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Volume 19, Issue 6, Feb 06, 2014

From (Under) The Chair’s Desk

Three candidates visiting certainly makes for an invigorating, if busy, start to the semester. And what exciting visits they were! Thanks to John D’Agata and the search committee (Harry Stecopoulos, Bonnie Sunstein, Miriam Thaggert; and graduate students Lucy Morris and Josh Wheeler), and to Elizabeth Curl and all the staff team (especially Hannah, Justin, and Cherie), for taking such good care in organizing the visits, and thanks to all of you who participated in the many events. All three candidates expressed appreciation to me at the reception they received at Iowa, frigid weather notwithstanding. And now, for the next stage, don’t miss the upcoming faculty meeting on Thursday!

Meanwhile, I have been obsessing over numbers for the last couple of weeks, numbers which may or may not have long-term policy implications. These are probably best shared under two distinct headings.


Undergraduate Numbers Matter

In an earlier Reading Matters, I shared the data on majors, but suggested that a new method of gathering the numbers made it hard to pinpoint our current class size. In broad terms, I reported, the number of English majors has been strikingly stable at approximately 960 for the last five years (between 936 and 987 declared majors in the fall in the years 2008-2012). Last year, Fall 2012, we had 961 majors. CLAS has now sleuthed out a credible count of our second majors for this year, which we can place beside the account of first majors to give us a grand total, in Fall 2013, of 856 majors. That is a drop of 105 majors or approximately 11%. 

For one cross-check on that number, we can notice the tendency in our compulsory course, 008:005 Introduction to the Major. The enrollment in this course, which we instituted in Fall 2007, peaked in 2011-12 at about 170 students each semester. Since then the number has been dropping markedly (Fall 2012 146 enrolled, Spring 2013 160, Fall 2013 108, Spring 2014 92). While we may have been serving pent-up demand, this year’s drop of some 35% compared with last year looks like it must signal something about the popularity of the English major.

Before I sound too alarmist, let me share a third number that is more reassuring. Among other data, CLAS records the total number of credit hours in all classes conducted in the English Department (General Education Literature, majors, writing, graduate courses, independent studies, et al) and reports that as Student Credit Hours. In Fall 2012, English provided 10,618 SCH of teaching; in Fall 2013, we provided 10,727 SCH – a number that is virtually identical! Given that our number of faculty shrank a little in that time, we seem to be teaching as much or more than ever, even with a shrinking pool of English majors.

That shrinking number of English majors seems to be a national trend. Official data takes time to gather, and so David Laurence of the ADE was reassuring last summer that numbers of English majors were staying roughly stable, based on data up to 2012. Anecdotes of chairs of English on an ADE listserv suggest that our own experience may be typical after that. The chair of Colorado State University comments on a 9% decrease in enrollment this year (with the greatest decline in their literature concentration, a 30% decrease from 2012 to 2013). The chair of Seattle University comments on a decline of 25-30%. The report I found most worrisome was from the only chair of a fellow Big Ten institution who volunteered data for the discussion. Michael Rothberg, chair at Illinois at Urbana-Champaign commented “Numbers of English majors at the University of Illinois have dropped dramatically in the last five or six years. We have seen a decrease of 50% between 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 (from 1011 to 502 majors). The fall has been fairly steady--around 100 per year--and, unfortunately, I see no evidence yet that it has been reversed or has even leveled off.” That has not been our experience—so far—but could that be the way we are going? Presumably we can only wait to see if this is a continuing trend, a one-off adjustment, or an aberration. 

These figures do seem to have policy implications for the department, even as they will surely encourage more discussion. One suggestion I would make is that we would be wise to pitch some of the great teaching that English faculty provide to non-majors. The paradox of our increasing SCH alongside decreasing majors suggests that we are already doing that, and it will be prudent for us to build on that trend. 

When I presented these numbers to Executive Committee, they suggested that we might want to revisit our discussion of the Introduction to the Major. In an earlier development, the group of faculty who are teaching Introduction to the Major met over winter break and, mindful of our earlier departmental discussion and of some of these numbers, agreed to retitle the course, which will be named “Foundation of the English Major: Histories, Literatures, Pleasures” effective Fall 2014. I will try to schedule a further opportunity for a full faculty discussion of the broad implications of all this for later in the semester.


