Snapshots of a Disappearing Field

This is no time to mince words. The state of French eighteenth-century studies is so dire that I have difficulty imagining that elsewhere it’s even close to business as usual.

The future of eighteenth-century studies is now. If colleagues and administrators can’t be convinced, and convinced very soon, that the eighteenth century still has a critical role to play in today’s university curriculum, eighteenth-century studies may soon have been virtually written out of the picture.

In recent decades, two competing forces have been simultaneously at work: the expansion of what constitutes “the eighteenth century” and declines in student enrollment. Their combined effects have redesigned the job market in every field in the humanities with which I have experience. It would seem, however, that we’ve not been keeping pace with these transformations: instead we may have been drifting along, making changes piecemeal.

I hope most would agree that the expansion of what constitutes “the eighteenth century” has been a necessary and a fruitful correction in which departments have participated voluntarily. Most disciplines and fields of study have been restructured, reimagined, or reinvented in various ways to reflect an awareness that it’s no longer taken for granted that a particular field can be viewed in isolation—from other periods, from other national traditions, from other parts of the globe, from the world today. This has resulted in the introduction of both more inclusive chronological markers, such as “the long eighteenth century,” and more sweeping geographical markers such as “the Atlantic World.”

This striving for change has occurred at the same time as decreasing enrollments in the humanities have put pressure on departments to downsize, often radically. Declining enrollments have obliged departments to reduce course offerings, and universities have been demanding smaller departments and larger courses at the same time as fields have been seeking to become global and inclusive. The job market may be the battleground on which the collision between these trends has been playing out most clearly.

What follows is a series of snapshots, samplings illustrating what I have in mind. I focused on the field of French eighteenth-century studies, not only because it’s the field I know best, but also because it’s impossible to imagine a vision of eighteenth-century studies that does not feature the Enlightenment, the movement central to any definition of the period often referred to as “the age of Enlightenment.” And while “the Enlightenment” cannot be limited to the French Enlightenment, the Enlightenment cannot be studied without highlighting the role of French thinkers.

For as long as anyone I know can remember, specialists of the French Enlightenment have found jobs either in history departments or in French departments, so I decided to survey the evolution of the job market for recent PhDs seeking such positions. I didn’t have room for a comprehensive enquiry, but even an overview reveals French eighteenth-century studies as a field losing its way.

Twenty years ago, history departments viewed French history as essential. Within French history, the eighteenth century was a central, perhaps the central focus—so much so that departments often had more than one specialist of eighteenth-century French history. This year, not one department advertised such a position.

First Snapshot

In 2019-2020, there were 9 teaching jobs for which a PhD in history whose dissertation focuses on the French eighteenth century could apply. Most positions specified “Early Modern.” But what early modern? Each ad illustrated a radically different conception.

Two postings used a rather standard dividing line: “medieval/early modern Europe.” Others, however, employed “early modern” in far more inclusive terms: “c. 1600 to 1900,” read one announcement; “from the sixteenth century to c. 1900,” another; and a third sought “early modern Europe – c. 1400 to c. 1700, with a preference for research on the Renaissance or Reformations, broadly defined.” Most sweeping of all was the ad reading “1400–present (including Britain, excluding Eastern Europe and Russia).”

This hodgepodge use of “early modern” by history departments should not distract from what has gone missing. While the eighteenth century has a place in all these ads, it is no longer a priority.

Second Snapshot

The situation is far more critical in literature departments. Traditionally, the MLA has posted each year’s complete list, both for English and for foreign languages; at present, the most recent, available and complete list dates from 2016–2017.

Today, most of what used to be known as French departments describe themselves as departments of “French Studies.” While departments of French studies now offer courses on French cinema, doctoral students, as before, study almost exclusively literature. Doctoral candidates teach language courses, and they are given training in order to do so, but they in no way become specialists of linguistics or foreign-language pedagogy. The job list, however, seems to have veered farther and farther from this reality.

Beginning with the 2016–2017 MLA job listings, I moved backward in six-year increments in order to feature one year, 2003–2004, that fell well before the previous global financial crisis in 2007–2008—and a second year, 2009–2010, when the effects of that crisis might first have been felt.

In 2003–2004, 122 jobs were advertised in the MLA job list primarily in French (22 of those sought a candidate with competence in at least one other modern language as well). Among those 122 ads, 33 specified candidates with, as one ad put it: “a degree in linguistics, second-language pedagogy, or related areas.” Of the 122 ads, only 89 (73%) sought a candidate able to teach anything but language. Those 89 ads mentioned literature, but often cinema as well, and also “culture”—yet another area outside the traditional purview of French departments, one in which graduate students are unlikely to have received much, if any, training.

