English studies: a mid-life review*

  • I wrote this piece for an excellent new journal launched last month by Exeter’s graduate students, Exclamation – working on the presumption that 25 years of employment in English departments gives one the right to reflect and pontificate. ‘Mid-life’ , by the way, refers to my life, not that of the discipline, and frankly it’s a little optimistic.

The contributors to this inaugural volume of Exclamation are at the beginning of their careers. For me, it’s now 25 years since I was given the key to an office at the University of Sydney, and a list of nine classes (of the same module) to teach each week of the year. I think I was given a computer, though that wasn’t standard; I can date myself by having worked in newspapers when computers consigned linotype to history, and in universities when email made handwritten memos an oddity.

So this seems like a reasonable time and place to ask two questions. Firstly, what’s changed in the discipline of English, for those of us teaching it? And secondly, what comes next?

 

English really mattered in the 1980s and 1990s. Politics and post-structuralism were blowing open the canon. It was never entirely clear whether someone at Cornell really was ‘teaching the phone-book’, but I swear that made the newspapers. And there was a genuine political force behind the motivation to put women and non-white authors onto courses, and question the politics of literary representations. Lit crit changed lives; or we thought it did.

These movements also changed departments. Australia had always been more susceptible to new ideas about the discipline; many of my colleagues at Sydney were veterans of one arguably the most bitter departmental splits anywhere in the world on Leavisite grounds. And in Australia since the 1980s traditional canon-based English curricula have been eroded. Gender studies, film studies, postcolonial studies, theory, creative writing, indigenous studies, and so forth, have transformed the shape of the discipline in that country. Personally I don’t see this as right or wrong, and I appreciate the powerful cultural reasons for it in a country I love. But it’s an interesting case-study in the nature of our discipline, and of how quickly things can change.

In the United Kingdom, change has been more incremental. I see that as partly a result of the more central cultural position of the basic idea of ‘English studies’, partly a result of the power of the enduring disciplinary brand within an A-Level system that is wary of change, and partly a result of a coordinated national curation of disciplines via the QAA’s benchmark statements. The English Benchmark Statement, in its recently-revised form, is a sensitive yet essentially conservative document, informing the way English is perceived and taught from schools through to universities.

But a high degree of stability in the classroom has been coupled with radical transformations in the shapes of academic careers. The RAE has been an extraordinary agent of dynamism: manufacturing lifetimes of anxiety on the one hand, but with the promise of swifter career progression on the other hand. A culture of external grants has changed the way we do research, increasing its pace, levels of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. In teaching, we’re perhaps performing the same functions but in different ways. In particular, forms of assessment have diversified, while technology is transforming how students access information, and maybe even how we all think.

 

So where to in the next 25 years? Based on nothing particularly scientific by way of evidence, here are some predictions. With a bit of luck I’ll be around to see how successful I am.

  • Let’s start with the negative. I fear that some of the core values of our discipline are under pressure. What has always typified English for me is a commitment to close, independent critical engagement with texts. What worries me is that students seem increasingly less prepared, in general, to commit themselves to this activity. Maybe this is caused by the way they’re so ferociously prepped for A-Levels, maybe it’s a product of the discipline’s stretching; or maybe this is simply the perception of someone growing old and grumpy without noticing. But if we lose these core values and practices, what’s left to give us coherence?
  • I expect we will all need to become more pragmatic and employability-focused about what an English degree might involve. Internship-based modules are becoming common, and rightly so. At Exeter we’re not alone in having introduced modules that directly face the creative industries and digital humanities. Of course changes along these lines may, through unintended consequences, place still more pressure on those core values (above), but I think this is where we’re heading.
  • Student numbers in English are currently in slight decline. I think it will remain a robust discipline, but that’s not to say that the decline will quickly be arrested or reversed. I even wonder whether the small-nation political connotations of ‘English’ as a brand, however much we vociferously contest them, might rankle a little with the Brexit generation (and even more so with international students). In practical terms, I expect departments to close at some (maybe many) universities that do wonderful work but simply lose out in the fierce competition among universities for a limited pool of students.
  • I think we will increasingly find ways of collaborating with other scholars in our discipline across the world. The growth areas for English are not in the UK; they’re in Asia. Many of today’s PhD students may find careers in places they hadn’t expected.
  • Interdisciplinarity will continue to transform the way we do research, especially anything externally funded. The rise of the medical humanities is instructive in this regard. It remains to be seen whether the Global Challenges Research Fund will be as powerful an agent of change, but it’s indicative of changes that today’s early-career researchers would do well to notice.
  • How will we be publishing our research 25 years from now? The monograph has proved astonishingly resilient; certainly a lot more are published now than when I wrote my first one. But the open-access movement, and the availability of digital technologies, really must at some point shake our lives more than they have to date.
  • Finally, I wonder whether academic careers might become more varied and multi-dimensional. In a world where most people change jobs frequently and careers occasionally, academia is an outlier, and our discipline more so than others. This gives us security and continuity, but can also leave us desperately exposed when funding is tight. Given greater levels of openness, especially in relation to the impact agenda and the creative industries, maybe this will change.
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