Graduate Numbers Matter

Our graduate numbers also have some contradictory indicators. One thing is clear, though, and that is a significant drop in applications for the Ph.D./MA. This is data that gets published (a year in arrears) on the Graduate College website. That website currently reports the numbers for 2013, when we saw 121 applicants (85 Ph.D., 36 MA), 26 of whom were admitted, and 14 enrolled. This year, we have received 61 applications (43 PhD, 18 MA), or almost exactly half the number. You will remember that we agreed on a policy to aim for a smaller Ph.D. class of no more than ten, which looks like a fortunate adjustment in view of the diminished applicant pool. Causes for such a precipitous drop include the possibility that a terrible job market for tenure track positions since the economic downturn is finally putting off potential Ph.D.s. Again, anecdotally other chairs have commented on the listserv about declining Ph.D. admissions, but national numbers are not yet available. Moving forward the deadline for our own admissions by a month is a possible local factor contributing to the drop. That last we can remove from the equation by reversing next year, reverting to our previous deadline for applications. 

The MFA in the Nonfiction Writing Program has not at all seen such a drop in demand. In 2013, that program saw 137 applicants, of whom 11 were admitted, and 9 enrolled. This year, the number applying is up a little at 141 applicants. 

The Graduate College website also publishes our median time to degree for the Ph.D. According to them, this was 6.70 years in 2002-03 and just 6.00 years for 2006-07 admits. I am not convinced those numbers are precisely accurate, since they appear to me to adopt a window that excludes longer-lasting students, but I do think the trend that those numbers portray is correct. The Graduate College website also publishes our placement record, although the data is inevitably somewhat behind the times. They show our placement of Ph.D. graduates, 2007-08 through 2011-12 as initial placement: tenure-track 41%, non-tt 44%; current placement tt 64%, non-tt17%. That sees some 80% of our graduating Ph.D.s finding places in higher education. 

I mention the full range of Graduate College data as a context for my surprise at a letter we received from Dean Keller informing us that English is ineligible to apply for Presidential or Dean’s Fellow awards for entering Ph.D. students this year, since priority is going to programs “whose fellowship completion rate and overall completion rate exceeds our Collegiate goal of 67% and whose time to degree is less than 7 years.” Apparently 50% of grad programs received a version of this letter (including most of the humanities departments). With the Graduate College’s cooperation, and with help from Cherie Hansen-Rieskamp, we have been working over the data to try to understand what the Graduate College is holding against us, and the answer appears to be the Ph.D. completion rate. 

Graduate College data for the cohort entering in 2001-04 shows a Ph.D. completion rate of 52%. I agree that that sounds shockingly low, but when we work over the cohort, we find that a further 33% (27 out of 81 students) graduated with a terminal MA; 4% are still in the program (three individuals out of 81), and only 9% (seven individuals) left with no degree. While it is true that the 33% receiving terminal MAs entered hoping to pursue a Ph.D., in some cases the switch is a happy outcome as students made an informed decision not to pursue the doctorate. While a drop-out rate of 9% is higher than we would like, as a department we would want to emphasize that approximately 90% of our incoming cohort complete a graduate degree.

As with the undergraduate data, we need to be mindful of whether these numbers are revealing meaningful and lasting trends. Once again, I’m sure we will have significant opportunities for further discussions informed by these numbers. And one of the key figures that will become apparent in the next few months is how many of our graduating Ph.D.s are getting placed in fulfilling positions, on which I hope to report in this and subsequent Reading Matters. 


Faculty Matters

Congratulations to Jen Buckley, who was awarded an Old Gold summer fellowship to support research towards her book, Every Page Must Explode: Avant-garde Performance in Print, including archival work at the Beinecke Library at Yale University and the Ransom Center at the University of Texas.

