Columns by Margaret Ferguson

Tense Conversations

Originally published in the Winter 2014 MLA Newsletter

A few weeks ago, my twin teenage daughters gave me a lesson in how to talk to Siri, the female ghost in my new smartphone. “Ask her a question,” said Marianne. I couldn’t think what to ask, so Christina intervened: “Tell her to make a joke.” Seeing that I still didn’t get it, Christina prompted Siri, and she responded with unnerving speed: “Past, Present, and Future met in a bar. It was tense.” In this column, the last I’ll have the privilege of writing as president of the MLA, I want to think about two views of education that often coexist in traditional and virtual classrooms but that have recently come into conflict. The views offer competing perspectives on the concept of academic freedom as it is explained by the Supreme Court in a 1967 case that overturned a McCarthy-era law prohibiting teachers from being members of “seditious” organizations. The court held that, because free discussion is essential in a democratic society, academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment[,] which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom” (“Keyishian”). I will be focusing here on college classrooms and campuses, but the two views under discussion arguably affect the conduct of education in primary and secondary schools too.

In a nation deeply concerned with homeland security, it is perhaps not surprising that a high value is placed on students feeling psychologically secure even in the learning environment of the classroom. The United States also values critical thinking over rote learning in its secular schools, a view that encourages the challenging of students’ preconceptions, which can often make students feel tense and insecure. Although these two views of education are often in tension, many teachers try to blend them and the values they encapsulate. Texts and Web sites offering advice about how to do so abound: one, from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, states that “tension in the classroom, when it does not get out of control or explode, can prompt learning”; it also states that “safety,” while not a pedagogical goal “in itself,” is a “prerequisite for the kind of classroom climate that can result in learning” (“Creating”). Few of us would disagree with either statement presented alone. But there are difficulties in conceiving of individual students’ psychic safety as a prerequisite to learning in classroom environments. The difficulties have been dramatically exposed by recent debates about student requests that faculty members provide “trigger warnings” on syllabi.

Such warnings signal that forthcoming material could be disturbing because it may trigger a memory of a traumatic experience such as sexual assault, war violence, or racism. Advocates of trigger warnings claim that students have a right to know in advance about potentially upsetting material. Students at Oberlin College, countering objections that a new trigger-warning policy created without faculty input would harm academic freedom, argued that “[i]deally, individuals who are part of an academic institution should be challenged and forced to articulate and defend their perspectives, but in order to have a fruitful discussion about these topics, as many people as possible need to feel comfortable participating” (Flaherty). Challenge, here associated with “force,” is trumped by safety, which is associated with and implicitly defined as a precondition for “challenges” to be dealt with “fruitfully.” Reality is aligned with students’ need for comfortable learning experiences and with the selective liberal arts college’s presumed desire for democratic inclusiveness. Feminists are divided about trigger warnings, as Jack Halberstam shows, and many faculty members are voicing objections. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government has demanded a trigger-warning policy, a professor of sociology who uses images of torture in her course materials said that “any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom” (Medina). And another UCSB professor argues against trigger warnings on the grounds that they give students a false sense of security, isolating disturbing events as if they could be recalled only in the course materials of humanities and other “interpretive” fields, whereas in truth “they affect and shape all of our ways of producing knowledge” (Fradenburg).

Notable also is a recent statement by the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks, who contended that “civility and free speech are two sides of the same coin” (qtd. in White). Issued during the fiftieth anniversary of the free-speech movement at Berkeley, the chancellor’s message to the academic community was immediately attacked by faculty members who thought that it echoed an opportunistic use of the ethic of civility at the University of Illinois, where Steven Salaita had his offer of a tenured position in American Indian studies revoked by Chancellor Phyllis Wise on the grounds that his statements (on social media) about the Palestine-Israel conflict were “demeaning” to alternative viewpoints.1 Dirks’s statement was criticized by several faculty groups for misunderstanding the First Amendment, which protects “uncivil” speech and unpopular opinions without any stipulation about balancing free speech with communal interests such as civility (California Scholars).

