• On 21 October Columbia University’s Maison Française held a roundtable discussion, “The Humanities and the MLA Today,” which featured Marianne Hirsch, 2013 MLA president; Mary Louise Pratt, former MLA president; […]

  • Originally published in the Winter 2013 MLA Newsletter
    MLA President Marianne Hirsch and First Vice President Margaret Ferguson have collaborated on this column to discuss proposed revisions to the association’s divisions and discussion groups.

    Hirsch: It may be because we belong to the same feminist generation that I did not hesitate to invite Margie Ferguson to cochair the Working Group on the MLA’s Divisions and Discussion Groups as soon as she was elected Second Vice President. It was clear to me that the work of reviewing the association’s traditional structures of knowledge had to be undertaken collaboratively and that we would need to invent a process of extensive and inclusive consultation—one that would not only allow a large number of members to participate but that would still move forward expeditiously. Together, I hoped, with the advice of the working group, the Executive Council, and the Program Committee, and aided by the association’s new collaborative digital platform MLA Commons, we could devise such a process and imagine a renewed structure (see groupsdiscussion.mla.hcommons.org).

    I’ve not been able to shake my collaboration habit. The addiction dates back to my first years as an assistant professor, and I venture to say that it has sustained me through several decades of academic work. I’ve cochaired academic programs, centers, institutes, and committees; coedited books and journal issues; cowritten articles and a scholarly book—some of these before the advantage of e-mail, Dropbox, and Google Docs. It’s not just that I like writing and thinking in conversation with others, the stimulation and surprise of it, the security of sharing responsibility. In fact, collaboration is never without conflict: it can be agonistic and profoundly uncomfortable. Rather, it’s that, in the emergence of feminist political and scholarly work in the 1970s and 1980s, when I first entered the academy, problems benefited from being approached from multiple, interdisciplinary angles, from being argued, challenged, and debated. I hoped that this long-term experience with the practice of feminist collaboration and conflict would prove useful in the task of reviewing the MLA’s intellectual structures.

    Ferguson: “Conflict” and “collaboration,” along with “conversation,” “commons,” and “compromise,” belong to a large family of English words indebted to the Latin root “co,” meaning “together.” The best experiences I’ve had of collaborative work—and I’ve had many, resembling Marianne’s—have made time and space for conflicts to emerge. The task is to discern which ways of practicing conflict are crucial for the health of a collaborative project and which might become destructive. Marianne and I both recognize the necessity of disagreement to the immensely complicated collaborative task we have invited all MLA members—that’s a group of nearly 28,000—to participate in this fall. When Marianne asked me to cochair the working group with her, I remember muttering phrases like “Herculean labor,” “Borgesian taxonomies,” and “Kafkaesque story of metamorphosis.” As I began to learn more about the groups that wanted the association’s elected officers to respond to their persistent calls for structural change, however, and as I studied a list of current divisions and discussion groups that I (along with many MLA members, I suspect) had never looked at carefully, I came to see this revision project as urgent.

    What I learned made me think in new ways about a collaborative process of revision. How could it acknowledge new fields of scholarship and teaching while respecting long-established groups? The answer to this question is not easy, and we are not going to arrive at even a compromise version of it without robust debate that moves many of us out of our comfort zones by asking us to think about the profession as a changing whole greater than the sum of its new and old disciplinary parts.

    Moving beyond our disciplinary “homes” involves taking a step back from the important question of how many guaranteed convention sessions a given area of scholarly inquiry and teaching will retain—or acquire—under the proposed revision plan. Although we agree that the real estate issue is important, if it becomes the dominant issue, then it will be impossible for a truly collaborative decision-making process to occur. Why? Because the draft proposal aims to make qualitative as well as quantitative changes to the map of our evolving field represented (imperfectly) on the current lists of divisions and discussion groups (http://www.mla.org/divisions_groups). There were moments in the meetings of the working group when I thought we were all in a race like the one in Zeno’s famous paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, a paradox designed to prove that all motion is an illusion. And there were moments when most of us wanted a more sweeping revision than the incremental one we eventually posted on the Commons. We all agreed, however, that no merely arithmetic logic can guide us in reconceiving a structure that operates according to vastly different scales of time, space, and disciplinary approach. The draft revision does not aim to standardize groups, although it does aim to encourage communication among those members who affiliate under a given group’s old, new, or revised name.

