Richardson, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 1 - The Fate of Our Field

Alan Richardson, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 1 - The Fate of Our Field


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

The survey of hiring patterns in Romanticism is suggestive but, as the authors warn, "informal and unscientific." Before we make *too* much of its results, we might want to look more closely at what many colleagues in the sciences would instantly see as serious methodological flaws. The first, already noted by Alan Liu, is that it is based on "self-reporting" rather than on, say, a focus group carefully chosen to be representative of relevant schools generally or a blanket approach, attempting to contact all relevant schools, with the response rate reported along with the results and any significant patterns in failures to respond noted. As it is, we can only guess at whether the survey over-reports, under-reports, or accurately reports changing hiring patterns.

Unlike Liu, I doubt that we e-list users are likely to be biased toward over-reporting change (does that mean that we see change where none is there, fail to report the absence of change, gravitate to departments that are changing? I'm not sure). It's just as likely that the survey is *under*-reporting change, since departments which have eliminated Romanticism altogether (as a position rather than as a course) are less likely to be represented. The Harvard English dept, for example, currently has no Romanticist (though' they have several faculty members whose teaching/research interests include Romanticism): the junior Romanticist was never replaced when he left for law school 10 years ago, and their senior Romanticist has not been replaced since he took early retirement several years ago. But, precisely because Harvard hasn't replaced either Romanticist, does anyone in the Harvard department subscribe to this list, who would have reported on this state of affairs? And how many other departments are in a similar state? On the other hand, there are departments (like Brandeis) that currently have no Romanticist and therefore are less likely to include a NASSR-L subscriber, and yet may advertise in the field after a hiatus (as Brandeis is this year) How many such departments are there?

So in addition to endorsing Alan Liu's suggestion that a more scientific survey would include a comparison field, it would also need to take account of departments not represented on the NASSR-L. The survey we have is of "anecdotal" value only, which isn't to dismiss its suggestiveness, but to remind its readers (particularly those with administrative clout or designs) that, at present, it is of "anecdotal" value only.

Methodological qualms aside, I wanted to add a few thoughts on issues thoughtfully raised by the survey authors:

"Romanticism" is indeed a wonderful name for the field: it's hard to imagine a PR or marketing consultant coming up with anything half so good. When I recently mentioned to my wife (a psychiatric researcher) that it would be "cool" to be able to introduce oneself as a roboticist, she replied that she always gets points by telling colleagues in her field that she's married to a Romanticist ("academic exoticism" she added "cuts both ways").

In only a few years the 19th century won't be the "last century" anymore; it will be two centuries back like the 18th century is now. Is that related to our sense that the field is getting smaller, and needs to be expanded? (Is it getting smaller as it seems to move further away, through our habit of spatializing "movement" in time?) And to what extent is this part of a larger pattern: "Restoration" as a hiring field seems to have been entirely absorbed by the "long eighteenth century," the 16th / 17th century distinction in Renaissance (Early Modern?) hiring seems to have eroded, and one medievalist may now be expected to teach both Anglo-Saxon and Middle English in departments where these were once separate jobs.

The quite inexorable approach of the millennium is, of course, augmented by widespread downsizing (all those positions that get put indefinitely on hold rather than filled) and changes in the larger field, driven both by changing paradigms and student demand. The single department Americanist of only a couple of generations ago now has *his* duties spread among several specialists (of both genders) and augmented as well by the work of an African-Americanist and/or ethnic-Americanist; the same department might include specialists in women's studies, post-colonial, queer studies, maybe a Caribbeanist, film, cultural studies, theory. Since the overall hiring game is *less* than zero-sum these days, and the 21st century will divorce "contemporary" lit from 20th century lit (absorbing "modern" into general "20th century American/British" positions?), it's easy to see that the fate of Romanticism as a hiring field is caught up in a much larger pattern of systemic change. Its not just a three way tug of war concerning Romanticism, the long 18th century, and Victorian lengthening into the 19th century; *all* the traditional literary historical fields are being squeezed, partly in the interests of new hiring fields many of us would endorse (and have argued for) on a one-by-one basis.

Finally, I would second Lius suggestion that it may be more effective to address the concerns raised by the survey in the way we advise graduate students individually, rather than attempting to officially expand the period boundaries (something I consider unlikely to succeed). In addition to encouraging PhD students working on Romanticism to consider *either* overlapping with the [former?] "Age of Sensibility" *or* to push their interests forward into Victorian poetry or fiction, depending on their interests (rather than our collective period-redefinition), we could urge students to broaden their potential appeal in other ways as well. Austen and the "feminist enlightenment," the Gothic, the Black Atlantic, are all currently hot topics, of great and immediate interest to students, and might do as much (or more) in augmenting a candidates (or fields) appeal as adding a few decades to the Romantic half century. These are choices that would be made individually, according to the shared interests of student and mentor, but we could be collectively working to assure that Austen and Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe and Lewis, Equiano and Prince are widely perceived as "Romantic" writers.

Alan Richardson
English / Boston College