Among these positions where literature did at least figure, nearly half (38 of 89) either specified that the department was looking for a generalist able to teach all periods of French literature or were so vague that they appeared open to anyone whose degree was in any way related to French. Of the 51 departments looking for a specialist, 17 advertised a position in pre-modern fields. Of those, only 9 were open to specialists in the eighteenth century; 6 ads specifically mentioned the eighteenth century and 1 the Enlightenment, plus 1 in Early Modern and 1 in Old Regime France.

Third Snapshot

On the surface, the year 2009–2010 did not seem to reflect the economic disaster that immediately preceded it. There was even a small increase in the total number of jobs posted on the MLA list: from 122 to 128. Among them, 90 (70%) mentioned at least some teaching beyond language courses, only a small decrease from six years earlier; 14 of those sought a specialist in a pre-modern period: of those, 6 singled out the eighteenth century, 1 the Enlightenment, and 2 pre-Revolutionary—numbers also virtually unchanged.

Something had changed, however. A significant number of postings, about two dozen, cast such a wide net in such ill-defined terms that it isn’t clear what they were after. Here’s a small sampling of the competency that different departments expected a successful candidate to possess: “able to teach all levels of language, literature, and civilization.” (Like “culture,” “civilization” is never defined.) “A wide cultural view of French culture … a broad understanding of French contributions in arts, literature, politics.” “Language, literature, and culture; film studies/history of the image especially encouraged.”

That year, I also noted the first appearance of a phrase that, to my mind, points to the double bind facing job candidates in French Studies today: “Specialization open. Willingness to teach a broad range of language, culture, business, film, composition, etc. Evidence of scholarly activity required” (my emphasis). That phrase continues to appear in job listings. Departments advertise their desire for candidates willing to attempt to teach a wide range of subjects for which their doctoral programs have given them little, if any, preparation; at the same time, these departments require their hires to continue researching in the area in which they did receive training and, even, publishing the results of that research.

Fourth Snapshot

Six years later, in 2016–2017, decline had become visible. Total number of jobs posted that year on the MLA list: 104, a decrease of nearly 19%. Of that 104, 65 (62%) specified teaching in literature, another significant downturn. The wide-net ads continued to appear: “Foreign-language teaching; contemporary issues in the French-speaking world and some expertise in French cinema,” for example. At 15, the number of positions advertising for a pre-modernist remained stable, but the desire for candidates willing to take on everything had become visible in these ads as well. A posting for pre-nineteenth-century literature and culture mentions that “a secondary interest in French theater, politics, and/or business is welcome.” Another appends: “secondary field in French cultural studies and/or film desirable.” And a third adds: “Open, but preference for candidates who can teach advanced courses in media/film or diaspora studies. Pre-twentieth-century French civilization and business French desirable.”

Finally, there was another, potentially significant decrease. Of the 15 postings for jobs in pre-modern fields, only 3 explicitly mentioned the eighteenth century, only 1 the Enlightenment. Despite the proliferation of ads stating that an interest in seemingly anything and everything French is “desirable,” the eighteenth century per se has figured less and less as an object of desire.


I was delighted when Jonathan Sachs asked me to contribute to this discussion. French is so diminished at present that colleagues in English all too seldom remember that my field still exists. By the time I’d taken stock of the job lists I describe here, I was glad to have accepted Jonathan’s invitation for a completely different reason.

The Enlightenment matters—of that I am convinced. As the world emerges from the current crisis and universities go through the process of reshaping themselves in response to economic and societal realities that none of us can at present foresee, the French Enlightenment must not be forgotten.

Colleagues in English have of late often included French works in their courses on the eighteenth-century novel—Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747) probably more than any other. Perhaps some of them will now step into the breach and help guarantee that the key texts of the thinkers known as the philosophes—from Montesquieu and Voltaire to Diderot and Rousseau—do not disappear from university curricula. All the major works of the philosophes are available in English; even numerous entries in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia are accessible online in translation.

Montesquieu and Voltaire became major authors in the 1720s and 1730s in the midst of the world’s first ever stock market crash and Europe’s last outbreak of the bubonic plague. This was the moment when the movement that we now know as the Enlightenment took hold in France.

In the summer of 1720, when all eyes were on the crash of the Paris stock market and the implosion of the Mississippi Bubble in London, no one could have guessed that in March 1721 Montesquieu would publish The Persian Letters, the first salvo in what became a very long war to change the way of the world in Europe.

Not only can eighteenth-century studies inform the future of the Humanities; they have to become essential again—in any future that the Humanities will have.

Joan DeJean has been Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania since 1988. She is the author of twelve books on French literature, history, and material culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City (2014). She is currently at work on a book about the lives of women who were deported to Louisiana in 1719.

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