This essay draws on the author’s experiences in the Faculty Senate at Pennsylvania State University and cochairing a committee on COVID-19 and shared governance for the American Association of University Professors.
In the spring of 2020 my time in the Faculty Senate leadership was winding down. As immediate past chair, I was still an officer of the Senate, along with the chair, Nicholas Rowland (Penn State–Altoona); the incoming chair, Beth Seymour (also Penn State–Altoona); and the secretary, Judy Ozment (Penn State–Abington). But my duties were minimal, except for conducting the triannual visits to the twenty-four Penn State campuses and the twelve colleges at University Park. These visits are basically listening tours: each takes three to four hours and involves listening to and taking notes on assessments of campuses and colleges from (in order) staff, faculty, and students. We then report what we hear—anonymously, of course—to the administration of each college and campus and ultimately to the provost and the vice provost for Commonwealth campuses, with whom we meet to discuss how to fix what needs fixing. The provost’s office conducts a similar listening tour, but I don’t think I’m flattering myself or my Senate colleagues when I suggest that the faculty on the Commonwealth campuses and at the University Park colleges are likely to be more honest and forthright about complaints when talking to us than when talking to the chief academic officer of the university. Staff were added to our visits only in the last decade; in my first year of these visits, as incoming chair in 2017–18, I found the staff meetings so informative and revealing that I expanded them from thirty to forty-five minutes in my year as chair. Quite apart from the fact that the staff are the ones who turn on the lights in the morning, their offices ranged from facilities management to student advising to housing and dining to development—and they never get to talk directly to the provost. Students, who already have plenty of opportunities for input, find Senate visits somewhat curious; our visits tended to draw the leaders of student government.
My story here, however, focuses on the faculty—specifically, the faculty we interviewed on one very long day in April 2020, weeks after we (and every other institution of higher education in the United States) had “pivoted” to online learning in response to a virus washing over the globe with terrifying speed. Because Judy Ozment teaches at Abington, a Philadelphia-area campus over three hours from University Park, and because we didn’t want to ask her to drive back and forth in winter weather, we deliberately backloaded all our spring 2020 visits and bunched them together, giving us a very busy April. Obviously, all those “visits” would now have to be virtual. Some colleges, like the Smeal College of Business, canceled altogether; others asked for in-person meetings, and we refused. But the visit that stayed with me all summer involved two colleges in one day—Arts and Architecture (A&A) in the morning, followed by Information Science and Technology (IST) in the afternoon. Seven consecutive hours of Zoom: we would be among the first faculty to experience Zoom fatigue.
The A&A faculty pleaded with us to urge the administration to return to in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. The disciplines of the performing arts will suffer mightily, they said, if we have to stay virtual; enrollment will plummet, and theater will wither and die. One faculty member noted that she tried to teach tap dance online but was stymied by a half-second transmission delay that rendered her work meaningless. Another said that he didn’t want to stereotype A&A students, but he was fairly sure that the college had a higher percentage of LGBTQ+ students than most other colleges, and some of them were safer on campus than in their homes and communities. No group of faculty we spoke to was more skeptical of online education, with the possible exception of the agricultural science faculty, who insisted that their students could not conduct their animal visits virtually.
By contrast, the mood over at IST was almost unperturbed. Online education for information science and technology? Fish like water! One senior male professor reported with surprise that he found that when he moved his classes online, more of his female students contributed to class discussion. “Hold that thought,” I told him. “Whatever you’ve done, you’ve created a different dynamic, and it will be interesting to see if you can bring that back to the classroom if and when we return.”
But during the following summer it seemed as if there would be no “if.” Even as the death toll soared and the president of the United States was suggesting that people could defeat the virus by injecting themselves with bleach, even as Penn State lost a student (Juan Garcia) to the disease, we plowed ahead with plans to return, with exceptions provided only to immunocompromised faculty.1 There were fifteen task forces administering those plans, and I was pleased to see that there was widespread staff representation, particularly from the dining and housing staff, who had been devastated by the initial shutdown. But there were very few faculty, aside from Beth Seymour and a couple of people in epidemiology and public health.
Then, to add profound insult to injury, new language was inserted into the contracts issued to our non-tenure-line (NTL) faculty: a provision that the contract could be terminated on twelve weeks’ notice. Amazingly, this language was inserted into every contract, even the multiyear contracts that, one would think, would be multiyear. This seemed to me a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the promotion/review system we had created for NTL faculty only a few years earlier, in which promotions were typically accompanied by contracts of greater length. That system is run entirely by NTL faculty, who elect representatives to promotion-and-review committees. (The Senate wanted those longer contracts to be automatic on promotion, but we were rebuffed; still, the vast majority of promotions in the preceding two years had come with multiyear contracts.) Though I was no longer in the Senate, I asked a high-ranking administrator what in the world was going on and was told that the deans and chancellors had insisted on that language as a condition of issuing contracts at all. Far from being a mechanism for mass firings, they said, the twelve-week provision was a way to keep non-tenure-line faculty employed. The administrator was surprised to hear that there was widespread dismay and outrage about this, since no one had complained directly to their office. I replied that it is not likely that NTL faculty would complain directly to their office. They already fear for their jobs. Later, Nicholas Rowland and Beth Seymour confirmed for me that this administrator was telling the truth—that the deans and chancellors, in a meeting of the Academic Leadership Council, had demanded that the contracts be revised so as to give them an escape clause in case of catastrophe. Rowland and Seymour objected that this was a slap in the face to faculty who had just performed the biggest lift in the history of higher education. They were ignored.
