Christopher Newfield’s 2023 MLA Presidential address, “Criticism After This Crisis: Toward a National Strategy for Literary and Cultural Study,” was published in Representations 164 (Fall 2023). As the 2024 MLA conference commences, we thought it an opportune time to revisit Newfield’s 2023 address, which we have made free to read online through June 2024. We are also pleased to host the following conversation between Newfield and historian Michael Meranze, with whom Newfield edits Remaking the University, a blog focused on issues in higher education.
Michael Meranze: The conventional wisdom is that the literature or language major is a dying breed. Not long after you delivered the presidential address at the MLA convention in San Francisco (January 7, 2023), the New Yorker made it official with an essay called “The End of the English Major.” You don’t agree?
Christopher Newfield: I do not. That kind of headline is based on misread data and a backwards narrative. It also ignores the real social demands for literary knowledge that I outline in the address.
MM: How is it backwards?
CN: The profession has accepted a market theory that falling student demand leads to fewer courses, fewer professors, and less research. It coheres ideologically with our neoliberal era. In reality, the causality is the reverse. Governments and universities don’t fund humanities research, so they don’t seem like academic fields on par with the sciences, so students take them less seriously as sources of useful knowledge in their future lives, so they move their major either to dominant knowledge disciplines—starting with the social sciences—or to vocational majors like business or health technology.
MM: Readers who see those statistics of majors in free fall may find your argument a bit speculative.
CN: Okay, let’s look at those. Student interest in literature and languages has held up pretty well—measured as enrollments—in spite of relentless negative advertising. Since the financial crisis of 2007–09, people have been told they can’t get just any college degree—they have to get the right college degree, meaning one with job skills attached, preferably tech skills. While students have in fact shifted majors, they are still enrolling in humanities courses, partly because of distribution requirements but mostly because they like what they learn in humanities courses. We have national data on majors but not on enrollments, so we have focused on declines in the one thing we can measure. That thing doesn’t actually measure student interest in studying culture, narrative, hermeneutic understanding of personal and social identity, the relation between one’s inner life and systemic forces, etc. That interest persists, and the profession should explain on a national scale what literature and language fields have discovered and what people immersed in this knowledge can do.
MM: I did note your argument that funding and hiring have fallen much farther than can be justified by much smaller drops in enrollments. So could you have titled your address “The End of the English Major Will Take Longer Than They Say”?
CN: Ha, ha! Well, no. The title words I’d rather you remember are “national strategy.” The humanities fields don’t have one. STEM fields do: they have had a series of national (and international) strategies for about a hundred years. They work on them more or less all the time and update them as often as they think they should. All fields are kept afloat with public discourse about their social roles. In STEM, the results are a massive research infrastructure, basic public and political literacy about what science is good for, and also, importantly, the monopolization of internal campus funds for facility construction and maintenance, administration, and other kinds of research support. The federal government also underfunds basic research in STEM—in spite of the massive amounts already in play—and the response of STEM organizations is to do relentless strategizing, explanation, and public engagement.
In contrast, the national organizations in the humanities have accepted and sometimes promoted collective austerity. Our response to too few tenure-track jobs has been to cut our PhD programs and to stay silent about near-zero research funding in our fields. This has plainly failed to end the tenure-track job shortage, and has probably made it worse. The professional associations need to make a full-scale case for the social need for literature and language research and for the material resources that would support that.
MM: Doesn’t STEM get a lot more money because their research is much more expensive?
CN: Their facilities, equipment maintenance, and energy consumption are much more expensive. So I’m not proposing dollar-for-dollar equal funding. But a large share of STEM funding goes to research and administrative personnel and various research costs, and the humanities need to have those too. For example, critics say, “You don’t have expertise in ocean-atmosphere dynamics, so what does your course in the blue humanities really contribute to environmental knowledge?” The limitations here are a funding problem, not an intellectual one: the literature professor would hire research assistants or buy out an atmospheric scientist’s time to offer help where the course questions require it and then pour time none of us normally have into studying and writing together. A normally funded science discipline can hire adjacent or complementary expertise as necessary. The humanities fields need routine funds for travel, collaboration, deep research in neighboring fields, dissemination, public engagement, and so on, in order to be engaged, visible, and influential in the way our insights deserve.
MM: In calling for this research strategy you use terms like “literary knowledge.” I could see people in my field of eighteenth-century history agreeing that they produce knowledge. But don’t most literary scholars call themselves critics? And doesn’t literary criticism produce something like the articulation of a text-based aesthetic experience rather than knowledge? Also, literature professors are mostly teachers, aren’t they? Isn’t most literary scholarship a “teaching archive”?
CN: Knowledge definitely includes the results of teaching and accounts of aesthetic effects, language practices, and various kinds of experience. But scholarship is a kind of research, and literary criticism has a history as an interdiscipline that includes many methods and overlaps with criticism.
On the personal level, I’ve called it “knowledge” since my undergrad years, when I switched from the sciences to philosophy and then to English because I was learning in a formal academic setting about amazing things like consciousness and expression, and, simultaneously, about gender and poverty. I’ve been an interdisciplinary scholar, coming out of American Studies, where I read in US literary history, intellectual history, Marxist-feminist theory, poststructuralism, and ethnic studies and then worked for years in critical university studies. “Research,” “scholarship,” and “criticism” have always been mingled together.
