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"Romanticism" in Crisis

Surveying The Survey

Greg Kucich

We owe this conversation today to the galvanizing energies of Susan Wolfson and Bill Galperin, who tapped a pulse of uneasiness in the profession last November and publicly gave voice to a question upon which many have been brooding: whether or not our field of specialization is "in crisis." That question certainly remains open to debate at this point, as does any single definition of the "crisis" in question. Yet the fact that we are even raising these concerns--indeed expanding the debate considerably over the last year--suggests that the event of the Wolfson/Galperin Survey and its aftermath touched some deep nerve in our scholarly community and thus deserves closer scrutiny. It might then be useful for our purposes today to provide a brief commentary on the phenomenon of the Survey, including the specific problems and challenges it presented, the various reactions it provoked, the tentative resolutions that continue to emanate from it, and the overall significance of its implications for the continuing practice of studies in Romanticism.

Anyone who surveys the Survey event will be struck, first and foremost, by the intensity of debate it immediately generated on the NASSR listserve. Soon after Wolfson and Galperin posted their results along with a sobering institutional diagnosis on January 13 of this year, the e-mail wires began crackling. One substantial reaction appeared within a few hours. Nine more responses poured in the next day. The number mounted to over a dozen within two days, prompting Wolfson to respond to the responses on January 15, which in turn helped provoke still more reactions, swelling the thread to over thirty postings within a week. The responses were generally gracious and appreciative, yet the high volume of postings also revealed widespread feelings of uneasiness, anxiousness, even irritation inflected in a variety of different ways. Some respondents lamented the pronounced decline in Romanticism job slots over the last decade. Others found the root of the problem, as Bill mentioned, in our own critical interrogations of traditional Romanticism and its core values. Some claimed there was no crisis in job positions at all--no more so, at least, than in any other field. Others stressed the immense intellectual rewards that have accrued from the many recent revisionary efforts to put traditional readings of Romanticism and its mainstream canon into "crisis." Several questioned the scientific accuracy of the Survey and its reliability as an indicator of institutional trends. And not a few cautioned against sharing the information and the debate it provoked with electronically eavesdropping administrators, who might be encouraged by the perceived institutional diminishments and theoretical demystifications of Romanticism to eliminate the field completely as a category of study. Despite the diverse often conflicting emphases of these reactions, at least one shared sentiment mobilized them all--everyone seemed deeply concerned about the future health of Romantic studies. In the history of the NASSR listserve, to my knowledge, there has never been such a sustained, intense debate--and all this coming while most of us were still recovering from a collective MLA hangover. However we regard the question of a "crisis" in the field, then, it does seem clear that many of our colleagues, to varying degrees, feel uneasy about the directions in which we are heading.

That discomfort, as registered in the Survey event, seems to fall into at least two identifiable areas concerning disputed issues of periodicity and profession: 1) defining the core canon of Romantic texts and our criteria for evaluating them; and 2) addressing the current and future status of job positions in our field. These concerns are obviously related, but because Wolfson and Galperin have prioritized the latter throughout the Survey event, I will focus my comments on the institutional question. Chuck Rzepka and Beth Lau are directly addressing issues of aesthetic judgement and canonicity.

Is there, indeed, a job hiring crisis specific to our field? Ask anyone in this room looking for an academic job. But the obvious response to such rhetoric is to note that all period fields suffer at present from job shortages. Moreover, the most recent MLA job listing indicated a slight but discernible increase in Romanticism positions over last year. On top of that, it is impossible to predict future hiring trajectories. Granted. But there is one institutional scenario that we can safely bet on, regrettably, for the foreseeable future: downsizing. It has worked, in a way, for the corporate world, which is why our deans and provosts are keen to implement it. Downsizing, of course, will continue to affect all academic categories, but its impact on Romantic studies may be distinctively problematic--and not because of the threatened revisionary disappearance of traditional "Romantic" literary values and practices, or the possible erasure of the "R" word; other fields, such as eighteenth-century studies, have radically reassessed their core canons and period attributes without any detrimental effect on their institutional status. What makes downsizing particularly troubling for Romanticism is the relatively short chronological range and, until very recently, the narrow generic span of our period--40-50 years, mostly, of poetry. However strongly and rightly we argue for the magnificent poetic achievement of those years, we will remain hard pressed to convince our deans and provosts that the body of texts we have traditionally studied and taught constitutes more than a fraction of the cultural field spanned by our chronologically and generically larger neighbors in the Restoration/eighteenth-century and Victorian periods. Larger departments may enjoy the luxury of maintaining specialists in all these areas, but smaller departments, under the pressure of hiring cutbacks and freezes, will need to spread the coverage among fewer people. And the tendency we can already track, given the larger base coverage of our adjacent periods, is to seek an eighteenth-century specialist to teach "the long eighteenth century" or to hire a Victorianist to handle "the long nineteenth century."

Now the professional study of writers from our period will certainly survive any form this downsizing scenario might take, but with increasingly fewer positions available in our specialization, as Wolfson and Galperin warn, the hungry generations of future Romanticists and hence the critical energy of the field will come under threat of gradual erosion. Wolfson and Galperin are right, I believe, to provoke concern about this scenario, not to be simply alarmist but rather in order to stimulate strategies that will help avert such a fate. Their proposal for "The Romantic Century" strikes me as a conceptually useful approach to this challenge, especially in its way of directly addressing institutional needs for broader range of expertise among faculty members. I do not think, however, and I suspect they would concur, that expanding the chronology of Romanticism is our only option; it may not even be that feasible, in an institutional sense, given the rigidity of our institutional paradigms and the tenacious defense of their historical turf by other period specialists. We might want to consider the value, therefore, of institutionally deepening Romanticism vertically, along the lines of our latest critical revisionings, as well as broadening its horizontal historical range; that is, actively promoting to students, administrators, and colleagues with other period specializations the rich cultural diversity of our field traceable in the many new voices--women writers, uneducated poets, writers of color, Cockneys, Irish, and others--we are now commingling with those of the canonical figures we know so well and continue to esteem. Such a thicker Romanticism, combining the new with the traditionally valued, can potentially attract an increasing base of fresh admirers, at all academic levels, whose interest will directly and indirectly translate into greater institutional support. Beyond these measures, we must encourage our new graduate students to cultivate other, possibly related forms of specialization--in postcolonial studies, for instance, or creative writing--that will expand their potential for departmental contributions. But these are only preliminary suggestions, meant to reinforce those incentives launched by Wolfson and Galperin to further conversation on a topic that vitally concerns us all.

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