Chancellor Dirks didn’t do an about-face—unlike James Montgomery, the one trustee at the University of Illinois who changed his opinion about the Salaita case—but he did make a revision that was seen as significant by the constitutional scholar Ken White and others.2 While reiterating his hope that “commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other,” Dirks acknowledged that these commitments can and do “exist in tension”; moreover, he defined free speech in a more legally rigorous way, no longer suggesting that it was opposed to “political advocacy” (qtd. in White). The questions Chancellor Dirks and his student and faculty critics have addressed are still undecided in the academy and beyond, and the questions are affected by wider cultural and political pressures. Perhaps they could be more fruitfully debated if we were to acknowledge that the idea of the classroom or campus as a “safe harbor” may be not only imprecise but also in some circumstances radically at odds with the idea of education as a forum for the open exchange and assessment of ideas.


  1. Chancellor Wise’s statement is reproduced in Wilson. For a comprehensive discussion of the case’s many developments through 1 October 2014, see Rothberg.
  2. For Montgomery’s statement about why he changed his mind, see “UIUC Trustee.”

Works Cited

California Scholars for Academic Freedom. “Letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks re Civility and Free Speech.” California Scholars for Academic Freedom. N.p., 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. <>.

“Creating a Safe and Engaging Classroom Environment.” Learn Center. School of Graduate Studies and Extended Education, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, 2005–09. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.

Flaherty, Colleen. “Trigger Unhappy.” Inside Higher Ed. N.p., 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2014. <>.

Fradenburg, L. O. Aranye. “Triggers.” Why Psychoanalysis Is Good for You. N.p., 19 May 2014. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. <>.

Halberstam, Jack. “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.” Bully Bloggers. N.p., 5 July 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <>.

“Keyishian v. Board of Regents.” Education Law. N.p., 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 1 Oct. 2014. <>.

Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The New York Times. New York Times, 17 May 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. <>.

Rothberg, Michael. “Reflections-in-Progress on the Salaita Case: Contradiction, Overdetermination, Mobilization.” Michael Rothberg. N.p., 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014. <>.

“UIUC Trustee Defends Salaita Appointment: ‘I Made a Mistake.'” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <>.

White, Ken. “Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time.” Popehat, 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 Oct. 2014. <>.

Wilson, John K. “Chancellor Phyllis Wise Explains the Firing of Steven Salaita.” Academe Blog. N.p., 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. <>.

Negotiating Sites of Memory in Vancouver

Originally published in the Fall 2014 MLA Newsletter

In January 2015, the MLA will meet for the first time in Vancouver, named in 1886 after a British naval captain, George Vancouver, who explored the area in June 1792. Names are important in the city’s complex history as a colonized territory—and in its other, intertwined though much longer history as a place inhabited by many indigenous peoples. George Vancouver, who named over four hundred places on the Northwest Coast, was adroit at using English names to stake symbolic claims on waters and lands important to Britain’s mercantile interests. But he didn’t understand and perceived no need to learn the language of the native inhabitants of the place he would name Burrard Inlet, after an English friend. When these inhabitants, who called themselves Tsleil-Waututh, or “People of the Inlet,”1 canoed down the waterway to meet his boat, they brought several cooked fish, and Vancouver gave them some pieces of iron in return. But, as revealed in his journal entry, he misinterpreted their two collective speech acts in a way that did not bode well for subsequent efforts at communication. Both times that they paddled forward to talk, Vancouver thought they were engaging in “consultations” among themselves on matters that remained a “profound secret to us.” He found “[t]his sort of conduct” suspicious and advised that it should “ever be regarded with a watchful eye” (3: 190). He did not imagine that the natives were making ceremonial speeches of welcome to a group of strangers—as they had done for millennia according to customs that are still remembered today.

Traveling between established seasonal encampments in a rich ecological system that was a crossroads for trade, the native peoples of the Vancouver area communicated in many languages and across many borders. Were some of those languages, now classified as dialects, mutually intelligible in the precontact past? It would be tempting but reductive to explain the difficulty of answering such a question in terms of the distinction that the historian Pierre Nora draws between cultures with customary memories, which he associates with orality and embodied habits, and cultures with history, which he associates with critical reason, the capacity for nostalgia, and, above all, historiography in its root sense: the writing of history. His distinction between memory and history is challenged by the past and present language situation of Vancouver, as are two other distinctions important both to the city’s history and to my presidential theme, Negotiating Sites of Memory: the distinctions between ancient and modern and between colonial and postcolonial. There are obviously contexts in which it’s meaningful to oppose these terms as names for earlier and later periods, but the notion of a linear succession of periods in a Newtonian uniform flow of time becomes an obstacle to thought about sites with histories that have been, and continue to be, sites of contested memory and interpretation.