In response, a newly formed grassroots group of faculty calling themselves the Coalition for a Just University (CJU) issued an open letter condemning the plan to return and the lack of faculty representation on the planning committees. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP; an advocacy chapter, not a unionized chapter) saw its numbers grow from four active members to over a hundred. University administration never formally recognized the CJU but, in response to the protest, expanded its planning committees to include many more faculty. In doing so, they soon learned the lesson the Senate officers had learned on the day we “visited” A&A and IST: you need widespread faculty consultation in order to come to policy decisions that make any kind of sense.
Case in point: one NTL faculty member in a discipline that teaches classes of many hundreds of students was added to a planning committee, where he immediately questioned the announcement (which had just gone out to all students, parents, and the general public) that all classes with enrollments under 250 would be held in person. Wait, he said; how are we doing social distancing in classrooms? When he was given the explanation, he did the math. “Our largest classroom on this campus, 100 Thomas, holds 700. According to your plan, that classroom will now hold 130. What are we doing telling people that we can accommodate up to 250?” When he relayed this exchange to me later that day, I thought of the scene in Apollo 13 when a young engineer tells his colleagues, and flight director Chris Kranz, that their plans to rescue the crew are meaningless because the lunar module draws sixty amps of power and needs to get down to twelve in order to have enough battery power to make it to reentry. Had no one really stopped to figure out that we could accommodate classes no larger than 130? Were people thinking maybe we could hold 250-person classes in the hockey arena? This, I thought, is what happens when you don’t consult faculty. You get policy from people who have not been in a classroom in a long time—if ever.
As breakdowns in shared governance go these days, ours was small beer. The 2021 AAUP special report, COVID-19 and Academic Governance, written by an ad hoc committee chaired by myself and Mike DeCesare of Merrimack College, offers numerous chilling accounts of campuses whose administrations used the pandemic to impose unilateral austerity measures, program closures, and firings of tenured faculty that not only violated AAUP principles but also, in some cases, represented what our report called “opportunistic exploitations of catastrophic events.” “In this respect, as in so many others,” we wrote, “COVID-19 served as an accelerant, turning the gradual erosion of shared governance on some campuses into a landslide.”2 That report was unfortunately issued in May 2021, the beginning of the summer on most campuses, and got little attention even in the higher ed press. I urge readers to check out that forty-page report in their spare time.
But what, one may ask, is the significance of this account of the impact of the pandemic on academic labor and faculty governance for literary studies—the focus of this special issue of English Language Notes—in particular? For one thing, we can’t assess the impact of the pandemic by looking only at literary studies—and, more important, we can’t even assess the impact of the pandemic on literary studies by looking at literary studies alone. We are part of a much larger system of academic labor. In this light, I suspect that the future of literary studies is going to be bleak. In that respect as well, however, the pandemic is only an accelerant; the future of literary studies looked very bleak in 2019. It is a bitter irony for me that only in 2013 did people come around to my argument that enrollments in English and the modern languages were not really in crisis—and then, over the ensuing ten years, enrollments really did plummet.3 I spent fifteen years pointing out that the sky was not falling and then the next ten watching shards of sky cascade down all around me—as commentators like Eric Hayot have not failed to note (gently pointing out that my argument became dreadfully wrong just as people were beginning to take it seriously).4 New work in the various fields of literary study remains exciting, and new subfields in digital humanities, ecocriticism, disability studies, and animal studies are thriving intellectually; but the reduction of tenure-track positions in those fields, as in all fields, continues apace.5 Moreover, the disarticulation of the job search process from the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) convention has had precisely the effect most knowledgeable commentators anticipated: the process is now an inchoate mess, with no widely agreed-on deadlines or expectations. Job seekers are now compelled to navigate searches throughout the academic year, some of which, in my recent experience, have involved phone interviews with recommenders even before a committee has reviewed a candidate’s materials. It is chaos.6
There was much to despise about the interview-at-MLA system of yesteryear: the sheer cost of attending the convention was prohibitive for most job seekers, and the anxiety and desperation that suffused the convention for all job seekers provided ample material for dozens of articles about the horrors of the MLA. Unsurprisingly but mistakenly, some job seekers associated the MLA, as a scholarly organization, with the job market as such, as if the MLA bore some responsibility for the sorry state of affairs in academic hiring. Legions of ill-informed commentators believed that the MLA sustained itself financially through the misery of job seekers—unaware that the association’s primary sources of revenue are the Handbook and the Bibliography, which account for over 70 percent of revenues; the convention accounts for about 8 percent. A handful of even-less-knowledgeable commentators believed that the MLA had some leverage over the hiring practices of colleges and universities and could “do something” about the conditions of academic labor if it only tried. It does not reflect well on those commentators that no one in any other field—history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, art history, whatever—believes such a thing about their disciplinary organization.
