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Alan Liu, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 2 - The Fate of Our Field

Date: Wed, 15 Jan 1997
From: "Alan Liu" (
To: North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR-L@WVNVM.WVNET.EDU)
Subject: The Survey/a response

>Do we really want to advise graduate students that it would
>not be wise to specialize in the Romantic period? or do we want to talk
>about ways to retain specialization and still be attractive on the job
>market? The current advertisements suggest that a specialization in the
>long 18th c or the long 19th c, with a nodding acquaintance with
>Romanticism as it existed, say, a half century ago, is not an unwise
>choice. Is this what we want?

The concerns I originally expressed to Susan had to do with the difficulty in safely interpreting or using a survey that has no control group: no basis of comparison (relative to other fields, relative even to the Romantic field over time, relative to broader institutional changes [e.g., the widening use of non-ladder faculty]). It seemed to me that without such a control (even anecdotally investigated), we would have a hard time judging the significance and meaning of a two-year dearth of positions.

Susan is quite right in her last message, however, that there is another dimension to the problem. Even if the dearth in jobs is statistically significant and should be read along the lines of the "subsumed within longer centuries" thesis, what actually are the implications (for either grad students or faculty)? Here I think some basic assumptions need to be weighed:

--Assumption: specialization in Romanticism is at risk among future graduate students (which presumes a certain notion about what "specialization" implies).

I am teaching a "doctoral colloquium" this year designed to bring graduate students in our dept. through the stage of inventing a dissertation topic and writing a prospectus. As part of the assignment, I had them do the usual preparatory library research in DAI, the MLA bibliography, etc. I also had them check out sample dissertations from the library. One of the conclusions we came to was that by and large people were no longer writing single-author monographs (or at least fewer than in the past) and that too narrow a focus on a single author or work felt risky both practically (as regards the job market) and intellectually in the current climate. This accords roughly with my own instinct in advising dissertators--to wit, concentrate on a topic that is capable of development in depth but that also gives evidence of expansiveness (whether in the direction of multiple authors, disciplines, historical moments, etc.).

In sum, it is not clear that the ostensible disappearance of positions labeled "Romantic" should make any difference in the current acceptation of what "specialization" means. One does not work with students specializing in either "Romanticism" or "long centuries" so much as on Topic X circa 1800 developed with awareness of relevant contexts c. 1750 or 1850 and hopefully with some self-awareness of why the topic matters now c. 2000. In this regard, it may well be that the "long century" syndrome is not driving but driven _by_ intellectual changes in how we view the relevant context of a literary work (a context that is now increasingly broader than a period, and that is always [as in the "Early Modern" designation] implicitly also an investigation of a larger formation of modernity). In short, I am suggesting that there is no strictly necessary deduction that the dip in jobs labelled "Romantic" makes a difference in what students will work on; and, secondly, that if there is a difference it is unclear whether it is for the better for worse.

--Assumption (or at least anxiety): students working on Romantic-era authors or topics will be disadvantaged in seeking jobs in either the long 18th century or long 19th century.

This fear is not yet founded on sufficient evidence. More importantly, I just don't think that general conclusions of this sort can be drawn in regard to how job searches actually work. Looking for good people means putting out a call for a field(s), then considering seriously all those who qualify either entirely or in good measure (e.g., in the case of a Victorian position I'd be willing to look at someone half of whose dissertation is in the Victorian epoch and half in anything else, with Romanticism or Early Modernism, of course, being more apropos), then bringing them to the interview and/or campus--at which point the usual chaos of competing department priorities, needs, desires, etc. emerges in the process of evaluating candidates as individuals. Certainly there is nothing certain to be said about how a department would compare a student who writes on W. Wordsworth and F. Hemans with some measure of brilliance to one who writes on 6 authors from 1798 to 1900 in a manner that is more or less a "survey" of primary or contextual material.

--Assumption: student specialization in Romanticism and/or the number of jobs in Romanticism is determined either exclusively or most significantly by such matters as economy-minded consolidations, etc.

Such factors as "downsizing" are not trivial, of course, because they bear upon the entire dynamic by which "knowledge" (or "knowledge-work" as the corporations and corporation-minded universities now call it) is being redefined in the information age. It is not just a matter of administrators trying to do the most with the least; it is also a matter of new social demands that specialized knowledge-workers participate in "teams" within "flat" organizational structures that are flexible, responsive to rapid global change, etc.

But we run the risk of making these matters trivial, and thus missing what is vitally at stake, if we neglect to pose the relation of the Romanticism field to downsizing in _intellectual_ terms. In this regard, it is just as crucial to ask about the intellectual history of the field as it is to worry about institutional developments--all in the service of bringing the two arenas together in an act of mutual illumination. Romanticism had a dark age for a while earlier in this century (somewhere between T.E. Hulme and Yvor Winters); then it had a glorious if still somewhat infamous renaissance in the 70s when it seemed to be the field elected to say something new about the nature of language and representation (whose broader cultural ramifications were then teased out in the various poststructuralist cultural criticisms of the 80s). Now the question that should concern us as a group: what do Romanticists currently have to _say_? (I have a feeling for what the following fields have had to say recently and why they have seemed so urgent and exhilarating: Early Modern/Renaissance, 18th century, Victorian. The first has said something basic about the relationship between representation and society, the second about the public sphere and the nature of modernity, the third (in all the "new economic criticism" and "imperial criticism" I have been reading in our Victorian search this year) about the prehistory of global economy. These are obviously caricatural descriptions that leave out much (including the way non-canonical literatures and populations are also part of a revisionary notion of society and modernity). But it does feel to me as if these other fields deserve their current urgency and thus their claim to being "long" (which I understand essentially to be a claim of relevance to "modernity"). "Long," in other words, is not a matter of number of years; that is exactly the wrong way to look at it. "Long" has to do with substantial content that reaches from a historical period to our present moment. What does Romanticism now have to say that is "long" in this sense and that has not been said earlier or better by other fields? What might it have to say to the intellectual content of "downsizing," with its assumptions about the nature of knowledge and culture? (Clearly, of course, Romanticists have been engaged in interesting projects in recent year, with the restructruring of our canon perhaps leading the way. But my question is about what the field as a whole is saying, and what it is saying that is new. We've recently learned something about who "we" are from considering the Renaissance, for example. What are we learning in this way from "Romantic"?)

These kinds of questions are opportunities, not limitations, for future graduate students.


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Published @ RC

January 1997