If you only took a few English classes in college, you may not have noticed the differing specialties that attracted the varied personalities of professors, all under the banner of “English.”
The first is the most common among the English faculty, the scholar-type, or Libris scholaris. This is someone with a narrow area of interest: one literary period, one genre within one period, or even one capital-A-author. That tweed-jacketed guy who teaches Shakespeare? Or the lady with the glasses and eyewear chain who teaches Jane Austen? They have dedicated their lives to reading what other Libris scholares have said about these capital-A-authors and they have added their own analyses to the slowly accumulating pile. Mostly, this means they published essays in journals devoted to their exclusive specialty, or they stood in rooms of similar Libris scholares at conferences and read their unpublished papers aloud, or, if they’re lucky and are among the stars of their field, they may have published a book or two from a university press, which is a kind of charity organization that produces small batches of books by Libris scholares like single-malt Scotch, out of a philanthropic need for a class of esoteric knowledge that very few untrained readers could ever care about.
As time marches on, and the birth of the Libris scholaris is separated from the death of their pet capital-A-author by more decades, the scholarship yields smaller conclusions, though no one shows any intention of ever giving up the endeavor, since the rewards are great. Because each English department covets a scholar for every capital-A-author or period in the literary canon (i.e. Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Romantics, the Reformation, the Victorians, and on and on), a Libris scholaris need not be all that impressive, and tenure and the prestigious ranks of the professorship, accompanied by the lightest teaching loads and the highest salaries (for liberal arts anyway), can be achieved after minimal publication. Newly dead and/or living writers are a harder sell for Libris scholaris, and any written commentary about contemporary writers tends toward book reviews, which are mostly to help sell books and therefore left to journalists or the living writer’s own peers. The pleasures of reading for the Libris scholaris are mostly the heady joys of exploring another century. Scholar-types do not attend book events or poetry readings or pay much mind to living authors. They eschew the present, and despite a life devoted to liberal arts education, they likely sprouted from conservative roots. They overuse the word “text,” and their writing, as laser-focused ineffectual effluvia, isn’t engaging or necessary. Because they make up the majority of tenured English professors, Libris scholares are where most of the power in the English department is consolidated (because of the expansive list of required literary periods and capital-A-authors that extends back to Beowulf). They love it when they recognize themselves in a young person, out of suspicion that they were the last of a dying breed, and they’ll encourage that student to apply to graduate programs for textual studies, or they’ll hire a promising young Libris scholaris fresh out of one such graduate school, into the tenure-track. Theirs is a field devoid of national politics and incompatible with any real claim for “job skills.” One could do worse than pledging one’s life to the literature of another era. One could also do better. Libris scholaris believes that literature is dead, and they have made a living off of the corpse.
The second type of English professor is the composition scholar, or teacher-type, Scribis mundanus. They use the word “text” with far less frequency and their obsession lies in “pedagogy,” a word never uttered outside of universities, but a catch-all title that means, broadly, “teaching.” While Libris scholares teach to make a living, so that they can study texts, Scribis mundani have always wanted to teach, and they have a way of resenting other professors who don’t engage in the frequent self-examination of their own teaching practices. They believe in a growth model for teachers, so that they are involved in teacher training and/or disseminating self-assessment tools, and they command their classrooms with a dynamic flair. They are forever pondering goals and outcomes, and will dole out experimental assignments, so that during any given semester the class content, approach, or grading methods of Scribis mundanus may have completely changed from previous semesters. The field of composition developed out of necessity and it’s the new kid on the block. At the beginning of the twentieth century students were interested in literature, and classes were introduced where these students would write “themes” each week, so that these primitive papers became what was graded in the course. Over time, English classes were separated into literature classes and writing classes, and composition was the methodology that grew up around paper writing, which became the subject, whole and entire, of composition classes.