The aboriginal peoples of Canada, Peter Kulchyski argues in Like the Sound of a Drum, had ancient modes of writing on the land and on the body as well as modes of communicating aurally across space by drum. These semiotic systems are, however, not only ancient but also modern; Kulchyski shows how they are being “reconfigured and redeployed” in ongoing negotiations among parties with competing understandings of modernity and private property (17). The parties don’t come to the table with the rough parity usually required for successful negotiations. One sign of the asymmetry is the endangered status of all of the more than thirty indigenous languages of British Columbia (“First Nations Languages Program”). The people who welcomed Vancouver to their inlet spoke a language now identified as Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, one of three closely related tongues grouped under the English term Halkomelem and also categorized, more generally, as a version of Central Coast Salish. Today, there are few speakers who describe themselves as fluent in Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, and there are none at all in the Tsleil-Waututh community (“Hul’q’umi’num'”). Yet the number of indigenous language learners in Vancouver is growing, with support from the University of British Columbia’s First Nations Languages Program and community Web sites, such as, which highlights the Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ word qwiqwel, “to make a speech.”

Making speeches, listening to them, and sometimes interrupting, translating, interpreting, and debating them are activities that MLA members regularly practice as well as reflect on. These are also the activities that I hoped my colleagues would analyze and illuminate under the rubric Negotiating Sites of Memory. As I have thought more deeply about this theme during a summer filled with relentlessly terrible news about failed negotiations and proliferating acts of violence in many parts of the world, I have had moments of despair about the theme’s conceptual and ethical complexities. As a valuable alternative to war, negotiation may in some circumstances work as “a discussion or process of treaty with another (or others) aimed at reaching an agreement about a particular issue [or] problem” (def. 2), but negotiation can in other circumstances signify “manipulation” designed to get around an obstacle (def. 4). Negotiators may be at odds among themselves, and the fruit of a long negotiation may at times involve no more than an innovative phrase acknowledging that a problem exists in the eyes of both parties. A striking example of such a modest but still significant result of a negotiation over a site of memory occurred in June when the Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to acknowledge that the modern city occupies the “unceded traditional territory” of three indigenous peoples who have small land “reserves” within the city’s borders: the Musqueam, the Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh (Austin). “Unceded territory”: it’s a thought-provoking phrase both for citizens of Vancouver and for those who visit from other countries that have appropriated the lands of indigenous peoples and see those appropriations as events belonging to the past. “Unceded territories” puts indigenous people’s claims to their lands squarely in the present while also implying that negotiations should continue in the future.

Among the more than two hundred sessions that MLA members have organized in connection with the presidential theme, many address bracing questions about the concept of negotiation and about the modern academic field of memory studies. The roundtable “Transnational Memories: Sites, Knots, and Methods,” for example, questions “sites of memory” as an “assumed framework” for a field that has been “linked from the outset to national memory cultures, institutions, and sites.” Other MLA sessions, however, dissociate sites of memory from physical monuments, museums, and forms of commemoration approved (and often funded) by modern nation-states. There will be sessions on the print form of the edition, silent films, sixteenth-century composting practices, French Renaissance menus, troubadour poems, medieval Iberia, the early modern erotic body, the human brain, and queer archives—all considered sites of memory from various theoretical perspectives. There will be discussions of geographic sites of contested memory and analyses of texts that reconstruct the memories of slaves, prisoners, and poets. Many of the sessions conceived under the rubric of the presidential theme engage with what Michael Rothberg has analyzed as “multidirectional memory” that is “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing” (3). Memory is also subject, of course, to forgetting. The ancient Greeks figured forgetfulness, Lemosyne, as the twin sister of memory, Mnemosyne, and both goddesses will be invoked at the upcoming convention. I hope you will be able to attend it. If you do and are not a Canadian citizen, please don’t forget your passport. Borders between sovereign states, even ones that have friendly relations, are serious social constructions.


  1. Written names for indigenous groups and languages have varied over time and are not standardized now; the First Peoples’ Cultural Council provides a useful guide to orthographic issues at

Works Cited

Austin, Ian. “Vancouver Sits on Unceded First Nations Land, Council Acknowledges.” The Province. The Province, 27 June 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2014.

