On 9 November 2018, Mark Garrett Cooper and John Marx’s “Why We Love to Hate English Professors” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. In the piece, Cooper and Marx argue that prevailing disdain for English as an academic discipline–depicted in the article, as one commentator (unoso) notes, as largely equivalent to literary studies–emerges from professorial myopia and self-centeredness. They do so though noting contemporary screeds against English departments’ tendencies to position themselves as insidiously interdisciplinary before moving into a gloss of the recent historical circumstances that have conduced to the departments’ attempts to broaden their sphere of influence amid conflicting demands placed upon them. The authors move on to note the fallacies of the various approaches take to solve the problems of English departments (including an acknowledgement that there are multiple lines of study within English programs already) and conclude with a relatively weak call to collaboration that ultimately reads unsatisfyingly.
There is some substantiation for the authors’ claim that English departments tend to see themselves as something like the centers of university study. As both the authors and one commentator on the article, BrainyPirate, motions towards, English is one of the few common areas of study, although the Cooper and Marx note that the commonality is diminishing. They echo Timothy Carens’s 2010 College English article, “Serpents in the Garden: English Professors in Contemporary Film and Television,” which notes, among others, that the experience of first-year composition is one of the few commonplaces across majors and colleges. As such, per Carens, English classes can be used synecdochally for college as a whole, accounting for the prevalence of English professors in media. Since media tends to reflect the tastes of those with disposable time and income to consume it (i.e., college students and those not long out of college, in common conception), those professors are often figured as antagonistic if not predatory. In addition to some scholarly justification for figuring English as the center of the university, then, there is also some explanation for the prevailing disdain or distaste for those who would be scholars of it. In effect, Cooper and Marx are correct–though they are not new in making their assertion.
The thing that gives me cause to wonder, though, is that the same does not hold true for math professors. They are not so roundly disdained as English professors, though sitting for college math classes is at least as common an exercise as sitting for English classes is, math is seen as a thing people “just aren’t good at” as much as formal English is, the kind of math typically associated with college math classes is seen as perhaps less vital to daily life than even literary study is (I see signs bragging about it being “Another day I didn’t use algebra,” but never boasting of “Another day I didn’t read”). There is less romanticism about math professors, I find, and less a concept that they are threatening–though I will note that the only professors I have ever seen come to blows were math professors, save for those who taught combat arts (but the latter fought in a contest setting, while the former brawled in the hallway).
I am not saying math professors should operate under an onus. They should not, any more than English professors should. It is simply strange to me that they do not, when others do.