But the address makes two other arguments about literary knowledge. The first is an institutional point. In the US academy, either you are a research discipline or you are a service unit. The country has thousands of two-year and four-year colleges where tens of thousands of literature and language instructors are treated as service providers, teaching four to five courses a term, mostly on contingent contracts with no opportunity for scholarship or professional development. These institutions have in practice no interest in supporting the intellectual lives of either instructors or students and instead favor information delivery. On the other hand, the much smaller number of research-oriented colleges and universities are obligated to support extramural funding with internal research funds, but then offer little support for humanities fields that also have few extramural funding opportunities. As public funding has been withdrawn, departments with trickle-down research support (reduced teaching loads, funds for research assistance) get converted into non-research service units. This is a trap for the study of literature, languages, and composition.
I started writing about the conversion of these departments into service units during and after the financial crisis. We want more tenure-track jobs: we should recover, as a baseline goal, the ratio of two tenure-track to one contingent faculty members that we achieved in the past; currently we have the reverse. This has no chance of happening unless literature and languages are seen by college administrators as research fields that produce knowledge of scholarly and social value that they must support.
MM: I think that’s right. But it will be hard to get administrators to see literary criticism as akin to scientific research when science has massive funding and general public acceptance.
CN: My second argument addresses how we do that. It involves the history of MLA disciplines in the university. I review four demands that US society made for university knowledge after World War II. In each of these traditional demands, the humanities fields had an important but secondary role. For example, US elites expected the university to contribute to the country’s global political and economic dominance, and for decades English departments supported this by defining the US literary tradition as British and its culture as a white European culture. But the university’s bigger contributions to this project were technological, scientific, and geostrategic. When the humanities served the dominant demands, they did get trickle-down prosperity, but this also resulted in dependency and weakness. And they were, intellectually, increasingly divided against themselves.
Your career and mine started in a later era—the 1990s—when the traditional demands were being replaced by dissenting versions of each. The address summarizes each of these four newer, still emergent demands for university knowledge. These are knowledges that would help the US be a nondominating, nonmilitaristic presence in global affairs. They would help articulate and support ways of life not controlled by economic pressures; democracy as a broadly egalitarian, multiracial, multilateral negotiation; and the principles and experiences of a functioning postracist society with full recognition of intersectional identities.
I offer some basic polling data showing that these counterdemands enjoy large plurality and even majority support. Conservatives have been waging a culture war to discredit these goals since the late 1980s, but, in spite of the incessant turmoil, culture warriors have failed to keep the new priorities from embedding themselves in the population.
We should take seriously the interesting fact that, on these crucial issues, literature and language fields have the primary knowledge and STEM the secondary. If the MLA fields take advantage of the social counterdemands for these emergent knowledges, they can build a much stronger position in the university, enjoy equal rather than subordinated relations to tech fields, and have a direct impact on desirable social change of the kind few of us now expect.
MM: You mentioned before we started an academic activist friend who read your address and said, “Great ideas. But you call for national coordinating capabilities that the humanities plainly lack. What will fix that?” This seems like the right concern to me. Hasn’t literary study lost its nerve?
CN: Sure. That just means it has to get it back.
I don’t think college teachers have lost their nerve in their daily work. Early career research is as good as ever, maybe better. Community college instructors with their five courses per term are in my experience as determined as they ever were to bring working-class students, migrant students, students of color, and first-generation students into the intellectual systems that shape their worlds—while learning from these students at the same time. Knowledge coproduction is happening everywhere. What the rank-and-file professoriat needs isn’t a pep talk (or elite fatalism) but material support—money to buy out time to read, do group research projects with their students in archives and libraries, and all the other things they plainly want to do.
Learned societies have looked to the top of their professional pyramid for nearly all scholarly output. Now we need to have “research for all.” If we include the whole profession in knowledge creation and dissemination, our nerve will come back through these concrete activities. They will generate pressure for better national advocacy from below.
The MLA has started a Strategic Partnership Network with some universities, represented by administrators, “to connect humanities leadership at member institutions and help them think through—and be invested in executing—solutions” to various problems.1 This kind of collaboration is a good start, but only if it includes the many institutions that can’t afford the substantial subscription fee and those frontline instructors and scholars who have the most direct sense of how the needs of students and communities intersect with the current state of research knowledge.
Cultural knowledge must be grassroots, and the grassroots must be funded. Fields get their nerve back through bottom-up collaborative processes.
MM: What do you want to say about your plan for a national strategy?
CN: Read it! It will work!
It will work if we do the work. Politicians, governing boards, and senior administration started withdrawing our trickle-down privileges forty years ago. It’s never too late to fight back: scholarship now has to include workplace activism. And if we act on a national scale, in ten years the study of literature and language will have power in the creation of the knowledges that humanity needs.
 MLA Newsletter 55, vol. 3 (Fall 2023): 5, https://www.mla.org/content/download/191327/file/NL_55-3_web.pdf.
Read Christopher Newfield’s “Criticism after This Crisis: Toward a National Strategy for Literary and Cultural Study” for free online through June 2024.
Purchase a copy of Representations issue 164, in which Newfield’s call to action is published, and/or subscribe to the journal here.