    We are learning a great deal from the comment process—as much from objections to some of our proposals to amalgamate groups as from the demand for new field formations. The next version of the proposal will reflect this continuing collaborative education, which has been humbling, frustrating, and enlightening and which has deepened our awareness that no scheme for representing intellectual affinity groups in the MLA will solve the practical and theoretical problems attendant on the concept of representation.

    Ferguson and Hirsch: Whom do we represent when we are elected to MLA committees or offices? Some of us are elected as faculty members or graduate students, as representatives of our regions or our subfields. Presidents are nominated, alternately, from “English” or “Languages Other Than English.” Professional allegiances and identities are profound, and we have learned to mobilize them strategically to defend our fields against administrative and legislative cutbacks. But we have found that a different logic motivates our work as officers of the MLA.

    We began the review of the MLA divisions and discussion groups with the whole profession in mind. But our visions of the whole were partial, limited by our experience and expertise. Through multiple conversations with individuals and groups (and individuals speaking for groups), we have had our concepts of the MLA tested, expanded, corrected, and—in short—changed. The most extraordinary of the collectivities with whom we have conversed is the one still forming on the Commons in response to the proposal for a revised structure. On that site, “conversations” are multiple and occur in jazzy rhythms at different levels of generality. This unprecedented collaboration has already improved the draft that we posted in September and promises to continue to do so. Note that comments on this draft are open until 20 November. A revised version will be open for comment after the January convention.

    The total number of sessions that can be held at any given convention is, of course, finite—approximately eight hundred. But the intellectual range and quality of sessions can’t be measured by an additive logic. Those who plan guaranteed sessions—and who therefore don’t have to compete for convention space—have an opportunity every year to think about topics that might interest MLA members outside as well as inside their own knowledge territories. If we want to renew our fields by considering them as parts of a larger whole that cannot be found at specialized conferences, we need to work together in creative ways and check the tendency to compete for turf. The exciting collaborative sessions at the last few conventions provide a model for how members of new and old divisions and discussion groups can think and work together in ways that stress translation across and beneath the boundaries delineating what are now all too aptly named “divisions.”

    The MLA Commons allows for collaboration to occur around specific areas of interest, informally, and to maintain smaller or larger field formations. The new three-year seminars provide additional opportunities for scholarly exchange. Groups will continue to be able to gain additional convention sessions by collaborating with other entities. And whatever new structure is adopted at the end of this process will be subject to regular self-study, review, and periodic renewal. This is, perhaps, the best that could come out of this round of collaborations—an evolving conversation about the shapes and scales of our fields and the stakes of our work.

    photo of Margaret Ferguson and Marianne Hirsch

    Margaret Ferguson and Marianne Hirsch

  • Originally published in the Fall 2013 MLA Newsletter
    A few years ago, crisis was the key term describing the humanities and, specifically, humanities education in the academy. The summer of 2013 was full of talk about the humanities, but the term crisis did not dominate. We heard about “decline” in undergraduate majors and enrollments or, worse, “decline and fall,” and we saw numerous charts and graphs that supported and contested the drop in numbers. We read various narratives explaining the charts. Some argued that the shift in women’s career choices since the 1970s caused a drastic reduction in the number of English majors, but between 1970 and 1980 rather than now. Others blamed economic motives that sent students to majors with more secure employability, but they were quickly contradicted by business leaders who highlighted the valued skills that humanities majors bring to corporate work. Most troubling was that humanities professors were attacked for their inability to make a case for the importance of their areas of study as well as for their persistence in teaching traditional works with no current relevance and, conversely, for their teaching of “race, class, gender” and popular media rather than age-old values like “beauty and truth.”

    If crisis talk has waned, it may be owing to two major reports on the state of the humanities, published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Heart) and Harvard University (“Teaching”), and their practical analyses and suggestions. It may be that crisis talk just has not been productive. Has the humanities ever been stable and well supported? Crisis presumes an immediacy that obscures the persistent vulnerability of our disciplines in a higher education system that is subject to unstable private and public funding sources. If it is true that the number of humanities majors (however defined) has held fairly steady at seventeen percent of all majors between 1970 and 2010, then we are not on the precipice of destruction right now, at least not on that front (Bérubé). But we still need to ask ourselves whether seventeen is an adequate percentage and how we might, independent of enrollment figures, envision the future of the humanities and the arts in a rapidly shifting political climate that seems to propel us from crisis to crisis, encouraging us to forget previous urgencies as we react to new ones. It is my hope that the focus on vulnerability that I have invited during the 2014 convention will spur a long-range approach and more creative and sustainable solutions than the alarmist talk of crisis.

