What Is the MLA, and Where Does It Live?

Originally published in the Winter 2012 MLA Newsletter

A funny thing happened to me back in January. I checked in to my hotel for the New Faculty Majority conference in Washington, DC, and the young man at the desk asked me if I was really from the Modern Language Association. “Yes, I am,” I replied. “In fact, I’m the president of the association this year.” “Wow,” he replied. “You mean the Modern Language Association that does the Handbook for research papers?” “I do,” I said, stunned, “but I have to admit I don’t have any jurisdiction over the Handbook.”

I was totally charmed by this encounter. I know that the Handbook has sold millions of copies and that MLA style is widely known, but I have never met anyone who heard “MLA” and immediately thought, “Wow! The Handbook people!” In my experience, when people talk about the MLA—and by “people” I mean not only “journalists” and “folks” but also “other professors”—they tend to identify the association with the convention. I have always found the slippage rather strange, and I wonder whether the MLA is unique among scholarly societies in this respect. Outside academe, the conflation of the convention with the association is probably the result of years of tedious drive-by journalists filing their “let’s make fun of paper titles” columns over the holiday break; inside academe, the dynamic is more complex.

Over the past year, I have learned to my surprise that many of my colleagues—even many fellow members of the association—are under the impression that the convention is where the “real” work of the MLA gets done. Some people seem to think the convention is our major source of revenue (it is not). Yet because the convention is the venue for job interviews, it is the site of great (and often justified) anxiety. Because the convention can involve any number of potentially awkward face-to-face encounters, from the ride in the crowded elevator with the person who panned your last book to the tense moment in a session with an audience member whose question is really more of a (hostile) comment, it can be the site of whatever passes for high drama in the world of letters. And because the convention brings together eight thousand smart, literate people and hosts hundreds of gatherings of old friends, it can sometimes be great fun.

But the convention is not the association. The Handbook is not the association—and neither is theMLA Bibliography, which is our major source of revenue! Even the MLA staff members, brilliant and dedicated as they are, are not the association. Neither is any one instantiation of the Delegate Assembly or the Executive Council. The truism you’re expecting (and that I will not fail to deliver) happens to be true: you are the association.

As Burton Bledstein points out in The Culture of Professionalism, disciplinary associations like the MLA were formed at a time when the United States was undergoing the transformations that led to the creation of what we now call the professional-managerial class. They offered their members an identity as professionals and a venue for intellectual exchange among specialists in various branches of knowledge. Do we still need such things today? Many of our colleagues choose to affiliate instead with smaller, subdisciplinary organizations; some choose not to affiliate with any scholarly organization at all. But for those of you who happen to be reading this newsletter . . . what do you see as the purpose of your organization?

I can assure you that the Executive Council debates versions of this question at our every meeting; the most visible and dramatic result of one of those discussions was the creation of the office of scholarly communication, and my successor, Marianne Hirsch, has convened a working group to reexamine the MLA’s division structure, an ambitious undertaking that will concern us for some time. But ideas about our purpose subtend every discussion we have about whether we should take a public stand on an issue and every deliberation about how we should work with other organizations on matters that affect us all.

In the course of those discussions, I have come to realize that one critical aspect of the MLA is often overlooked even by our members: our standing committees. Everyone speaks of committee work as a ticket to tedium, but my experience on MLA committees has been terrific. I started out in 1997 as a member of the Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession and was thrilled to see how we were making our convention and our publications more accessible. As a member of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, I worked on our academic freedom statement and debated our per-course wage recommendations with my colleagues. As a member of the Nominating Committee, I helped create a slate of candidates for the MLA’s highest offices. At times, the work was actually fun; always, it was instructive and edifying.

How can you get involved with the MLA at this important level? It’s easy: simply volunteer for a committee you’d like to work on. The Executive Council can’t take all self-nominations, of course, but we try to give them priority—partly to get new people involved in the work of the association and partly because we’re reasonably sure that self-nominated candidates will accept when we ask them to serve. You can help maintain or create our professional standards, oversee our publications, promote the interests of various constituencies, or shape new developments in information technology and scholarly communication. And on committees that meet face-to-face, you’ll get to visit New York City.

So if you’ve been wondering how the MLA operates, and why it does the things it does, look past the convention: get involved at the committee level, where so much of our work takes place. Help set the agenda on the issues that mean the most to you as a scholar and teacher. And join the ongoing discussions about the role of scholarly societies in the twenty-first century.

Work Cited

Bledstein, Burton J. The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: Norton, 1978. Print.