“First Nations Languages Program.” University of British Columbia. Faculty of Arts, U of British Columbia, 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <>.

“Hul’q’umi’num’ / Halq′eméylem / hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.” First Peoples’ Language Map of British Columbia. First Peoples’ Heritage Language and Culture Council, n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <>.

Kulchyski, Peter. Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut. Manitoba: U of Manitoba P, 2005. Print.

“Negotiation.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2014.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific. 6 vols. London: J. Stockdale, 1801. Print.

The MLA and the Common Core State Standards Initiative: Continuing the Conversation

Originally published in the Summer 2014 MLA Newsletter

The ongoing implementation of the educational-reform plan known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is having a mixed reception. This gives MLA members an opportunity to join a conversation that has already begun in our association about what the initiative is and what it might mean for college teachers who have a serious interest in literacy instruction. Postsecondary educators in mathematics had a considerably greater influence on the CCSSI’s grade-by-grade guidelines for math instruction than did postsecondary educators in the several fields that contribute to literacy studies. It seems clear that college teachers of language, writing studies, literature, and new media studies need to communicate across our internal field boundaries—as well as across the problematic boundaries that separate college teachers of reading, writing, and speaking from their colleagues in secondary and primary schools—if we are to have a say in how the new standards are interpreted in the future. We’re now in an interlude between the release of the standards as a copyrighted Web site in 2010 and the rollout of the new standardized tests scheduled to be “fully operational” during the 2014–15 school year.

Of the forty-five states that quickly adopted the standards after they were released in 2010—encouraged to do so by deadlines for grants from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund—two have withdrawn from the initiative, several have “paused” the implementation process, and others have pending legislation to opt out. Some commentators continue to take issue with the process by which the standards were developed: through a partnership between the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in collaboration with Achieve, a bipartisan group of governors and corporate leaders—and with minimal input from teachers.1 Others have complained about the content of the CCSSI, especially about the English Language Arts (ELA) segment, which you can read at There have also been complaints about the influence that corporate interests have had on the standards and their accompanying standardized tests and about the uncommon speed with which the process moved forward, leaving little time for review or consultation with teachers in secondary and postsecondary education and no time at all for field-testing.2 Explicitly motivated by a post-Sputnik-like concern about American competitiveness in the global market, the CCSSI equates college and workplace readiness as measurable by the same metrics. Since “college readiness” is a major goal of the new standards, their implicit theories of education should matter to MLA members—and not just to those who teach anglophone curricula: the existing standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages have recently been aligned with those of the CCSSI, though what that might mean is not yet clear.3 More alignment projects are on the horizon: the Lumina Foundation envisions an educational reform that would align the CCSSI standards and outcomes measurements with those of two- and four-year colleges (“Starting”).

Last fall’s meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which I attended, included numerous panels that focused on the CCSSI; some criticized the initiative’s emphasis on argumentative writing based on textual evidence as a conservative return to New Criticism; others welcomed the detailed pedagogical guidelines as a significant improvement over the No Child Left Behind Act, which required that all US students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 but left it up to each state to decide how to measure proficiency and what to teach in order to reach that admirable but, in the event, chimerical goal. Many sessions explored ways in which the new standards might be implemented. From reading the program, going to sessions, and talking with Kent Williamson, the executive director of the NCTE, I surmise that supporters and opponents of the CCSSI are nearly equally divided (with some members probably on the fence or indifferent). The NCTE, appropriately, is taking no official position. As chair of a new MLA Executive Council subcommittee on K–16 education, I have learned much from those teachers who, for the sake of their students, are trying to make the best of the new standards while in many cases continuing to resist the emphasis on high-stakes testing and its influence on classroom practices. Many worry that the tests measuring both teacher and student performances are coming too soon for teachers to be adequately trained to succeed, and help students succeed, in reaching the democratic goal that the CCSSI articulates: a clear and accessible path to “college and career readiness for all students” (Common Core). Is that compatible with the other goal of the CCSSI: increasing the nation’s competitiveness in a global marketplace by improving US students’ currently mediocre reading, math, and science scores on tests developed by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)?