    There will be ample opportunity during the 2014 convention to discuss the questions raised in these reports and their press coverage and, indeed, to practice some of their recommendations for establishing broader coalitions among humanists inside and outside the academy. The convention will be preceded on the morning of 9 January by the Chicago Humanities Summit, cosponsored by the MLA, the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and planned in response to the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences report, The Heart of the Matter. The summit, comprising members of the commission, local humanities leaders, and academic humanists, will discuss strategies and practices designed to help anchor the humanities in the larger public sphere. I hope that MLA members will tailor their travel plans so that they can participate in this promising event. At this convention, the MLA will bestow its Phyllis Franklin Award for Public Advocacy of the Humanities to the filmmaker and writer John Sayles. Ambitious roundtables on MOOCs and on the Common Core standards in K–12 education are planned for the convention, as are open hearings on the revision of the MLA’s fundamental structures of knowledge, the divisions and discussion groups. In conjunction with “The Presidential Forum: Vulnerable Times,” the roundtable “Public Humanities” will probe the notion of the public, discussing institutions such as local humanities councils, museums, archives, libraries, festivals, theater, poetry jams, and prisons. Participants will also debate the role of university humanities centers and associations like the MLA in connecting students and faculty members in the academy with their communities.

    As this particular roundtable suggests, the presidential theme Vulnerable Times is meant to advance both trenchant analyses of recurring vulnerabilities and susceptibilities to injury in the past and specific strategies for confronting the present and the future. The theme engages broad questions that reach well beyond the professional concerns of the humanities in our time. Distinguishing between the vulnerabilities we share as species living in bodies and in time and socially and politically produced vulnerabilities that are differentially imposed and thus subject to resistance and change, the theme invites historical analyses of how different periods and different cultures define their vulnerabilities and envision their futures. The sessions associated with Vulnerable Times promise to illuminate how the textual, historical, theoretical, and activist work we do as teachers of languages and literatures has been and can be mobilized to address social and political problems, whether urgent and immediate or persistent and recurring. They promise to engage the aesthetic as a space of vulnerability and as a practice that engages in resistance.

    With this aim, the Presidential Forum will theorize vulnerability’s complex temporalities. Discussing embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed, forum participants will expose key sites of vulnerability and assess possibilities for change. Two additional linked sessions will expand this dual approach to vulnerability: “The Politics of Language in Vulnerable Times” will look specifically at the effects of globalization and its promotion of English and at migration, minoritization, and troubling new language pedagogies; “Trauma, Memory, Vulnerability” will examine the new constellations brought to trauma and memory studies by the focus on vulnerability and its orientation toward the future as well as the past.

    In defining the theme, it was my expectation that the network of Vulnerable Times sessions would spawn an extended conversation that engages different historical periods as well as different literatures and disciplinary and interdisciplinary directions. Indeed, the more than 200 sessions connected to the presidential theme range across every possible field and MLA group.

    Of course, none of us can attend more than a small fraction of these events, in addition to participating in job interviews, seeing friends, and enjoying the pleasures of Chicago. In the spirit of the openness and connectivity associated with vulnerability, however, I want to urge you to attend at least one session that is entirely outside your area of expertise. I encourage you to use this convention to engage both intellectual and professional questions from as broad a vantage point as possible so that, together, we can respond to our vulnerabilities actively and creatively, without succumbing to debilitating crisis mentalities.
    Works Cited
    Bérubé, Michael. “The Humanities, Declining? Not according to the Numbers.” Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 1 July 2013. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

    The Heart of the Matter. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 2013. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

    “The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future.” The Humanities Project. Harvard U, 2012–13. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.

  • Dear Colleagues,

    We are writing with an update on the project of reviewing and revising the MLA divisions and discussion groups. This past spring, we consulted with the executive committees of all the divisions […]

  • There are so many things wrong with Lee Siegel’s article today that I decided it was not worth taking him on on his terms and in the newspaper that decided to publish such an anti-intellectual piece. […]

  • In response to Roland, here is an article from Business Insider. It seems that the perception that humanities majors learn to think creatively, write well, and understand people well is pervasive in the business […]

  • Recent reports by a commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and by Harvard University have sparked a national conversation about humanities education in the twenty-first century. The dominant […]

  • Originally published in the Summer 2013 MLA Newsletter

    What does it mean, in 2013, to be the Modern Language Association of America? What map is covered by the MLA’s location and activities? Should this map evolve? If so, how?

