilled their brew of lit-crit and cultural criticism to a voracious crowd. Standing before a book by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chicago's Mr. Thomas admitted that "editorially, the conference has gone well."
Mr. Thomas was more than eager to address the problems plaguing his business, and he admitted that the competition he once faced to sign celebrity academics has now been reversed -- the competition is actually to sign with him.
On Friday night, Mr. Thomas read a paper which, he said, had raised some eyebrows: He recommended changes in teaching habits -- like cutting back on course packs, and asking professors to convey to their students the importance of buying books for their personal libraries -- that would help.
"Academic publishing is the backbone of independent publishing," he said, his
voice conveying an earnest concern.
For every one of Mr. Thomas' ideas about personal libraries and course packs, there were 10 other propositions circulating at the convention about how to get out of the publishing crisis.
On Saturday night, Mr. Greenblatt hosted a 10:30 reception in the penthouse suite of the Hilton. It was a tweedy-swank affair, with a lot of name-tag-staring and furtive over-the-shoulder glances to see who else was in the room. Partygoers angled to get near Mr. Greenblatt, as his wife glided around the room in a fuzzy, off-the-shoulder, skin-tight lavender sheath dress with matching fingerless gloves. ("Literary theorists are often the snappiest dressers," as Ms. Holdstein commented the next night.)
Retired Princeton historian and famous leftie Natalie Zemon Davis, whom one conventioneer called "the haute couture Communist," was schmoozing in an adjoining room with Clifford Geertz. This was not her first M.L.A., she said, adding that she was mostly there because of her close personal and professional connections with Mr. Greenblatt.
She said that despite having labored in a different discipline, she was well aware of the challenges facing the M.L.A. "It's also been talked about in history. The problem, in all fields, is whether departments will take it seriously," Ms. Davis said, echoing the common fear amongst academics that it will take ages before a generation of scholars hazed by rigorous publishing demands will begin to shift its standards to ease the way for their younger colleagues.
When she was the president of the American Historical Association, Ms. Davis said, she advocated some radical ideas about other ways to produce a body of scholarly work.
"I think that for historians at least, making films -- and not just documentaries, but historical fiction -- could be a wonderfully creative way of thinking about history," said Ms. Davis, who herself co-wrote the screenplay for the 1983 French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre based on her book about 16th-century rural France.
Ms. Davis acknowledged that the collaborative nature of filmmaking could make it difficult for departments to evaluate the individual intellectual contribution of any one academic but, she said that the idea was worth exploring, as was the idea of working and publishing using other multimedia tools like CD-ROM’s.
"I’m retired," said Ms. Zemon Davis, whose short silver hair matched her tailored red and blue suit, "so I’m no longer on committees that make tenure decisions. But we need institutions to begin to take these chances. Maybe places like N.Y.U. or UCLA," both of which have strong film departments, "could be at the forefront of something like that."
"It’s going to take a while," said Ms. Davis about ways in which departments need to change their standards. "But they'd better start thinking about it," she added forcefully. "It's like the early days of printing," she said. "There were some scribes who were interested in new printing technologies, and others, theologians, who didn't pay it any attention. That was a big mistake," she said.
Descending from the party in the elevator, the University of Texas' well-regarded Mark Twain specialist Shelley Fisher Fishkin was practically beside herself about the publishing question. "It is a crisis!," she said, widening her mascaraed eyes. "We must think about what other things besides publication can make scholarship get recognized." Ms. Fisher Fishkin said that she tells her students to make a practice of taking their work to community groups, to make it more broadly accessible, and that she now tells them to write different kinds of dissertations than she did 10 years ago, with a view to what will be marketable, accessible, practical.
Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah also spoke of the necessity of writing for more generalized audiences in his Sunday morning panel, which he shared with Homi Bhabha and Amitav Ghosh.
One group that took a break from selling books in the exhibit hall applauded when Mr. Appiah, who writes for The New York Review of Books, among other publications, implored the crowd to write for broader audiences.
"Somebody had to say it," one marketing executive from a big academic press said, satisfied.
But Mr. Greenblatt wasn't so sure about what he called the publishing industry's "predictable smart-ass response" to the problem, which was the imperative, "write for a larger audience!"
"It would be great to sell a lot of books," said Mr. Greenblatt, "but you don't say to a physicist or a chemist, 'Write for a larger audience!' Any serious profession produces specialized work that is obviously not going to sell tens of thousands or hundreds or thousands, but a very small number of copies."
Yet some of Mr. Greenblatt's own propositions seemed hardly likely to produce earthshaking results. They included Internet publication, which he acknowledged "is not the magic bullet we’d like it to be," and giving stipends to graduate students to promote their acquisition of personal libraries and boost the book business. He was on potentially more revolutionary ground when he advocated placing an increased importance on the publication of articles in journals over full-length books.
But will anyone really do it? It's a switch in priorities that would have a profound effect on individual departments, which for years have been trusting the stamp of approval of other major institutions (Harvard University Press! Routledge!) to convince them that one of their own employees was worth keeping on. Instead, those same departments would have to make tenure decisions based more seriously on their own gut instincts about a candidate's talents, work-ethic, and (let us not forget) teaching habits.
It's easy, of course, for academic fat-cats like Ms. Davis, Ms. Fisher Fishkin, or Mr. Greenblatt, all of whom have curriculum vitae as long as their arms, to chat about alternatives to publishing books.
As Clifford Geertz said at Mr. Greenblatt's party, "It's been a long time
since I’ve been in any danger of perishing."
Back in the Hilton Bar, Maurice Lee continued to gossip with Ms. Sobelle and Ms. Vlagopoulos. His shaved head and hip glasses stood out in the dingy hotel bar. He had his own thoughts on whether standards for getting tenure will change, at least in time to help him.
"The M.L.A. can issue statements about shrinking publishing, and encourage tenure committees to change their standards," said Mr. Lee. "But as long as you have a large number of people competing for limited spots, how much is going to change?" He smiled grimly over his drink.
And as one slightly sweaty job candidate at the other side of the bar, who
did not wish to be identified, said about Mr. Greenblatt's "Call to Action,"
"It's not as though Harvard is going to start giving tenure to kids who
have fewer than two books.
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