Here are two problems as I see them. First, CCSSI backers have discounted the relation between class size and students’ success as readers and writers, but other countries are certainly returning to this debated issue. Some have already refigured class size as a core element of their reforms, while also raising teachers’ salaries and building in work time for teachers to prepare lessons and comment on student writing.4 Second, although the CCSSI framers are concerned with “international benchmarks,” the initiative does not refer to the international body of research focusing on socioeconomic influences on what happens in a given classroom. While the CCSSI claims that when students, parents, and teachers work together with the new standards, “we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, career, and life,” a volume by the OECD argues that countries that have improved their children’s educational outcomes have worked to improve the children’s opportunities for education by mitigating inequities of “social background” among students’ families and by allocating extra resources to “socio-economically disadvantaged” schools (PISA 2009 Results).

Teachers of language and literature at all levels have expressed concern about the ELA standards’ distinction between “informational” and “literary” texts and about their conception of “text complexity.” These are the terms that are open to interpretation by school boards and teachers, and they are already being discussed in articles and lesson plans produced by NCTE members and disseminated on Web sites and panels. MLA members could fruitfully join this conversation, and MLA Commons already has a CCSSI discussion group ( Local partnerships between colleges and high schools, of which we need more, are one way of bringing attention to this conversation. Could MLA members initiate or join partnerships between teachers of high schools and colleges in their home environments? David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, and Paula Krebs, dean of humanities and social sciences at Bridgewater State University and a member of the Executive Council’s K–16 education subcommittee, organized a panel at last year’s NCTE convention that brought secondary school and college teachers together to discuss opportunities for and obstacles to creating such partnerships. Organizers of two MLA-sponsored sessions at next year’s convention in Vancouver are following the collaborative model to bring college and high school teachers’ perspectives to bear on the knotty CCSSI topics of “text complexity” and “college readiness.”5 In addition, the MLA’s Committee on Community Colleges is planning a session on an issue central to the Common Core: remediation. I hope that future collaborative work across institutional boundaries can focus on clarifying, for various audiences, some key terms in the initiative that have already become sites of critical inquiry for NCTE authors: literary nonfiction, for example, and lexile (a unit devised by the Metametrics company to measure both the complexity of a text and the individual student’s reading competence).

One of the troubling components of the CCSSI is the stipulation that, once adopted, the wording of the standards cannot be amended, although states are allowed to add 15% more text. Major revision seems not to be envisioned by the framers of the document. In 2010, the MLA and the NCTE were invited to comment on a draft of the literacy standards as these were formulated both for specific grades and for students graduating from high school. A joint committee urged that revisions give more attention to the aesthetic dimensions of literature, the rhetorical aspects of writing, the advantages of knowing more than one language, and the ways in which new media shape literacy practices in the twenty-first century. The authors of the standards failed to incorporate most of the committee’s suggestions. But the CCSSI, as teachers and students now encounter it on the Web, is a complex and generically hybrid text, open to interpretation and translation. Members of the MLA have been interpreting the CCSSI document since its initial rollout and have arrived at strikingly different conclusions, which were evident at the sessions on the Common Core at the 2012 and 2013 conventions.6 I hope that we can continue thinking about the Common Core State Standards; by doing so, college teachers with a commitment to literacy studies may discover new ways of communicating with—and learning from—teachers who encounter the CCSSI as a required rather than a recommended text.


  1. See Ravitch, as well as Cody (“I Was among Those”), who provides a list of the members of the original drafting group. The CCSSI Web page refutes (as a “myth”) the charge that there were few teachers involved with the drafting of the standards.
  2. See Ravitch on the issue of corporate influence. The CCSSI tests are being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Both won federal grants to develop their tests. They are reviewed at
  3. For ACTFL’s alignment of its standards (also called the Five Cs: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, communities) with the Common Core ELA standards, see
  4. See Cody, “Why”; Chua.
  5. David Steiner, dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, City University of New York, will also participate in the panel on text complexity; he has done valuable work on K–16 education.
  6. See the articles by Ravitch, Stimpson, and Graff, drawn from papers they presented at the 2014 MLA Annual Convention.

Works Cited

Chua, Paul. “Centralized-Decentralization Emerging in Singapore.” International Education News. Intl. Educ. News, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Cody, Anthony. “I Was among Those Who Reviewed the Common Core in 2009.” Education Week Teacher. Education Week Teacher, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

———. “Why Bill Gates Is Wrong on Class Size.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 5 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Graff, Gerald. “Clarifying College Readiness.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background—Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume II). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD, 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Ravitch, Diane. “Common Core Standards: Past, Present, Future.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

“Starting the Alignment Conversation.” Lumina Foundation, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

Steiner, David. “Our Dogmatic Slumbers.” Profession (2007): 141–49. Print.

