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  • The Decay of a DisciplineReflections on the English Department Today
  • Marjorie Perloff (bio)

In 1999, when I first addressed the “Crisis in the Humanities,” I was still optimistic about the future of literary studies.1 The rapid erosion of support for our disciplines—especially language and literature—was still a few years off: in 2001, most English and comparative literature departments were still engaged in annual hiring. Who would have predicted back then how unabashedly administrators, especially at the big public universities like California, would begin to chip away at literature and language programs? That in 2011 not a day would go by without an announcement that another humanities program has been severely cut or a modern language program quietly eliminated? Faculty governance, moreover, is rapidly being replaced by the new corporate consumer model described, in chilling terms, by Simon Head in a recent essay for the New York Review of Books.2 Head is writing about the British university but the productivity measures he describes certainly characterize US universities as well.

One of the features of “new” university governance is the current erosion of departmental autonomy—a cornerstone of academic life as most of us have known it. At the University of Southern California, where I have been teaching part-time since my retirement from Stanford, the new president. C. L. Max Nikias, an electrical [End Page 153] engineer by training, recently appointed Dana Gioia, the two-term chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts during the Bush administration, to the Judge Widney Professorship of Poetry and Public Culture. Gioia, according to the USC news release, “holds a B.A. and MBA from Stanford University and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. In 1992, he left a 15-year career as a marketing executive at General Foods to write full time. . . . He currently directs the Harman-Eisner Program in the Arts at the Aspen Institute.” And further, “Gioa’s university-wide appointment includes affiliations with USC College, USC Thornton School of Music, USC Marshall School of Business, and USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.”3 His mandate—to enhance the status and visibility of the “arts” at USC—is thus largely independent of the university’s own literature and language as well as art departments. The former chairman of the NEA and arts director for the prestigious Aspen Institute, which regularly hosts Washington dignitaries and Nobel Prize winners in neurobiology and chemistry, will be reporting directly to the president. Indeed, the English Department, which has a strong and highly regarded creative writing program, was informed of the new appointment only after the fact.

Appointments in the USC English and comparative literature departments have been largely frozen since at least 2007; aside from a few opportunity appointments, no positions have been advertised in the MLA Job List or the Chronicle of Higher Education for the past few years. The German department, whose Max Kade Center boasted, not long ago, such writers-in-residence as the famed dramatists Max Frisch and Friedrich Duerrenmatt, and the Concrete poet Eugen Gomringer, was dismantled in 2008. Now primarily a service department, the Department of French and Italian is steadily shrinking, its literary offerings have dwindled to two or three per semester. Even the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, which should be flourishing in heavily Latino Southern California, has only five tenured professors; its large number of language courses are taught, as is now the norm, by a bevy of contingent faculty.

The new Professor of Poetry has neither a PhD nor a publication record that would be considered distinguished in most academic [End Page 154] quarters. Whereas USC’s recently appointed Distinguished and University Professors in the Physical Science are all members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gioia is not; nor has he been, say, a Guggenheim Fellow. Rather, he has been, over the last decade, a prominent public figure, and President Nikias evidently felt that such a figure was needed to make poetry, along with the other arts, more visible and palatable to the university community as well as to the larger public.

The implications of such an appointment, however worthy the candidate, are...


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