Columns by K. Anthony Appiah

Taking Issue, Taking Stock

Originally published in the Winter 2016 MLA Newsletter

The Modern Language Association of America is a scholarly organization. Is it also a political one? Not in a straightforwardly partisan way: our legal status prohibits us from endorsing candidates for elected office. But on topics that are central to our mission and that we can address in a clear and unified voice, the MLA can make a contribution to the national conversation. Among the issues that the association has been concerned with are the growth of contingent labor and the decline of tenure in higher education; language study as an educational right; and, very broadly, a diminishment in support for the humanities.

I invoked a national conversation, yet composition and literary and cultural studies are transnational enterprises, even if some places speak louder (or, at any rate, are heard better) than others. Your MLA has sought to enrich our transnational connections. This past summer we had our first conference outside North America, with participants from thirty-six countries; it was held in Germany, and it was, in the opinion of this participant, a success. At the same time, the attacks on academic freedom in scores of nations affect all of us, wherever we work.1 The MLA has spoken out recently about the appalling assaults on the academy in Turkey. Especially when we draw on our distinctive professional knowledge and understanding, we can help sustain cultures around the world where free inquiry is respected.

The proper remit of our political engagements, however, has occasioned heated discussion. At our convention this coming January, I’ve been asked to chair a town hall meeting to discuss the question “Should the MLA endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions?” We are likely to have related resolutions or motions to debate at the Delegate Assembly. It is evident that the membership is divided on the issue.

I’ve had many conversations and exchanges with advocates and opponents of the academic boycott, and I have been consistently impressed with their seriousness and good will. All are affected by a continuing sense of the tragedy that has overtaken the Palestinians. There is disagreement about how to apportion blame for this among the many parties involved. There is disagreement as to the special status of this tragedy in a world where billions of people lack the basic resources for a decent human life. The question on which MLA members are most deeply divided, however, pertains not to our roles as individual citizens of a country or of the world but to our collective role, as a scholarly association.

Some members believe that this is one of the great moral questions of our time and that the MLA should lay down a marker, whether or not it connects directly with our professional activities. Some think that it does relate to the primary purposes of the association, because the practices of the Israeli state curtail the freedom of Palestinian scholars and students. The relationship between the governments of the United States and Israel gives Americans particular responsibility for Israel’s actions, some say, regardless of whether those actions represent a unique enormity.

Others think it unfair to single out one government and one country in a world full of lamentable injustice, and they point to the infringements on free speech and academic freedom by the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and in Gaza. Indeed, some have suggested that focusing on Israeli universities suggests that we are not opposed to the policies of other regimes that support universities while doing terrible things. They even ask, with Noam Chomsky, whether, by the logic of the boycott, academic associations around the world should shun American universities, which take money from a government that is Israel’s leading supporter and whose policies, they reckon, have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over the past few decades in the Middle East.

In the town hall meeting, we will no doubt hear these and other arguments for and against the MLA’s supporting the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. But I have heard specifically institutional considerations, too, raised by members involved in the everyday work of the association.

They ask how pronouncing on this matter will affect issues that are uncontroversially basic to the MLA’s mission. To improve the situation of language study, for example, we must influence public opinion—addressing politicians and university trustees and administrators, parents and students, and the wider citizenry. These members wonder whether adopting a position on a contentious issue about which we are divided could weaken our capacity to accomplish such goals. They wonder about effects on the external funding, public and private, we need to advance our work.

Finally, some members have expressed concern about how the MLA’s collective voice is represented. If passed by the Delegate Assembly, a resolution can be ratified by a majority vote representing the support of just ten percent of our members. Is this percentage sufficient to present a ratified resolution as the consensus view of the Modern Language Association? A gesture of solidarity produced in the face of deep division, some members argue, may entrench and exacerbate that division. In their view, it thus risks being a self-undermining performance.

In the light of such concerns and complexities, I have asked the MLA Executive Council to convene a special working group charged with clarifying procedures for speaking out publicly on issues, reviewing current practices, and making recommendations for change. In what sense is this scholarly association also a political one? In a sense that is always to be negotiated and renegotiated. Inasmuch as politics is a rendezvous of interest, principle, and pragmatism, there is invariably a politics to staking out a “politics.” While the working group deliberates, though, let me say a word for that least glamorous of virtues, comity. Where we are not united, we can at least proceed with respect for those with whom we take issue. A regard for the past, present, and future of the MLA requires a shared culture—call it a political culture—that sustains us when we do not agree and enables us to work together when we do.


