It’s job market season in higher education. In the Fall, usually some time in October, the professional organizations issue their job lists, and all the ABDs and fresh PhDs and young adjuncts and lecturers looking for the prized tenure-track post comb through the openings with reactions ranging from hope to desperation to despair. When I came out of UCLA in 1988, my peers and I went through the pages of the Modern Language Association Job Information List (no digital version yet existed), quickly compiled the dozen or so jobs in our respective historical fields (18th-century British Literature, Shakespeare, Critical Theory . . .), and began dreaming of a new life in Eugene, Tuscaloosa, and Poughkeepsie.
The market was terrible in English literature in the late-80s, and rumor had it that all the jobs would go to women. There must have been hundreds of good people in my field of 19th-century American literature who needed a job, but I recall that there were less than ten desirable posts in the List. The first year I got only two interviews and performed horribly, groveling and ingratiating myself in a way that embarrasses me still.
The next year, now a lecturer at UCLA, I picked up two more interviews and managed to earn an offer from Emory. I was elated, but not so much to believe that I deserved it any more than a dozen others did. The whole process was a great unknown, not least because it was the first time we had to leave the safe spaces of Rolfe Hall after five or six years of graduate school and present ourselves to the outside world for judgment. You were paranoid because you couldn’t create your own fate. It was up to others to decide—they liked you or they didn’t.
The market has only gotten worse since the late-80s. Added to that, an element just beginning back then has become a regular and discouraging feature of the process. Discouraging, that is, for white males. I mean the diversity note that appears in so many job ads.
I browsed through job listings last week and came upon them again and again. Here is a typical statement in an advertisement in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a job in American literature and culture before 1900 at SUNY-Cortland:
The State University of New York College at Cortland is an AA/EEO/ADA employer. The College actively seeks applications from women, veterans, individuals with a disability, members of underrepresented groups or anyone that would enrich the diversity of the College. We have a strong commitment to the affirmation of diversity and have interdisciplinary degree programs in the areas of Multicultural Studies.
This isn’t just an anti-discrimination promise. Many other job ads do have only a “no discrimination” statement, not an urgent singling out of certain groups for encouragement. They don’t signal anything discouraging to white males. In fact, they suggest the opposite of the “women and minorities especially encouraged to apply” statements.
But this one “actively seeks applications” from certain groups. The eagerness shows up, too, in a note at the bottom of a posting at the Baruch College English department for an assistant professor in seventeenth-century British literature. It says, “CUNY encourages people with disabilities, minorities, veterans and women to apply.” Likewise, a Chronicle ad for a professorship at Penn in African American studies concludes, “Minorities/Women/Individuals with disabilities/Protected Veterans are encouraged to apply.” You can find similar statements and notices in the Chronicle classified ads this month for positions in the English departments at University of Rhode Island, NYU, Weber State, Michigan State, Whitworth University, and Texas A & M.
I remember how demoralizing the job-seeking effort was, and we can only assume that these identity distinctions make it even worse for white male applicants today. To reduce the mystery and chanciness of the job search, I used to look at the departments as a whole, running through the faculty roster at my preferred ten or so locations.
Out of curiosity, I did it again last week and came up with a startling result. For those departments that favored members of “under-represented groups,” I visited their web sites and did a simple calculation of the number of men and women listed as regular teaching faculty. Here are the counts for the institutions listed above:
Men: 25 (19 regular and six affiliated)
Women: 27 (18 regular and nine affiliated)
What this little sample shows is that in the departments above, with the exception of Michigan State, we do not need any more affirmative orientations for women over men. The assumption that women remain an under-represented group in need of affirmative action is false.
It’s false not only in those departments, but for the fields as a whole. This has been true in the awarding of doctorates in English since the early-1980s. In 2008, women earned 64 percent of the PhDs granted in English; in 2014, the tally reached 60 percent.
It has been true in the faculty distribution as well. According to the Humanities Indicators project, in 2012, women made up 55 percent of the English faculty. When we add other languages to the mix, women reached 58 percent of the pool.
So, let’s be honest. The Old Boy Network ended long ago, at least in the areas of literature and language. Nobody wants to say so, and I haven’t heard a young person in my profession remark upon the current equality in any way for 20 years. But the numbers are clear. These pledges of encouragement to women in job ads are obsolete. We must admit it—if, that is, we understand them as a call for proportionate diversity in the make-up of the department.
The fact that they continue several years after proportionality has been attained for men and women, however, suggests another conclusion. It is this: the push for more hiring of women in these areas is not about equity. It has an ingredient of resentment, too, and resentment doesn’t want to level a playing field. It wants some retribution.
I have mentioned this a few times before, and liberal companions have replied with a shrug and stated that these affirmative action statements are just bureaucratic routines that everyone follows as a matter of course. In other words, it takes a while for the bureaucracy to catch up to reality.
But given the number of schools that have a simple nondiscrimination statement, not an affirmative action statement, we can’t accept that benign explanation. It isn’t difficult for a hiring committee to count the number of men and women in the department and say, “We don’t need to emphasize the female element any more.”
But what faculty member in an English department wants to bring it up? What professor wants to break through the etiquette that turns the assumption that steady sexism exists on campus into a mark of propriety? To assert otherwise is to cross a taboo. The reason we still have favoritism to female applicants isn’t because we need more women in English departments. It’s because the masculinist myth is still in force.