Stimpson, Catharine R. “Beware, Be Wary.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

The Common, the Goose, and the MLA

Originally published in the Spring 2014 MLA Newsletter

I live in a town in the northern part of California’s Central Valley, and I work for the town’s biggest employer—a branch of the University of California that was founded as an agricultural extension of UC Berkeley in 1905. My colleagues in this public university’s renowned school of agriculture contribute to both sides of a local debate (with global consequences) about the means and ends of farming.

This debate pits small farmers practicing “sustainable” agriculture against Big Agriculture in various complex ways. In grocery stores, classrooms, and lecture halls in Davis (and elsewhere), I have come to see some intriguing connections between current debates about farming and a set of texts about farmlands produced in England from roughly the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. These texts focus on the practice known as “enclosure,” and they are relevant, I think, to contemporary debates not only about meat, grain, fruit, and vegetable production but also about humanities education as a public good. The following anonymous seventeenth-century poem protests the enclosure of communally held land:

The law locks up the man or woman
That steals the goose from off the Common,
But lets the greater villain loose
That stole the Common from the goose.

This poem anticipates Simon Fairlie’s account of enclosure as “the subdivision and fencing of common land into individual plots which were allocated to those people deemed to have [individual] . . . rights to the land enclosed.” For over five hundred years, English writers of pamphlets, agricultural treatises, legal documents, and works now classified as literary argued about enclosure even as the process of privatization steadily progressed. Fairlie, the editor of the British journal Land and a former farmworker who now makes scythes, and books, for his living, sums up the enclosure debate succinctly: “Proponents and ‘beneficiaries’of enclosure insist[ed] that it was necessary for economic development or ‘improvement,’ and those against (including the dispossessed) claim[ed] that it deprived the poor of their livelihoods and led to rural depopulation.”

What might these debates about the disposition and use of agricultural land in the past tell us about what is going on in higher education in the United States today? Higher education is a mixed sector, private and public, each of which makes its own claims to contribute to a good that is common not because it is equally available to all but because it benefits society as a whole. Both private and public colleges and universities often give scholarships to low-income students, and both types of institution receive various forms of government funding. As state support for public colleges and universities declines, they increasingly seek private subsidies, and both types of institution rely on their wealthier students (and parents) for tuition revenue. The distinction between private and public in higher education is blurring, raising urgent questions about whom institutions of higher education are and should be serving. For some who criticize public colleges and universities for failing to serve the needs of taxpayers, higher education does not look like a public good at all; instead, it looks like a consumer good whose value is properly determined by the market. From this perspective, public universities and colleges must become more productive, trimming waste and increasing quantifiable output. From another perspective, however, public colleges and universities cannot serve their students, present and future, unless the faculty members are able to work and teach in an environment that allows certain kinds of inefficiency. What seems like a wasteful place to some may be a generative environment for transformative teaching (where outcomes cannot be predicted), for basic research in the sciences, and for scholarly inquiry in the humanities.

The MLA has been and must continue to be an articulate participant in debates about the humanities’ claim to preserve and create a distinctive kind of wealth. Our own version of a common, in the form of a Web platform launched in January 2013, MLA Commons, allows members to express their views, to collaborate with one another, and to discuss documents produced by the MLA and its members. MLA Commons enabled more than a thousand members to comment last fall on a draft proposal for the organizational revision of the association’s intellectual structure. MLA Commons is not only generating new kinds of communication among members but also fulfilling its legacy as an example of innovative sharing. The City University of New York gave the MLA the software of its CUNY Academic Commons; with many changes made by the MLA’s talented staff, the software—held in common with no exclusive ownership—will now be passed on to other scholarly organizations.

Further, at the MLA’s recent convention in Chicago, there was a Delegate Assembly “open discussion” focused on strategies for strengthening higher education as a “public good.” The discussion, which will continue at next year’s convention in a session sponsored by the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee, confirmed and extended arguments made by James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Society. At the same Chicago convention, the MLA presented the first Chicago Humanities Summit with the Chicago Humanities Festival and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the plenary session, introduced by the 2013–14 MLA president, Marianne Hirsch, focused on the academy’s report on the state of humanities education, The Heart of the Matter. Through the Executive Council’s new subcommittee on K–16 collaborations, the MLA is exploring new avenues of communication with our humanities colleagues in primary and secondary education, especially but not only with those who have been tasked with implementing the controversial Common Core State Standards.

