Columns by Anne Ruggles Gere

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.

Re-visioning Textual Transactions

Originally published in the Fall 2018 MLA Newsletter

As I left for vacation in July, I tucked A Changing Major: The Report of the 2016–17 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major into my bag. Not exactly beach reading, I thought, but since my own department slipped from 567 majors in 2012 to 294 in 2018 and is projected to have only 184 majors by 2021, the report felt like a must-read. The Association of Departments of English, a project of the MLA, provides a network for departmental leaders, just as the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages does for chairs of language departments. Both the ADE and the ADFL have long led curricular thinking, and the ADE report on the major is no exception. ADE colleagues scanned departmental Web sites and conducted a survey of ADE-member English departments to create a detailed portrait of English majors.

Sadly, I learned that my department’s drop in majors is not unique. Two-thirds of departments reported lower numbers of majors, and only 8% indicated growth in the number of majors. Revision of the major is common: over 70% of departments have recently revised or are currently revising the major; survey courses are being replaced by distribution requirements; creative writing has become more established; and, surprisingly, few departments have made “digital and media studies visible parts of the major or the curriculum” (20). Tracks (sometimes called concentrations or areas of emphasis), usually programs of courses that account for about half the major, are proliferating. In reading the commentary on this phenomenon, I came across these two sentences:

Where tracks are offered, the most commonly available are literature; creative writing; English education; and rhetoric and composition, technical writing, or a writing concentration that combines various writing specializations under a rubric such as professional writing or writing studies. The number of departments featuring this last option is notable, since it was not a response choice provided on the questionnaire but was written in by respondents.(28)

I was relieved that rhetoric and composition and technical writing had been included in the survey, but I was troubled that writing studies and other terms (language, linguistics, TESOL) had not been included—and proud that colleagues had, like Frederick Douglass, written them into “the spaces left.”1 I was troubled because 65% of my department’s undergraduate enrollment is in writing studies (including first-year writing) and because these omissions connect to a century-old issue in English departments. In 1901, Gertrude Buck, the first woman to receive a PhD in rhetoric and composition, responded to an MLA survey regarding writing’s place in graduate study, noting that literary criticism and rhetoric (today’s writing studies) were “subjects often set in different departments or colleges, and jealously deprecated each by the other” (199).

Today’s specialists in literary criticism, writing studies, and language sometimes engage in deprecations, especially when making decisions about hiring and tenure, graduate admissions, teaching assignments, the ­positioning of first-year writing programs or introductory language courses, and, yes, decisions about the major. In part such deprecations arise from institutional structures and funding patterns that lie beyond departmental control, but they also have roots in a tendency to see words such as literacy and literary, reading and writing, teaching and scholarship, theory and practice in dichotomous rather than mutually constituting terms. I propose that we reconsider some of these dichotomies, and Textual Transactions, my theme for the MLA’s 2019 convention, offers a space to re-vision (in Adrienne Rich’s sense) our theories and our majors. I invite you to engage in textual transactions in Chicago.

Note

  1. Shifting terms (and their attendant theories and politics) are not unique to rhetoric and composition or to writing studies. For instance, postcolonial, world literature, global English, and Anglophone literature, among others, likewise contend with one another.

Works Cited

A Changing Major: The Report of the 2016–17 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major. Association of Departments of English, July 2018, ade.mla.org/Changing-Major.

Buck, Gertrude. “What Does ‘Rhetoric’ Mean?” Educational Review, vol. 22, 1901, pp. 197–200.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” College English, vol. 34, no. 1, 1971, pp. 18–30.

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Rethinking Public Humanities

Originally published in the Summer 2018 MLA Newsletter

The term public humanities emerged shortly after the National Endowment for the Humanities was established in 1965. Initially, public humanities programs were the province of professionals outside the academy who led entities like state humanities councils and recruited academics who were willing to translate their scholarship for wider audiences. By the mid-1990s, academic humanists began creating their own mechanisms for engaging with wider publics. Imagining America, which fosters public engagement with the humanities, was established in 1999, and by the early 2000s some universities began offering degrees in public humanities.