  1. Visit to learn more.

Setting Boundaries

Originally published in the Fall 2016 MLA Newsletter

Some years ago, I resolved to organize my books. There were a lot of them, acquired over a few decades spent on three continents, and I wanted a system where I could readily locate any volume I pleased. As any librarian would have warned me, quandaries quickly arose. I could try to sort philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology, on the one hand (alphabetized by author within the topic), and political and moral philosophy, on the other. But this did no favors to books about moral epistemology. Should books on anthropological theory go with anthropology, or did they consort more naturally with cultural theory? Waverley Root’s midcentury classic The Food of France: should this go with books about food or books about France? Books not in English: should they be tethered to their tongue or scattered by subject? Do accounts of African Americans visiting Africa camp out with the Africa books or the African American books? Should hierarchies be imposed within the realm of fiction, or should it be one companionable democracy, embracing both Agatha Christie and Ágota Kristóf? Then there was a book that described itself, on its cover, as “a novel in the form of a memoir,” and on its title page as “a memoir in the form of a novel”: dear God, which? Each title could be assigned multiple topical coordinates. There were better ways of organizing things and worse, but there seemed to be no one best way.

And, of course, that holds true for academic life at large. The political science department brings together comparativists and international-relations folks with quantitative model builders, who might prefer speaking with colleagues in the economics department—except that, in the economics department, the economic historians often have more to say to their colleagues in the history department. High-energy experimental physicists often have little in common with math-minded string theorists, who are mostly as experimentally gifted as the average professor of German. And, of course, areas of interest shift, not merely within fields but within a scholarly career. A philosopher colleague of mine once advertised a belief that history was irrelevant to the contemporary pursuit of analytic insight, just as it was in molecular biochemistry, and that any book on philosophy older than a decade could probably be discarded (recalling David Hume’s suggestion that most earlier work on philosophy and religion should be “committed to the flames”). But the last time we spoke he was telling me animatedly about the Heidegger seminar he was teaching. His view about the irrelevance of history? That was history.

So how to shelve ourselves? (The MLA addressed this question a couple of years ago, reorganizing itself into forums that, we hope, more accurately reflect members’ scholarly interests.) Why does one English department think it crucial to support an Anglo-Saxonist, who, at another university, would reside in a department with Norse and Celtic? Should people who teach students how to speak and read in a foreign language really share a berth with those who instruct them specifically in the literature and cinema of those languages? Must the scholar of posthumanism be forced to forage among the humanists? Should the diasporic scholar be roped to the region whence her diaspora dispersed? Survey any particular configuration, and alternative configurations invariably suggest themselves. We talk about interdisciplinarity, but intradisciplinarity is no less fraught. One could slice: build a department of modelers, say, from departments of sociology, politics, economics, and so on, aggregating elements from one configuration and creating a new one. One could split: cleave one department or program into, say, the quantitative and the qualitative (inevitably cleaving the very heart of certain scholars). One could lump: merge the various language-themed departments into one with an exciting new title like, oh, “comparative literature.” One could slice and split and lump all at once. Each arrangement would have virtues and vices, bringing certain intellectual tropisms to the surface while submerging others.

There never has been an academic Treaty of Westphalia (or, dare I say, Congress of Berlin). As members of departments, programs, centers, and institutes, all we can do is be mindful that our scholarly boundaries could have been drawn very differently. The artifactuality of these lines should be especially salient to people who work in the realm of languages and literature, a veritable hive of cultural, intellectual, and methodological diversity. In the program for the upcoming MLA convention, this eclecticism is splendidly on display. Its pages are an assemblage whose guiding principles can be as mysterious as Borges’s division of animals into fourteen kinds, including, you will recall, “suckling pigs,” “stray dogs,” and “those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush.” Reading the abstracts, you’re reminded that someone a little off to the side in one department would be completely central to the work of another, differently conceived department. She could be spearing cheddar cubes at the holiday party with a very different set of colleagues. She could have been shelved under gender, not medieval studies. Under religion, not East Asian studies. We have found no unique set of optima, and we never will, not even if we consecrate a department of organizational studies.