    The MLA is the world’s largest scholarly society in the humanities, and it aims to serve a worldwide community of scholars and teachers of languages, literatures, and cultures. It fulfills this aspiration well in a number of areas. The MLA Job Information List posts openings from universities all over the world. The MLA International Bibliography is the preeminent worldwide research tool for literary studies; its sales reach across 50 countries; 22 out of 120 field bibliographers work outside the United States; and there are more than 25,000 entries annually in European, Asian, African, and Latin American literatures. The seventh edition of the MLA Handbook has recently been translated into Chinese. The MLA’s publication series Approaches to Teaching World Literature, Options for Teaching, World Literatures Reimagined, and Texts and Translations provide teaching materials for, theoretical reflections on, as well as translations of texts written in numerous lan­guages and emerging from diverse literary traditions. The series Teaching Languages, Literatures, and Cultures offers analyses of new language-teaching methodologies, research, and curriculum design for a number of commonly and less commonly taught languages. Writers from around the world are among the MLA’s honorary fellows.

    The MLA offers travel grants so that regular and life members residing outside the United States and Canada can attend the convention. Still, only between 4% and 5% of participants attending the last three conventions traveled from abroad. And only 13% of MLA members reside outside the United States (8.75% outside the United States and Canada).

    The association divides its work into two large and inclusive parts: English and, variously, “foreign languages” (as in the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages) or “languages other than English.” Only one-third of MLA members work on nonanglophone languages and literatures, and, of these, European languages are far more widely represented than languages from other parts of the planet. One need only consult the MLA Language Map, however, to see that none of these languages is “foreign” in the multilingual United States, and “other than” underscores a linguistic hierarchy that makes it all the more challenging to multiply language fields within the association.

    I know I’m not alone in finding the MLA’s imperial “of America” troubling and the split between English and “foreign” languages frustrating. What are some alternative terms? World languages? The US MLA? North America? Or simply the Modern Language Association?

    These recalcitrant lexical stumbling blocks should not obscure what we all know: that a vast number of our members, including those who are ostensibly in English, are bi-or multilingual; that we have origins, as well as personal and professional ties, all over the world; and that we work in multiple languages and in numerous planetary networks of intellectual exchange. These ties are as deep as they are vast, and they are visible in our individual and collective work. But how can the association more fully reflect these interrelations?

    The Executive Council has recently renewed its commitment to “internationalizing” the MLA. Efforts to expand the representation of underrepresented world languages (Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and more) and to facilitate pedagogical and scholarly work on less commonly taught languages are already under way, and membership from these fields should increase accordingly. Beyond that, we need to pause and ask what it means to internationalize a scholarly institution responsibly at a moment when globalization is a buzzword mobilized throughout the academy in response to economic, political, and so-called security priorities.

    The MLA’s multifaceted projects provide ample reasons for a broad international membership. What is more, the MLA’s structure as a multilingual and interdisciplinary organization can offer models of collaboration and exchange with other scholarly associations. The humanities are neglected and underfunded in the age of economic globalization, and the MLA’s advocacy work on behalf of language and literature has implications beyond the United States’ borders. A growing international membership would spur more robust discussion about these urgent issues as well as promote deeper collaborations in a variety of fields at the annual convention and on MLA Commons, where online capabilities foster less costly networks of intellectual communication.

    A project initiated by the Executive Council represents a new approach to internationalizing. In the past, the MLA has held small symposia on specific topics in various cities in the United States. The council is contemplating col­laborating with colleagues in several parts of the world to organize MLA international symposia, which would be structured around pressing issues in the humanities and held every three years.

    Many of us have attended international conferences and experienced the divergent approaches emerging from distinct traditions of scholarship and teaching. We have also encountered the pauses occasioned by difficulties in translation, by miscommunications and misunderstandings that can occur as we cross borders. For example, do colleagues in Argentina or Brazil feel included by the prepositional phrase of America in the MLA’s name? A conference in the southern part of the hemisphere would have to address these prepositional and geographic designations. As we organize international symposia through the MLA, we need to build pauses and untranslatabilities into the discussion. Doing so, we can enrich our reflections on how language, history, and place shape the production of knowledge. And we can try to foster multilingual and multilocal professional links that begin in different locations and create new connections across borders.