The practice of making humanistic knowledge more accessible has been with us for a half century, but it takes on new urgency in today’s context. As the total number of undergraduate enrollments has increased, the relative number of students completing degrees in English and in languages other than English is at a historic low (Laurence, “Decline”). Jobs for PhDs in both English and languages other than English have been declining steadily for a decade and in 2016–17 were lower than at any time since 1975, when the MLA first began tracking these numbers (851 in English and 808 in other languages [Report 1]). The gap between PhDs conferred and jobs available keeps increasing. In 2016, for instance, 756 individuals earned doctorates in American and British literature (Doctorate Recipients, data table 13), while only 359 jobs were advertised in these fields (Report 29). The only academic-employment categories showing significant growth since 1995 are administration and non-tenure-track, both full- and part-time (Laurence, “Employment Trends,” fig. 5).

These data may seem abstract unless you are the new PhD who cannot find work or the untenured lecturer who is not rehired because a course didn’t attract enough enrollments, but these numbers also drive policy decisions that have more tangible effects. Governors of several states have recommended cuts in the humanities and favored majors that offer clear career pathways, and administrators at a number of universities have followed such recommendations. The University of Pittsburgh cut programs in German, classics, and religious studies; the University of Southern Maine eliminated offerings in French and consolidated English, philosophy, and history into one department; and the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, recently proposed creating a “different kind of university” by eliminating majors in, among others, American studies, English, French, German, philosophy, and Spanish while adding programs of study in chemical engineering, fire science, and marketing (Flaherty). On many campuses, smaller but equally invidious decisions—such as substituting the BS for the BA because it eliminates the language requirement or shifting a vacated tenure line in a humanities department to a STEM department or professional school—chip away at the humanities. All of this, combined with an environment in which college is seen as a private commodity rather than a public good and a sizable portion of the population believes that higher education is not good for the country, shows the necessity of making the value of the humanities even more visible.

Doubling down on previous initiatives offers one way to respond. Service learning, as Marcy Schwartz explains, connects humanists with local communities and in the process gives literary and literacy studies a wider audience while providing undergraduates opportunities for reflection and civic awareness. Imagining America engages publics by uniting culture and participatory democracy. Books@Work, a nonprofit organization that hires professors to lead literature discussions in workplaces and in communities, gives nonacademic readers access to creative expressions along with new perspectives on their own lives. The alt-ac movement, through initiatives like the MLA’s Connected Academics and department-sponsored internships for graduate students, links the academy with the public square.

Projects like these merit emulation, but the urgency of the present moment requires us to do more by seeking control of the discourses surrounding the humanities. The OpEd Project, which offered a workshop at the 2018 MLA convention, can help us learn to convey our messages more effectively both locally and nationally. Humanities in Five, an innovative session planned for the 2019 MLA convention, will feature colleagues talking without notes in accessible language about their work. Creating public syllabi like Black Womanhood, which has been taken up by several individuals and organizations, breaks down the classroom wall so that those outside the academy can read along with us. Projects like these offer models for public discourses that describe the humanities in our words.

Works Cited

Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2016. National Science Foundation, Dec. 2017, www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsf18304/.

Flaherty, Colleen. “A Different Kind of University.” Inside Higher Ed, 13 Mar. 2018, www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/13/faculty-members-wisconsin-stevens-point-react-plan-cut-13-majors.

Laurence, David. “The Decline in Humanities Majors.” The Trend: The Blog of the MLA Office of Research, Modern Language Association, 26 June 2017, mlaresearch.mla.hcommons.org/2017/06/26/the-decline-in-humanities-majors/.

———. “Employment Trends.” The Trend: The Blog of the MLA Office of Research, Modern Language Association, 17 Nov. 2016, mlaresearch.mla.hcommons.org/2016/11/17/trends-in-the-higher-education-workforce/.

Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2016–17. Modern Language Association, Dec. 2017, www.mla.org/content/download/78816/2172744/Report-MLA-JIL-2016-17.pdf.