The disciplinary boundaries we need won’t keep people out; they will bring us together. At the same time, they will fit us imperfectly. We will, as enthusiasms shift, reassess and redraw them over time. We’ll rail at their distortions and constrictions. And we’ll recognize—meager consolation—that there’s no right way of drawing them. But if they let students find their teachers, and scholarship find its readers, they will be good enough. Waverley Root: I’m thinking food. What do you think?


I hope that you can join me and your colleagues in Philadelphia this January for the MLA Annual Convention and that you are able to attend the Presidential Plenary: Boundary Conditions (227) and its linked sessions, The Refugee Crisis: At-Risk Students and Scholars (356) and New Classroom Boundaries (482).

Work Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, U of Texas P, 1993, p. 103.

Ghosts in the Machine

Originally published in the Summer 2016 MLA Newsletter

As members know by now, Rosemary Feal, our executive director since 2002, announced in February that she will be leaving us next year. With characteristic thoughtfulness, she is giving us the time we need in the formidable task of finding a worthy successor. The Executive Council, which has the final decision, will be advised by a search committee that I will chair.

In thinking about the role that Rosemary has played over these years, I was reminded of a phrase from James Russell Lowell, a poet, teacher, and critic whose memory we celebrate annually with a prize for a book by an MLA member. “It really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself,” Lowell said of the United States Constitution. A machine that would go of itself: the reason Michael Kammen took this fine formulation as the title for his 1986 book on American political culture was that, as Lowell sought to warn his compatriots, the metaphor was so dramatically wrong. As the debates over choosing the successor for Justice Scalia have reminded us, the Constitution, like all systems of rules, depends on the individual human beings who strive to live by it. So, too, with us. For all the institutional arrangements—the constitution, the bylaws—that govern the life of the MLA, it is, in the end, the members and the staff who make our association work. And nobody over the last decade and a half has done more than Rosemary to make our machine go.

In these first years of the new millennium, we have seen extraordinary changes, such as the dramatic growth of the academic precariat, the decline in humanities enrollments, the rise of the digital humanities, the explosion of social media. Rosemary and a distinguished succession of presidents and Executive Councils—in dialogue with members and the many committees of the association on which our members do such valuable service—have worked to respond to such challenges. In 2002, if you had looked at our Web site, you would have found no Committee on Contingent Labor, no Professional Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members, no MLA Commons, no Connected Academics, no Academic Workforce Data Center, no best practices for improving the situation for graduate students in languages and literatures, no Language Enrollment Database, no ADFL-MLA Language Consultancy Service, no map of the three hundred or so languages in daily use in our country. All these efforts, Rosemary would rightly insist, are the work of many. But we should be clear that all bear her mark. And none of these efforts are self-propelling.

Machines, after all, are invented and used by human beings. Even in the era of big data, the same holds for our scholarly work. Take the digital humanities. One of my favorite DH projects is Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters, which allows one to visualize and explore the networks that were, as the site puts it, “the lifelines of learning, from the age of Erasmus to the age of Franklin.” This project, led by Paula Findlen and Dan Edelstein, is itself the product of a great network of scholars in many countries. As you ponder the significance of the fact that d’Alembert’s main correspondence was with Voltaire, the Italian astronomer and mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (né Lagrangia), and the Prussian ruler Frederick the Great or review the overlap between the correspondence of Voltaire and Ben Franklin, you are drawn into wanting to look at some of their actual letters and drawn further into exploring their complex meanings. The digital platforms and strategies developed for this project bring together three groups of people across time and space: the humanists who created them, the humanists from the past who wrote the letters, and the humanist readers today. In the end, these digital tools are in the service of the oldest of humanistic impulses: interpretation. However digitally enabled, the study of literature is not a machine that would go of itself.