Since the advent of Skype—does anyone remember Skype?—I argued for replacing in-person job interviews with Skype interviews. When I was MLA president in 2012, I heard from many people (again, not terribly knowledgeable) that this was a vain hope, since the MLA had a vested interest in maintaining the in-person interview system. A year later I took to Facebook, of all places, to explain that the interview system was created in 1970 as a way to level the playing field, since in the 1960s people got jobs when their dissertation director at Nameless University called up his friend the department head at the University of Anonymity to recommend them for a position. That, I said, was literally the old boys’ network. To break it up, the MLA agreed to coordinate job searches; before that, MLA conventions had not included interviews. But like the pay phone, the conference interview became obsolete, and finally, in 2018, Executive Director Paula Krebs wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed in which she did not mince words:
For the love of all that’s good and holy, please stop going to the MLA convention to conduct first-round job interviews.
Stop making job candidates pay their own way to conventions so you can spend three days locked up with two of your favorite colleagues and a procession of nervous graduate students.7
Since then Krebs and I seem to have gotten what we wished for: a job search process that does not run through the MLA convention. Now the problem with the job search process can be seen for what it is: the gradual and deliberate erosion, at institution after institution, of tenure-line positions. The pandemic, I suspect, will have roughly the same effect on our fields of study as the 2008 financial crisis: deep, lasting, severe. But in this as in all things, we in literary studies are part of a more extensive network of academic labor; at large universities like mine, that network includes tap dance and agricultural science. The post-pandemic effects will be felt in many (though not all) fields, and once they finally recede, then we can all go over the “enrollment cliff” together, as demographic changes in the United States and a narrowing pipeline of international students produce a Great Contraction in higher education that will serve as the bookend to the Great Expansion of the 1960s.8
But if I were to make one request of my colleagues in literary studies, it would be this: take whatever spare energy you have, if indeed you have any, and get involved in the governance of your institution. Governance issues are dreary and difficult—they certainly carry no professional reward. But as I have told my colleagues at Penn State ever since getting involved with the Faculty Senate in 2012, governance will never matter to you until it does. And then you will find yourself being administered by policies you never heard of and certainly had no hand in writing. What’s more, as I have learned to my dismay since leaving the Senate, administrators can play the long game: I decided not to run for a third term in the Senate after 2020, believing that the promotion/review system I had helped create for (and with the strong support of) NTL faculty was securely in place and that our longest-serving NTL faculty now had increased job security—though not significantly increased wages—in a system governed entirely by NTL faculty. But a few weeks before I started to write this essay, a bombshell dropped from our Altoona campus: eight NTL faculty were told that their contracts would not be renewed. They were given much less than twelve weeks’ notice: the Altoona administration delivered the news in the waning days of the semester. Some of the faculty members affected had taught at Penn State for over twenty years.9
The rationale is that the Altoona campus needs to trim $4.7 million from its budget. Similar tidings have been heard at some of our other campuses, and we know of two long-serving NTL faculty who are being “nonrenewed” at Penn State–Berks. But even if these budget projections are accurate, they do not explain why these faculty members, in particular, are being let go, nor do they explain why the decisions were so devastatingly peremptory.
This, I expect, is what the post-pandemic landscape will look like. Perhaps in ten years we will look back on the 2021 AAUP report on COVID-19 and shared governance and realize that it marked the beginning of a much broader transformation that will institutionalize precarity for all but a tiny minority of faculty members clustered at elite private institutions. Everyone else will be subject to immediate dismissal for the thoughtcrime of teaching critical race theory—or for no reason at all. If you care about the future of literary studies, or any form of study in the humanities, or indeed the future of the American university, I hope you will do whatever you can to stave off this dystopia.
See Grawe, Demographics. Of course, it is not quite true that we will all go over the post-2025 enrollment cliff “together.” Small private colleges and smallish regional universities will go first; indeed, some already have gone. The wealthiest institutions, like the wealthiest people, will be just fine and will very likely continue to dominate most of the discussion of American higher education in general.
As reported in the Altoona Mirror: “Penn State Altoona is discontinuing at least six academic programs for which enrollment has shrunk in recent times, a move that is part of universitywide cost cutting, according to a memo sent to the local college staff Thursday. Programs to be discontinued include integrative arts, mathematics, science and political science; the associate degree program in science and minors in math and dance, wrote Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori Bechtel-Wherry. In keeping with the discontinuations, the college is not renewing the contracts of eight faculty members for the 2022–23 academic year, Bechtel-Wherry wrote. In addition, searches have been canceled or postponed for eight faculty posts that had gone vacant and been left unfilled due to COVID-19—although the searches could be reactivated and the vacancies shouldn’t be attributed to the ‘current budget situation,’ wrote university spokeswoman Lisa Powers in an email” (Kibler, “PSU Altoona Cutting Six Programs”).