Telling Our Story

Originally published in the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter

The theme of the 2016 convention in Austin will be Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future. I’d like to anticipate that event with a year of renewed attention to the publics we face as scholars of literature, language, and writing and to the MLA’s particular public, its members. In this first column of my presidency, I reflect on how the MLA braids two identities, as a scholarly association and an advocacy organization, in support of our members’ professional lives.

One of the most enjoyable things about the Vancouver convention for me was the spontaneous conversations I had with members. At one reception, I spoke for half an hour with two instructors from Central Washington University, Lila Harper and Ruthi Erdman, about how they see their membership in the MLA. Their enjoyment of the convention was manifest, and both spoke eloquently about what they have gained. Lila later wrote to me:

I have been a member for thirty years, having joined as a graduate student. Joining back then required that I go to the library, obtain a PMLA to find the address, and write a letter asking to join. I had been told it was my professional organization, so I figured I had better join up. No one else in my family had ever tried doing doctoral work, so I was attempting to figure out the culture. Although I have been non-tenure-track for twenty-five years and have never been interviewed for a tenure-line job, I still believe it is my professional organization.

As I have struggled to find a place for myself in an institutional world that saw me as marginal or possibly threatening, I looked to the MLA to remind me that I belong to a profession with an ethical code, that there was more to my work than the everyday conditions of departmental life, more than answering the continuingly disconnected demands of my employer’s bureaucracy. I need the MLA to remind me that my intellectual goals do not end with servicing the increasing classroom sizes and poorly prepared students and that the continuation of scholarship matters.

If it had not been for the MLA, I would have burned out long ago. Teachers need something for themselves, an intellectual engagement that continues beyond the latest group of students, one that will carry you through yet another set of budget cutbacks, software upgrades, and administrative turnovers. The MLA keeps me connected. It reminds me that there is a world of ideas and conversations out there and that, no matter my status at work, I can still contribute to that world.

Few can express better than Lila what it means to belong to a scholarly association, especially to one the size and scope of ours. In an intellectual sense, our association sustains the intangible bonds of knowledge that keep not only us as scholars and teachers but our disparate fields in conversation.

In the academy of today, however, intellectual connection is not everything we expect of the MLA. It’s an organization that exists to serve the needs of its members by offering advocacy and information as well as intellectual exchange—and it must maintain both threads of this identity together.

Some of this advocacy has been consistent over the decades: the MLA is the humanities organization that leads all the rest in carrying out research on the workforce in higher education, forging partnerships with other humanities associations and foundations, and lobbying for our interests in Washington. However much one may enjoy the warm embrace of a small conference or the easy legibility of a field-specific journal (and I do), the organizations that give us these things don’t have the size or the budget to do the quotidian, often invisible work of the MLA.

In this era of tumult in higher education, the officers, Executive Council, and staff are always asking how the MLA as an advocacy organization can better reflect the profession and serve a wider range of members in ways that recognize the institutional realities they face every day. We’re making the MLA more representative of the profession by reaching out to faculty members across the spectrum of institutions and employment as well as to our partners in K–12 education, our allies in other sectors such as libraries and foundations, and our counterparts abroad. There’s more we can do to put the information we gather directly into members’ hands and to speak explicitly to the needs of members across very different professional conditions.

Our challenge is to make the MLA’s work visible in ways that touch the everyday experiences of our members, potential members, and allies. We know how to interpret others’ stories, but can we tell our own story as the largest scholarly organization in the world? Despite our size, can we become nimbler, more open to new voices, and more about conversations than pronouncements? Posing and answering these questions is my first initiative as president. I intend to report on it throughout 2015 on MLA Commons, and I invite your comments here.