Loren Glass has an article in the March 2014 issue of PMLA: "Zuckerman/Roth: Literary Celebrity between Two Deaths." So does Dwight Codr, who majored in English here (at the University of Iowa) and graduated with Honors in 1998. Codr's article is titled: "Arresting Monstrosity: Polio, Frankenstein, and the Horror Film."

Congratulations to Blaine Greteman who received AHI funding to support computer programming work on his digital research and teaching tool called “Shakeosphere: Mapping the Early Modern Social Network.” For the next deadline for AHI applications, see Funding Matters below. 

Kevin Kopelson, despite his increasingly incomplete knowledge of French, has reviews coming out soon — in the journal SubStance — of two books on Marcel Proust: Monsieur Proust's Library, by Anka Muhlstein; and The Weather in Proust, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. (Proust was French. And he wrote in French.) Also, a chapter of Kopelson's book Beethoven's Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire (Stanford University Press, 1996) is included in the edited collection Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). Other work in it is by Roland Barthes, John Cage, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.


Placement Matters

Warm congratulations to Kelly Franklin, who has accepted a tenure-track Assistant Professor position at Hillsdale College, Michigan. Kelly’s dissertation on global Whitman is directed by Ed Folsom. 

Distinguished Visitors Matter

Next academic year promises to be rich in visits by distinguished visitors. Colleagues in English have put forward three nominations for Ida Beam distinguished visitors for 2014-15, each with department support. More information when we learn the outcome of our nominations. Meanwhile, we also put forward a proposal for a visitor for the 2014 class of Alumni Fellows of CLAS, namely the writer (and 1992 Master of Arts in Writing graduate), Hope Edelman. Her nomination has been approved by the College. More details when the practicalities of her visit get worked out. And, in further news of visiting nonfiction writers, John D’Agata has been instrumental in securing a donation that will be matched by the College to fund visits by writers in 2014-15, with thanks to the generous support by the donor, Barbara Bedell. 


Funding Matters

The OVPRED has provided the following update about grants available to humanists.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development (OVPRED) invites applications to its Internal Funding Initiatives for FY 2014. Note we have updated and revised our programs to encourage leading edge interdisciplinary research, scholarship and creative activities, and streamline administrative processes. We are also pleased to announce that we will accept proposals three times annually under the revised program. The first deadline in 2014 is March 4. 

Proposals are welcome to the following programs:

1) Arts & Humanities Initiative (AHI) Standard Grants
Accepting applications for standard grants up to $7,500. Applications for major project and conference grants in the arts and humanities should be submitted through the programs below.

2) Major Project Grants
All disciplines are encouraged to submit proposals.
The anticipated average award amount is $40,000. Larger awards may be available for large interdisciplinary teams.

3) Major Conferences/Ideation Meetings
Supports conferences, symposia, seminars, colloquia or workshops in all disciplines.
The anticipated average award range is $10,000. Larger awards up to $30,000 may be available.

For complete details, click here.


Upcoming Matters

English @ Work: Internships and the Job Search for English Majors. February 11, 2014 at 3:00pm. Gerber Lounge, 304 EPB.

Faculty Meeting. February 13, 2014 at 3:30pm. Gerber Lounge, 304 EPB.

Brown Bag Community Lunch: Reading Franco Berardi's "The Soul at Work." February 18, 2014 at 12:00pm. Gerber Lounge, 304 EPB.

Reading by NWP Visiting Professor Bernard Cooper. February 19, 2014 at 7:00pm. Prairie Lights.

Reading by NWP Visitor Mike Pace. February 22, 2014 at 7:00pm. Prairie Lights.

Faculty Colloquium with Blaine Greteman titled "Weak Ties and Strong Poets: Rethinking Authorship in the Early Modern Social Network." February 25, 2014 at 3:30pm. Gerber Lounge, 304 EPB.

Brown Bag Community Lunch: Reading Franco Berardi's "The Soul at Work." February 27, 2014 at 12:00pm. Gerber Lounge, 304 EPB.

Creative Writing Track Information Session. February 28, 2014 at 10:00am. Gerber Lounge, 304 EPB.