Marc Bousquet’s “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies”

Online platforms (blogs, twitter, and Facebook) continue to chip away at the hierarchies of academic power and prestige. Marc Bousquet takes his printed critique of the corporate or managerial university a step farther by pointing out literary studies' erosion—its journey to becoming as small and marginal as Classics departments—in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, "The Moral Panic in Literary Studies." As usual in these times, the reasons for this decline are various and complicated. More complicated still is that Bousquet's article and his department's reply position the CHE commentary as just another salvo in a literature department closet drama. Disappointing.

Bousquet's How the University Works was controversial for pointing out that the contemporary university employs legions of poorly paid contingent faculty (graduate students, adjuncts, Visiting Assistant Professors, postdocs, etc.) to teach the bulk of its courses, while reducing or not growing the number of tenure-track faculty. His article "The Figure of Writing and the Future of English Studies" looked at the shifting focus in higher education away from the liberal arts (specifically literature) and toward training in technical, employable skills (specifically writing and rhetoric).

Scholars interested in rhetoric, composition, pedagogy, and creative writing either abandoned departments hostile or indifferent to their research for other departments/disciplines (e.g. linguistics, schools of education, etc.) or were relegated to teaching rhet/comp or writing within English Departments. Those positions are usually teaching-intensive and offer no possibility of tenure. Tenured faculty in writing programs also tend to be administrators/managers (Writing Program Administrators) tasked with overseeing the large adjunct or contingent faculty pool that teaches the actual courses.

Bousquet's CHE commentary doesn't reiterate this earlier work and instead targets the so-called traditionalists in literary studies whose "moral panic" at new media, rhet/comp, and digital humanities' ascendence has helped hasten the discipline's decline. I have few doubts that his complaint against the "traditionalists" is parochial, a product of his experience at Emory. While it's a simplification, I see a similar dynamic operating at UCLA—where I studied and taught as a lecturer. Scholars with a more historical or cultural studies approach were generally skeptical of or outright hostile to new media, or digital humanities.

Bousquet's CHE piece, however, suggests those literary studies programs that have embraced "the changing conditions of textual production" will survive, while those suffering the "moral panic" will wither. Perhaps so. But if so, it will only be because universities have defined the liberal arts as an extracurricular supplement to useful (i.e. marketable and employable) skills in some STEM fields. Writing instruction then has value as another skill we can all agree educated workers need. So we can only blame the content of the "traditionalists'" position to the extent it makes it easier for administrators interested in greater efficiency, more skills-based training, and such to paint the faculty resistant to this change as dinosaurs who need to be ignored and eventually exterminated should they make too much noise.

Emory's english department chair and directors of graduate and undergraduate studies innumerate and ironically panicked sounding response to Bousquet, which appeared in CHE, makes me think, as I noted above, that Bousquet was scoring points against other members of his department. Too bad their reply, far from undermining him, seems to substantiate his point a bit.

Ending the "moral panic" and embracing rhet/comp in some literary studies departments, however, won't fix the larger problem—the declining cultural capital of literary studies. The hermeneutic and interpretative methods many liberal arts disciplines rely on will become more marginal unless those departments embrace a more media aware curriculum of which writing should only be a part. Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (2013), a collection of essays edited by Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, calls precisely for such a media framework in literature departments. Otherwise, literary studies will continue to lose ground to Cinema and Media Studies, new programs in Digital Humanities, and Communications.

Bousquet might agree that the job placement success rhet/comp departments currently enjoy is likely to be short-lived. One of the commentators on the CHE makes that point and then some:

Mugg Costanza • 3 days ago
I had so many problems with this piece. The assumption that literature scholars have no interest in new media, that they employ a pedagogy from the 1950s, and that they have no experience or interest in teaching composition all ring false in my experience. I also found it interesting that the author completely overlooks notable questions I have heard colleagues voice in the comp/rhet field: for example, what is "the content" of our research? Or, is there an ethical problem with the fact that so many comp/rhet PhDs quickly become WPAs who lord over a sea of adjuncts?

The success of comp/rhet PhDs on the job market is the direct result of the relatively recent professionalization of the field in the midst of an expanding higher ed system. Nothing more. Nothing less. Does the author really believe that this trend will continue indefinitely? I have no doubt that many universities will gladly pay adjuncts to teach comp/rhet courses on new media once their WPA positions are filled.

We'll see which direction literary studies takes in the coming years.


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