Every first-year student who doesn’t test high on the verbal section of the SAT is required to take one or two composition classes during their first year of college, and that’s a lot of students, and a lot of classes, and a lot of papers, and, ironically, while Scribis mundani don’t mind that work, since it comes with the territory, they also tend not to be the ones to do it, since there aren’t enough Scribis mundani to go around, because they are usually hired into administrative positions where they are put in charge of the English teachers who do teach all of those composition students, almost universally the contingent faculty, hired on short-term contracts, as well as the graduate students with teaching assignments, the graduate school’s version of the athletic scholarship. These “temporary” teachers can come from any of the three English teacher types, it doesn’t matter, though the hierarchy persists in who gets hired out of these labor-intensive paper-grading coal mines into full-time tenure-track or “permanent” positions. Although most of the power is consolidated among the scholar-types, Scribis mundani do quite well for being the newest field with the smallest number of representatives, because they are put in charge of the army of contingent teachers, which can be anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3s of the English instructors in a department. Composition Ph.Ds. further heighten their stature in the broader field of English by claiming minor twentieth-century philosophers and theorists as their own, just as that philosopher has peaked in scholarly attention, especially those who had no interest or awareness of English composition as a field of study when they were alive. As these things go, a famous thinker will become all the rage, inspiring change in writing classrooms populated by nineteen-year-olds all over America, and the same papers (sometimes literally; thank you, plagiarism!) about the same tired subjects, will be graded by the rotating ranks of underpaid disrespected contingent faculty with the current popular philosopher in mind, to shift again five years later, when there’s a new pedagogical trend (there’s that word and they love it!).
Scribis mundani often start out as Libris scholares, passionate about literature, but then when they find themselves in the classroom they encounter a new love, and they also figure out that it’s easier to get a job as a Scribis mundanus, where scholarship may not even matter, since an administrator who can train, schedule, and speak for all of the underpaid temporary faculty is indeed valued and compensated. Ironically, these teacher-types, Scribis mundani, who love the classroom so much they actually study it and write about it, have fewer classes as a direct result of their administrative work, with enough course releases to get them down to one or two classes per semester. Life as a tenured English composition professor often includes: leadership in the department, a demonstrated love of teaching, and a light course load without much expectation for scholarship. It’s also a field that’s pretty wide open for new subjects — so one can see the attraction. Unfortunately, Scribis mundani may learn they either don’t like or aren’t suited for administrative work, except that they’re stuck in it. Scribis mundani believe that literature has no utility, and they have tried to shift the focus of English studies to something more practical (pedagogy!), if only in the short term, if only for the self-perpetuating activity of teaching teachers about teaching.
The last type of English professor, the artist-type, or Scribis artifex… Oh boy, where to begin? In our society you can’t go around calling yourself an artist unless free market capitalism has made you rich enough to make your art your full-time job, such that there are little objects being consumed, either physical or digital, with your name on them. Those who teach prose-writing or poetry-writing at universities, as poets and/or fiction or nonfiction writers, can sometimes achieve financial security, not as a result of the popularity of their art, but by their integrity as artists, by which they might land a sweet (but very rare) tenure-track job. In order to find oneself on the tenure-track as Scribis artifex, however, one must have nearly achieved that nearly impossible pinnacle, self-sufficient artist, or to be born or married into financial independence, or to have married into the English department by partnering with another English professor with a tenure-track job.
There are a lot of Scribis artifegum out there, and the work is fulfilling, since their writing is read outside of universities and the literature they are most likely to teach is contemporary. Scribis artifegum are very good writers and editors who may volunteer their time at literary journals or in writer’s communities, but most often Scribis artifegum will be hired into low-paying “temporary” positions to be told how to teach by Scribis mundani, to be looked down upon by Libris scholares, and to grade all of those papers produced by the nineteen-year-olds forced to take English composition. One can eek out an existence in this way for quite some time, by moving from college to college, and from city to city, by agreeing to teach on short-term contracts while working on their poems, novels, stories, essays, plays, and screenplays. And Scribis artifex may very well publish such endeavors, but let’s face it, no one really cares about art that hasn’t been heavily marketed, or at least the majority of art consumers don’t. So the artist-types study very hard, sometimes publish very well, mostly while grading the papers of nineteen-year-olds as Libris scholares are paid two-times or three-times their salary for less work, and less vital work, as Scribis mundani continue to “train” Scribis artifegum, observe them, and select the eighty-dollar composition textbooks that the students will be required to buy and will later complain about on teacher evaluations.
But it’s a good life. It comes with summers off. And Scribis artifex can feel a kinship with the buggy protagonist of Kafka’s most famous story while circling faculty parking lots in search of the rare open space and maybe, or maybe not, being awarded health insurance. You didn’t think literary art should come easily, did you? Scribis artifex believes in literature and so looks at everything else as failing to reach that high mark, including and sometimes especially English department colleagues.