I have an autobiographical relation to the poet scholar category. I wanted to be a poet. I went and got a PhD in English with the idea that even the TA line would be a sort of day job. At the time this being a poet and being a scholar felt not quite related. My first job was as a scholar. My second, and current, job is as a creative writer. Everyone told me for years I had to be one or the other. I continued to muddle on as both. There is nothing unique about this story, so I will present it as anecdotal example. I will in these notes just quickly attempt to enumerate the terrain which I think might explain how we have found ourselves at a panel on the poet scholar at the MLA in 2012. I will draw no conclusions from it.
When I was applying for that first job, I thought I was entering the job market in its decline. Casual or adjunct appointments were at around 30%. This felt catastrophic. The general thinking was that that there was no way it could get worse. Who would do the service?, it was often said by colleagues in the hallways, it would be unsustainable to go lower. But then adjunct labor was teaching 50% of the classes when I got this second job in 2003 as a poet, in what Mark Nowak calls the American neoliberal MFA industry. What I realize now that I couldn’t see then was that despite the massive casualization of academic labor, I was at the same time getting a job in what is looking like it might very well be an MFA bubble economy. When I got my first job in 1995, there were somewhere maybe around sixty-five MFA programs. In 2009 there were around 194. I got these numbers from Seth Abramson. And in his estimate the cohort groups for these programs average out to about 20. So in less than fifteen years, the US has gone from producing around 1300 to close to 4000 MFAs per year. Many of these MFA programs are clustered at tuition dependent universities (although some state universities have begun to see these programs as good ideas because they can educate that casual labor pool they so need to have around). But there are next to no employment prospects for these graduates, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem if not for how so many have funded their degrees through large amounts of student loans. This is why the MFA numbers look unsustainable.
Parallel to what is looking like an unsustainable MFA bubble, is what I might call the “possible creative writing-ization” of the English major. Again, numbers here are hard to find, so I’ll resort to anecdote. When I was an undergraduate way back in the 80s, colleges and universities tended to treat creative writing classes like candy, too many would make you sick and weak. The small liberal arts college that I attended taught two poetry workshops a year: a beginning and an advanced one. You had to apply to take them. 12 students were admitted. The rest, it was felt, did not deserve such a pleasure. Other schools, if they even had a creative writing major, tended to limit the creative writing majors. They had a gateway admissions process and only a certain number were allowed to be majors. Some schools, especially big state universities, still use this model. But in general, as the university system has begun to see students less as children whose candy intake should be regulated and more as consumers whose candy tuition money they want, they tend not to regulate but to provide. Anecdote again: the small liberal arts college where I now teach when I began teaching there used the limited class offerings model to regulate creative writing majors. Each semester there was a beginning and an advanced, waiting lists and demand be damned. At a certain point, the department begins to receive more and more pressure from the administration to enroll whatever would enroll however it would enroll. So the department began to offer more and more undergraduate workshops. Now the department’s unregulated undergraduate creative writing majors tend to double undergraduate English majors.
There are numerous reasons for this: the grades in creative writing classes are obviously higher; the reading is less; the writing has a lower word count; etc. But not all of them are necessarily negative or lazy assumptive. I’d like to think that students might also be looking at the five page seminar paper, the continued tendency to teach mainly the literatures of only two nations, and the strict century coverage model that begins in the early modern period, and think to themselves, well at least the novel, say, has the possibility of being read by someone outside of the classroom.
Beyond anecdote, there is a fairly obvious piece of evidence to support this “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments. Although the AWP started in 1967, it did not feel compelled to hold a conference until 2005. It started small, with 3000 attendees. Last year it had 11,000 attendees and it expects more this year. The MLA at its peak in the mid-1990s maxed out with around 12,000 people attending its conference. Last year it had around 7,000.
I doubt this “possible creative writing-ization” is in anyway a permanent change to English departments. And that is how it should be. However, it definitely has had a major impact on the hiring patterns of English departments and English departments will be changed by this for years to come. And while whatever happens next remains to be seen, I doubt it will look like a retreat to what English departments looked like in what we might now want to begin to call the glory days of the 1990s. The profession is obviously in the middle of a profound metamorphosis of some sort, from the fairly dramatic funding cuts that are privatizing the state university systems to the increasing evidence that the private system might have reached peak tuition a few years ago and might now be massively overpriced in relation to student ability and/or willingness to pay or borrow in a fairly stagnant employment market. And then English departments have their own narratives within these large scale changes. I’m not sure, in short, that the profession could pay its composition and intro class instructors so little if it were not for the current large numbers of MFA graduates. It is also worth remembering that when Bennington fired all its tenured line faculty, under the advice of John Barr—recently retired president of the Poetry Foundation, they justified this by saying that they wanted to hire working artists and writers rather than scholars. But that is another talk for another panel, the one on the role of creative writing programs in the privatization of education or the one on the role of MFA programs in the casualization of the labor of English departments.
That said, I don’t really have a profound conclusion here. Except, as much as it might be the time of the “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments, it might also be the time of the poet-scholar. And what it means to be a poet scholar feels one that is full of these issues. I’ve been a bit grumpy about it all. But one of the potentially productive things that could happen out of this “possible creative-writing-ization” of English departments is that this old standoff between creative writing and scholarship might dissolve. One thing that I’ve noticed where I now teach is that as the number of creative writing majors have grown, more and more students are writing a creative thesis that is basically a form of scholarship. In recent years, in addition to the usual retellings of Jane Austen novels, I’ve read an novelization of a queer subtext of Shakespeare’s Henry the 8th, a feminist reworking of a series of classic male performance art pieces, a detournment of a Hemingway short story with the genders reversed, etc. I am, in short, watching undergraduate students attempt to write what I might call “more interesting to me literary scholarship” and they are reading and thinking and arguing with the informed critiques and discussions of the field. Although I should admit that graduate students are still doing what they tend to do. They are still writing, with a few lovely and notable exceptions and god bless these, the mainly confessional, even when experimental, observations about their lives and their loves and sometimes the weather and the land and the suburban animals.