Nor, of course, are our institutions of higher education. Two traditions will, I think, need defending and revivifying in the years ahead. One is the practice of faculty governance, a tradition that goes back to the foundation of the European university. Too many of the decisions that have reshaped the work of college teachers in the humanities over the past few decades have involved too little faculty consultation. In trying to establish the right balance between our role as scholars and our role in the management of our institutions, we may find ourselves drawing on a more modern institution—one that developed in the late eighteenth century in England and took off in the nineteenth—and that is the trade union. One challenge that the MLA is well placed to take up is to help graduate students and faculty members, both on and off the tenure track, understand the pros and cons of unionization in diverse institutional environments and in states with widely varying labor laws.

In defending both our work and the conditions of our work, we are doing what the MLA, like the other learned societies, was doing long before Rosemary became our executive director, but she will leave us wonderfully well-prepared to continue this dual mission.

Works Cited

Kammen, Michael. A Machine That Would Go of Itself. New York: Knopf, 1986. Print.

Mapping the Republic of Letters. Stanford University. Stanford U, 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2016. <>.

Red and gold waves

Boundary Conditions

Originally published in the Spring 2016 MLA Newsletter

Boundary Conditions, the theme for our meeting in Philadelphia next January, will provide the convention not with a focus but with a set of challenges. For mathematicians, boundary conditions are the parameters that define the space within which one seeks solutions. So the theme offers, first, an invitation to reflect together on the parameters within which our profession takes place. One of the most evident of these is the increasing pressure we face to abandon the ideal of a college education that prepares you not only for success at work but also for a meaningful life. And that’s what I’d like to write to you about, briefly, in my first president’s column.

As humanists, we are inevitably drawn to reflecting on these questions historically as well as theoretically. And, in thinking about our situation today, I find myself reminded of Matthew Arnold’s claim that “culture seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light” (79). The word culture can mean many things (and nothing), but Arnold is talking here about the ideal of a liberal education, an education for free women and men.

None of this could be put in exactly these terms today. Even aside from the reference to “all men,” rather than “everyone,” many today would be skeptical of the idea that we could identify “the best that has been thought . . . everywhere” without presupposing standards that came from somewhere in particular. But I am happy to endorse the vision of a liberal education that is of value to people independent of wealth or occupation and that gives us more than a marketable skill.

Most—though, happily, not all—MLA members are college teachers. What we teach ranges over space and time, language and culture, genre and medium; our tools are as diverse as the subjects and the objects about which we think, teach, and write. In helping our students to think and to read, to write and to talk critically and knowledgeably about our diverse subject matters, we are surely developing skills that will profit them in their lives at work, inside or outside the academy. But members of our profession are inclined to believe, too, that a college education is a preparation for life and that our place in the system of labor, however important, cannot define the scope of our lives.

The novels and poems you read, the plays and movies and television you watch, the poetry slams you attend, the song lyrics you listen to, the blogs you scrutinize—our understanding and appreciation of all of these are deepened by a well-conceived education in the liberal arts. And they are as much a part of our lives as the goods or services whose provision earns us our daily bread. To say as much is not, for better or worse, to offer an instrumental defense of the humanities. An instrumental defense justifies an activity by reference to values external to that activity. But the experiences and capabilities conferred by humanistic learning are themselves of value.

Many students might flourish in the humanities but avoid humanistic subjects because they’re worried about preparing themselves for the job market. The choices they make often depend on misunderstandings about how the subjects they are studying instead will train them for work. A degree in economics is not a particularly good preparation for a career in business; studying the discipline of psychology does not necessarily equip you to be a therapist or a social worker. Yet such students are making a broader error, too—of thinking that college is the gateway to only one part of life, the life of work.

So we need to make the necessary arguments on both fronts: insisting that a major or a minor in our fields, or a substantial exposure to our courses as part of a general education, prepares you for life as it prepares you for work. To conceive of the humanities in humanistic, noninstrumental terms isn’t to deny their practical dividends. As I have already maintained, the students who study seriously with us think more critically, write more intelligibly, and interpret the world with a richer range of intellectual and moral resources. This is why we can claim that they are likely to be better workers, and better citizens, and that they will live better lives.

I suspect that many of you will wonder about our authority to make such claims. But that’s not because you don’t believe them. Few would commit themselves to a life as a scholar-teacher unless they thought that their work was a profound benefit to their students. There will be reasonable disagreement about how to conceive and assess these benefits—but surely a critical engagement with such questions helps establish the boundary conditions of our profession.

Work Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.