Conclusion: Numbers and Passion

Half a century ago—at a forum on nationalism, colonialism, and United States foreign policy—James Baldwin cautioned, “We are misled here, because we think of numbers. You don’t need numbers; you need passion” (12–13). I am grateful to Frances R. Aparicio, Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, Richard T. Rodríguez, Robert Warrior, and Dana A. Williams for the thoughtful passion that they bring to their responses to the report on available data on faculty members of color in English and foreign languages, where I note that numbers do not speak for themselves but call out for interpretation and narrative frameworks. Baldwin did not think terribly interesting the hypothetical day on which an African American would become president, but he did think we needed to realize that “no other country in the world has been so fat and so sleek, and so safe, and so happy, and so irresponsible, and so dead” (10). I doubt that he would think differently today, when the United States has an African American president but also, in Michelle Alexander’s words, “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (6). That Baldwin no doubt meant the term passion to resonate with its Christian usage, as he so often did, suggests that we need to pass through a difficult trial that will strip us of the complacency Baldwin saw around him. The point is compelling, but I think, too, that in the bureaucratic terms that govern our lives nowadays, we are not misled to think that we need some numbers. Baldwin meant that numbers could be compensatory tokens, in the dismissive sense, but numbers can also be exchangeable currency in a bureaucratic economy. Humanists are widely suspicious of many of the numbers industries, and this suspicion finds fine, subtle form here in Warrior’s contribution. But data can give an advocacy campaign some common currency to spend in answering opposition that proceeds from different premises. Faculty members might find that they do not share the priorities and premises of their upper administration, for instance. But then the question becomes, Can they move the conversation to a place where they share some facts, where they agree on some data points? It’s my hope that the data report clears such a conversational space for those who seek it and that they will find in that clearing a more secure footing from which to leverage their institutions.

By way of update to the report, I draw attention to the supplement from the American Council on Education (ACE), Minorities in Higher Education. I am heartened to say that these findings are not wholly dispiriting, but most of them are no cause for celebration. For instance, the report finds generally that “[t]he younger generation in the United States no longer achieves a much higher level of education than its predecessors. . . . Only two groups, Asian Americans and whites, made notable gains over their elders. . . . No gains were observed for African Americans and Hispanics. . . . For American Indians . . . attainment rates for young adults were lower than their older counterparts” (Kim 1). “Young Asian Americans marked the highest rate of college enrollment (63 percent) in 2009, while American Indians registered the lowest rate (23 percent)” (2). The gender breakdowns continue to show stagnant or even bad news for men of color: “[Y]oung racial/ethnic minority men, except Asian Americans, have fallen behind their predecessors in postsecondary attainment,” and “African Americans and Hispanics showed the largest gender gaps in college enrollment rates” (1, 2). Unfortunately, these data show a lack of progress toward equity.

The news is better if we turn our attention toward graduate education, which is where the MLA has directed several of its efforts through the work of groups such as the ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of African Americans in the Profession and the Group for Underrepresented Students in Humanities Education and Research, which began as an MLA project and has since migrated to other institutions. The ACE supplement finds that “[b]etween 1998 and 2008, the total number of master’s and doctoral degrees conferred rose by 51 percent and 30 percent, respectively. At each of these levels, the growth in degrees conferred is attributable largely to minorities. Their gains are notable especially at the master’s degree level, where the number of degrees conferred to students of color nearly doubled” (Kim 3). This information is encouraging for graduate education in English when we consider that about sixty percent of Hispanic and about seventy percent of black PhD recipients in English find tenure-track jobs in their first year on the market, while the overall rate is less than fifty percent (MLA Survey, table 2). However, the MLA Survey of Placement of 2006–07 Graduates from Doctoral Programs in the United States and Canada shows the rate of placement to tenure-track positions is very uneven across ethnicities and across English and foreign language fields, and the statistical difficulties of very low numbers that Warrior so eloquently discusses are evident: with only three American Indian graduates in English and two in foreign languages represented among the 2006–07 PhD recipients, the percentage values are on a different order of magnitude.

In Reading Machines, Stephen Ramsay suggests, “The scientist is right to say that the plural of anecdote is not data, but in literary criticism an abundance of anecdote is precisely what allows discussion and debate to move forward” (9). In this spirit, I close by quoting Valerie Lee, of Ohio State University, on the usefulness of quantitative data on and for faculty members in the humanities:

We care about individuals, their unique characteristics and motivations, etc., but if we tried to understand phenomena in terms of unique, individual causal factors, we could not predict, shape or change our world. By analyzing quantitative data, we are able to transcend individual or randomly-distributed factors to recognize patterns and relationships among observations. These relationships inform our understanding of processes and outcomes.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2010. E-book. Kindle ed.

Baldwin, James. “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve—A Forum.” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. New York: Pantheon, 2010. 10–18. E-book. Kindle ed.

Kim, Young M. Minorities in Higher Education: Twenty-Fourth Status Report: 2011 Supplement. University of California, Santa Cruz. Amer. Council on Educ., Oct. 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2013. <>.

Lee, Valerie. Message to the author. 13 Oct. 2011. E-mail.

MLA Survey of Placement of 2006–07 Graduates from Doctoral Programs in the United States and Canada. Modern Language Association. MLA, Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2013. <>.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Print.

Doug Steward is associate director of programs and of the Association of Departments of English at the MLA. This essay appears as part of a cluster from the Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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