At the MLA Convention!

Originally published in the Winter 2019 MLA Newsletter

The arrival of the MLA convention Program is something I have looked forward to since I joined the organization over three decades ago. The Program has changed over the years: following the redesign of PMLA, its plain brown cover has given way to a light gray one with a colorful image. Although the Program is now available to the membership in electronic format, I have to confess that I’m still attached to the print issue. Going through the whole issue page by page with red or blue pencil in hand is a journey through the changing landscape of our profession, including its desires and anxieties.

In 1985, the year I attended my first MLA convention in Chicago, debates in the profession revolved around the role of theory, especially poststructuralism, in the field of literary studies. Today, as even a cursory glance at the Program for the 2020 convention in Seattle indicates, our desires and anxieties have shifted. The theories that used to generate so much heat in the mid-1980s are now so embedded in the profession that the only disputes they create are about ends rather than means. The center of our intellectual attention has certainly moved elsewhere—to questions about the human or the species, environmental survival, law and rights.

Some of these preferences have, of course, been overdetermined by the presidential theme and its linked panels, but I suspect that they also reflect a collective sense of the precarious situation in which the humanities find themselves. The need to figure out how to manage the crisis in the humanities has certainly prompted the MLA to develop programs and forums to train and prepare its members for the changing professional landscape.

But amid this concern with survival and coping in precarious times, the MLA convention also showcases the kinds of stories and conversations that enrich us all. This year’s convention features, for example, panels and sessions that recognize how the humanities, even though they seem to be under siege in the university, are thriving in public. The success of the humanities in the public sphere in the twenty-first century is evident in how communities across the country have come to embrace the mission of the national organizations charged with the protection and nurturing of the humanities, including the NEA and NEH.

Moreover, within the concentric circles that bring together scholars of literature and supporters of the humanities inside and outside institutions, there is an important, though not always acknowledged, binding force: our community of writers. We know that writers are important to literature because they provide us with the texts that are the bread and butter of our trade; we turn to them and their words of wisdom in times of cultural stress; we count on them to connect us with a reading public; and, above all, we turn to these masters of the word to help us think through the myriad issues that we face as we try to figure out what it means to be human.

For the January 2020 convention in Seattle, I have invited two distinguished writers to help us think about what it means to be human: Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, will help us understand the meaning of lives lived across and outside borders. And Charles Johnson, the author of the acclaimed novel Middle Passage, will remind us, once again, about the meaning of our shared humanity. Finally, since the twenty-first century marks the return of poetry to the center of public conversations, I will be delighted to present the Phyllis Franklin Award to Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, the founders of Cave Canem, the sacred space that has taught us about the invaluable place of poetry “in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.”