    In the near future, MLA international symposia might address topics such as translation, migration and diaspora, environmental criticism, medical humanities, religion and secularism, and media studies. Building on these sym­posia, might we envision future MLA working groups, with live and virtual participation, that would engage in active collaborations across national, linguistic, and disciplinary frontiers? Actually, the association’s name does not preclude this since, according to the OED, of originally meant not “connected with” or “referring to” but “away” or “away from”—as in “south of the border,” for example. Being “of America,” the MLA would then also be moving outward, away from its borders, however construed. Might we thus also look toward a Modern Language Association with conventions located beyond America?

  • Rebecca, you point out some of the most important functions of divisions — they make our organization and our own identities in the profession intelligible, and enable us to find colleagues with similar […]

  • In January 2014, the MLA convention will take place in Chicago, and I would like to invite you to participate in the presidential theme, Vulnerable Times. In recent years, the MLA president has had the privilege of choosing from his or her scholarly or professional engagements a theme for the convention’s Presidential Forum. The theme is meant to introduce topics, concerns, provocations, and formats that will put divergent fields and historical periods in productive conversation, spawning a network of interconnected sessions during the convention and possibilities of continuing collaboration afterward.

    Vulnerable Times addresses vulnerabilities of life, the planet, and our professional disciplines, in our own time and throughout history. Its aim is to illuminate acts of imagination and forms of solidarity and resistance that promote social change. The theme and my interest in vulnerability derive from my long-standing feminist work on lives that have been marginalized, forgotten, or omitted from dominant histories and narratives. They also emerge from a concern about the precarious place of education—particularly in languages, the humanities, and the arts—among the local and global priorities of the present moment. How do we mobilize the textual, historical, theoretical, and activist work we do as teachers and scholars of languages and literatures to shape conversations about broad social and political problems?

    Vulnerability and its antithesis, resilience, appear in studies of the environment, social ecology, political economy, medicine, and developmental psychology as terms that help address the predisposition of people and systems to injury and understand their ability to recover from shock and catastrophe. While acknowledging the vulnerabilities stemming from our shared embodiment, feminist theorists have also underlined the unevenly imposed and socially manufactured vulnerabilities faced by marginalized groups throughout history. They have seen vulnerability—both shared and differentially inflicted—not as weakness or victimhood but as a space for engagement and resistance emerging from a sense of fundamental openness, interdependence, and solidarity. Conscious of the critiques that follow from a claim to vulnerability as precarity, they have nevertheless used this claim to imagine and to demand social and political institutions and acts of repair that would strengthen the recognition of interdependence and reduce susceptibility to injury.

    Vulnerable Times aims to contribute literary, humanistic, and historical perspectives to these interdisciplinary engagements. It looks to the temporalities that follow from an acknowledgment of vulnerability and asks how different historical moments and different cultural contexts have conceived of vulnerability and invulnerability, how they have attempted to avert catastrophe, envisioning alternative futures. Papers, panels, and roundtables might engage subjects such as social difference and disposable lives; trauma, memory, and testimony; war, genocide, and violence; the effects of conquest, empire, and globalization; exile and migration; species, climate, and environment; intersubjectivity, intercorporeality, embodiment, and disability; affect and the senses; intimacy, collaboration, and solidarity; resistance and activism; justice, repair, and redress; public arts and humanities; and endangered languages.

    I hope that Vulnerable Times will generate elaborations and exchanges in a variety of fields. I invite you to propose special sessions for the convention or to dedicate sessions allotted to your divisions, discussion groups, allied organizations, or committees to explore aspects of the presidential theme. On the forms used for session proposals (available in early March at http://www.mla.org/convention) you can indicate whether you wish your session to be considered for inclusion among the listing of sessions related to the presidential theme. The sessions selected for inclusion will appear in the brochure announcing the Presidential Forum. I would be grateful for your help in identifying potential contributions to Vulnerable Times. I would also welcome proposals of innovative session formats, including (but not limited to) moderated discussions of new books or articles of interest, dialogues and debates, PechaKucha sessions based on rapid sequences of slides, live or electronic roundtables, or workshops.

    I hope you will attend the 2014 convention in Chicago, and I look forward to exploring Vulnerable Times with you.

    With warm wishes,

    Marianne Hirsch

    2013–14 MLA President

  • Originally published in the Spring 2013 MLA Newsletter

    In the preface to Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things), Michel Foucault tells us that “this book arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the […]

  • ThumbnailDear Colleagues,

    Welcome to the Modern Language Association. As the MLA’s 2013–14 president, I would like to introduce myself and lay out some of the association’s future goals and current activities. If you […]

Marianne Hirsch

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