Schwartz, Marcy. “Public Stakes, Public Stories: Service Learning in Literary Studies.” PMLA, vol. 127, no. 4, 2012, pp. 987–93.

Building Alliances

Originally published in the Spring 2018 MLA Newsletter

Talk with colleagues from another institution, and conversation often shifts to shared concerns about declining enrollments in classes, majors, and minors; smaller numbers of students learning languages other than English; and, especially, public attacks on the humanities. As a former high school English teacher, I think changes in the K–12 world contribute to these challenges. Public high school education has suffered deleterious changes in recent decades. Teachers are required to spend an appalling amount of time preparing students for, administering, and dealing with the fallout of standardized tests; students’ concepts of reading and writing have become correspondingly more reductive and instrumental; and budget cuts have eliminated many school programs that make the humanities visible and valuable to local communities.

The new MLA Committee on K–16 Alliances offers an avenue for increased cross-level traffic, and a quick overview of educational “reform” will make its importance clear. A Nation at Risk, published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, called K–12 education inadequate, and this claim led to the standards movement of the 1990s. As standards emerged for school subjects, states began requiring tests to determine whether the standards were being met. These tests took on added impact in 2002, when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law. NCLB requires states to assess student progress in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once during high school.

The most powerful force shaping public high schools came with the 2010 Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Unlike NCLB, CCSS is not a federal law; it was created by David Coleman’s Achieve Inc. Coleman and his staff, with support from the National Governors’ Association and the Conference of State School Officers and funding from the Gates Foundation, developed a set of grade-specific standards for English and mathematics. In September 2009, I chaired a committee composed of MLA and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) members to, we thought, offer advice on the CCSS. Our committee, convened by the American Council on Education, met with Coleman and one of his associates, and it quickly became clear that they wanted our committee to give a discipline-based stamp of approval to the CCSS. We pointed to a number of concerns: that literature would be increasingly displaced by informational texts, which would constitute seventy percent of students’ reading by senior year; that reading was conceptualized largely as a process of extracting an explicit meaning; and that rhetorical dimensions of writing received very little attention. Despite several additional conversations that extended through spring 2010, our concerns were not addressed, and neither the MLA nor the NCTE approved the CCSS.

The federal grant program Race to the Top required states to commit to CCSS in early 2010, before the standards were released, in order to apply for federal funds. States also had to link teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. Although the Common Core standards were subsequently dropped by many states, they were replaced by very similar standards and assessments, and these assessments carry significant weight in teacher evaluations—forty percent for teachers in my state beginning in the 2018–19 school year.

The cumulative effect of mandated standards and assessments reduces many students’ understanding of reading to searching for the “right” answer, giving little or no attention to aesthetic considerations, while writing becomes the production of responses to rhetorical prompts within thirty minutes and with few opportunities for revision. Teachers, whose jobs depend on students’ test scores, report that they’ve had to cut back on literature (one Shakespeare play instead of two, excerpts rather than full texts) and offer a reductive approach to writing (impromptu rather than extended composing and little attention to the social dimensions of writing).

As we consider enrollment challenges and declining public support for the humanities, we might think about what students bring with them from high school, how we can work with their teachers on projects of mutual interest, and ways schools can enlarge the public’s understanding of the humanities. The Common Core State Standards’ and various assessments’ lamentable lack of attention to languages other than English might be redressed by building bridges with high school language departments. On my campus, for example, the annual German Day helps create future students for the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and displays the value of studying other languages and cultures.

The MLA Committee on K–16 Alliances offers another way to reach across levels and generate wider support for the humanities. (Thanks to the leadership of Margaret Ferguson, a past MLA president, a working group on K–16 alliances was created in 2015, and in 2017 the Executive Council voted to transform this group into a committee.) Charged with building support for teaching modern languages, writing, and literature at all levels, this committee welcomes members’ suggestions for advocacy initiatives, models to emulate, and advice on public-facing publications and programs. Alliances fostered by this committee will, in the words of the late Michael Holquist, another leader in the working group, improve our own futures as teachers.