Acknowledging Abuses and Committing to Change

Originally published in the Winter 2018 MLA Newsletter

The process of acknowledging abuses and committing to change requires confronting challenges. Now is the time to look squarely at and address systematically the power differentials in academic life. The pain and anger resulting from abuse of power by faculty members and administrators—and by those who defend them—has roiled many campuses as well as our association. It is impossible to calculate the harm done to students and contingent or junior faculty members or to those who embody various forms of difference who have been targeted by abusers or who suffer from negligence from, casual disrespect from, or exploitation by their teachers, mentors, or employers. Lost careers, mental illness, and financial jeopardy represent only some of the damage.

Perhaps most distressing is the frequency with which those who have been violated are not heard or believed because clear delineations of rights and reporting procedures don’t exist, because administrators protect star faculty members, or because phalanxes of the abuser’s friends create walls of protection around the abuser. These impediments compound the damage to victims and raise troubling questions about the integrity of our institutions. Why do we countenance (“That’s just Chris”) rather than confront abuses of power? Why does our knowledge about the complexity of literary characters not extend to recognizing that colleagues and friends known in one context may behave differently in another? Why do our theories rarely extend to interrogation of the power we wield?

As are a number of campuses, the MLA is looking at how it can do more to protect against abuses and advocate for the integrity of, among other things, Title IX and grievance processes. At their fall meetings, both the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee (DAOC) and the Executive Council addressed abuses of power. The DAOC decided to devote the open discussion of the Delegate Assembly at the 2019 MLA Annual Convention to the topic of power dynamics on campus, focusing on but extending beyond graduate students, and it is creating a page on the MLA Web site where MLA members can anonymously discuss abusive mentoring practices as well as describe successful programs that prevent or address the misuse of power. This page will remain active through the convention for those who wish to contribute.

The Executive Council launched an initiative to develop specific materials and implementable policies and practices that campuses and associations can use to understand and to prevent the abuses of power that have become engrained in academic life. The first step in moving forward will be to draw and build upon the accounts of survivors and suggestions of promising models collected by the DAOC. Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of rhetorical listening—“a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text or culture; its purpose is to cultivate conscious identifications in ways that promote productive communication”—offers a way to respond to survivors of abuse and develop ideas for preventing or addressing abuse in the future (25). This type of listening may help us understand more fully and address more effectively the complicated layers of power that permeate our institutions and associations.

Engaging in this process has the potential to move us beyond the status quo and toward new perceptions and allocations of power. Whether you have a story to tell or a suggestion to offer, the 2019 MLA convention will provide opportunities to talk with and listen to colleagues who share a conviction that we can, and will, do better. I look forward to seeing you in Chicago!

Work Cited

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.