People studying at table in a spacious, high-ceilinged library reading room

Published in the Spring 2022 Newsletter

It’s not hard to be impressed by the humanities’ sheer mass appeal. In the wider world, they flourish. There is no end to the public appetite for TV series, films, news stories, novels, histories of figures and events both global and local, narrative revelations of hidden forces, dreams of better worlds, and “long read” explainers of everything. This unending narrative engagement involves all the topics and methods found in the study of language and literature and is often produced by people who either majored in MLA disciplines or enrolled in their courses. Those enrollees were twenty-two percent African American, Latino/a, or Indigenous by 2015, helping to develop new ideas while challenging the overwhelming whiteness of today’s big culture industries (“Racial/Ethnic Distribution”).

Yet too often academic humanities are not seen as connected to the humanities out in the world. The mass appeal of the humanities is connected to creative productions—books, shows, plays, poems, nonfiction articles. Our academic work is research that is largely invisible to the larger public, or even to our own administrators.

It would be understandable for us to downplay a focus on research, given the booming inequality of working conditions in higher education today. Most college instructors are overworked on the instructional part of the job. Only a minority of MLA members are expected to devote most of their best hours to scholarship; still fewer are rewarded or celebrated for it. And yet for us to see research as a minority preserve is to echo a core mistake of US culture, which casts creative intellectuality as the mark of an elite.

What is humanities research? We know research to mean systematic inquiry into an issue for the purpose of explaining something that is not currently (adequately or correctly) explained. I will skip nuances here in noting that research has at least three forms in the college or university: the creation or discovery of new knowledge, the transmission and integration of new knowledge into a common knowledge base, and the collective process of acquiring the ability to absorb and use new knowledge. The second and third of these forms mean that research is embodied in teaching; the first, research traditionally understood as knowledge creation, depends on and overlaps with the other two. Research and teaching cannot be dichotomized into separate functions. Our working conditions must support their mutual dependence. 

Higher education overall aims at those same three things: the creation of new knowledge (“research”), the transmission of existing knowledge, and the creation of the capability to create new knowledge. All higher education institutions are charged with all three of these aims, though in very different ways. The second of these, transmission of existing knowledge, requires that teaching take place as close as possible to the existing knowledge frontier—that it be current, which requires instructors to have research time to keep it that way. The combination of two kinds of teaching, of existing knowledge and of the capability to create new knowledge, entails instruction in the intellectual history of a discipline and in its current state and debates. This allows students to see both where knowledge now is and how knowledge is a process of creation rather than an already finished product, that it is collaborative, that it changes over time through disagreement and redirection. These issues are generally beyond the reach of high school. To repeat, neither type of teaching can be dualistically severed from research.

Research-based instruction is also central to the missions of community colleges. This fact is muddied by funding policy, the term “K–14,” and the country’s nervous vocationalism. In keeping with the underlying unity of tertiary learning, community college courses should be taught by instructors who either conduct their own research or are current in the research of their field—current because their working conditions allow them to read their professional literature as it comes out, and in sufficient volume. This labor can easily consume one day per week. Even in teaching for practical training certifications, such training should address not just how to apply rules to cases but also how to cope with cases when the rules don’t apply. Colleges in all forms teach nonroutine knowledge that is paired with the capabilities required to solve them. Community college is not an extension of high school; it inculcates the active use of knowledge to solve problems. “Transmission” also requires capability with the processes by which knowledge is created in one’s field.

In short, the public glories of literature and language are embedded in our academic research results, including their daily appearance in teaching conditions both basic and advanced, tenured and contingent, at two-year and four-year colleges. Every first-year composition counts. Making it count publicly will be helped by designing the institutional conditions—teaching loads, class sizes, recognized reading and research time—that would make the work of teacher-researchers viable across the entire profession.

What intellectual work do we want and need to do? Where do we want MLA fields to go in the 2020s? How should we describe the working conditions we need to do the intellectual work we want? These are aspects of the presidential theme of the 2023 convention. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on these and other issues that matter most to you. 

Works Cited

“Racial/Ethnic Distribution of Bachelor’s Degrees in the Humanities.” Humanities Indicators, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2022, higher-education/racialethnic-distribution-bachelors-degrees-humanities.