It seems as if ideas about the common, along with innovative practices enabled by the experiment in a global common called the Web, are everywhere up for discussion: as common endeavor, common core, and common good, among others. The poem I quoted earlier suggests that enclosure of common land in England was a story of winners and losers, despite the claims made by the enclosers for a more efficient agriculture. As humanities educators, we should make it part of our shared task to monitor both past and present claims for the common good and to defend the place of the humanities in any version of the good that can be truly held in common. We must also attend to what is not always considered part of the “humanities” but is covered by any idea of what is humane: the fate of the goose itself.

Works Cited

Fairlie, Simon. “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain.” Land 7 (2009): n. pag. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

Grossman, James. “Disrupting the Disruptors.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.

The Heart of the Matter. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.

A Welcome from MLA President Margaret W. Ferguson

Dear Colleagues,

Welcome to the Modern Language Association. As the MLA’s 2014–15 president, I would like to introduce myself and to comment on some of the association’s current activities and goals for the future.

As many of you know, this is a vulnerable moment for scholarly associations and for humanities educators in many parts of the world. The MLA, the largest scholarly humanities association in North America, works every day to provide resources for teachers of language, literature, and writing studies and to strengthen the public’s understanding of what we do. Its office of research produces studies that are valuable not only for our nearly 30,000 members but also for our efforts to help our profession communicate persuasively with those whose decisions affect our academic lives. The MLA needs your participation and advice in order to continue—and improve—its efforts to advocate on behalf of humanities education. Our members hail from approximately 117 countries and speak, teach, and write in many languages. Members represent community colleges and large research institutions, graduate students and emeritus professors, deans and librarians. I used to think of the MLA as an umbrella organization; now I think of it as a network that serves its members in newly visible ways and has potential to do even more.

If you are new to the organization or want to know more about what it has to offer, I encourage you to take some time to explore the MLA Web site. With its dozens of features and hundreds of documents, the site offers a provocative map of many of the things that we do and have done; it can also give you ideas for what the association could do in the future. The Web site provides visitors with access to the MLA Job Information List and to the program of the association’s annual convention. The convention is an intellectually exciting gathering of thousands of teachers and scholars who come together to discuss their research and to meet friends and colleagues; the convention is also a site where new scholars meet those who have been members of the profession for years, sometimes during job interviews, which we all know are occurring in a terrible market. The MLA advocates on behalf of job seekers in our fields and publishes advice for faculty members who serve on interviewing committees during the convention. Through its many sessions on matters of shared professional concern, the convention encourages discussions of problems that are unevenly distributed among MLA members but that call for our collective attention and effort.

The Web site is also a portal to information about the MLA’s publications, such as the indispensable MLA International Bibliography, the premier scholarly and professional journals PMLA and Profession, the Approaches to Teaching World Literature and Options for Teaching book series, and the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (including a direct link for members to the online Handbook). Also available on the site is an impressive archive of the numerous studies the MLA has undertaken on the academic job market, on employment practices at colleges and universities affecting tenure and promotion, and on the experiences and needs of non-tenure-track faculty members. The Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion is but one useful example, as is the Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, a collection of resources that can help users work toward improving our students’ and colleagues’ teaching and learning conditions. Visitors to the MLA Web site will also find a list of the committees that help carry out the association’s mission with the support of its immensely knowledgeable staff members. If you are a member or thinking about becoming one, please note which committees are doing work you might like to participate in. Members are encouraged to nominate themselves for committee service. We depend on and are grateful for your willingness to give time to the MLA.

Although always mindful of its 1883 charter “to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects,” the MLA continues to evolve, keeping abreast of the many challenges our members face. One of the most exciting current ventures is MLA Commons, an innovative Web platform that was launched in January 2013 and that has already enriched how members communicate with one another—and also how they can contribute to changing the association itself. The Commons enabled, for example, an unprecedented number of members—nearly one thousand—to participate directly in a rare project of professional self-reflection and renewal: the MLA’s first thorough revision of its intellectual structure since 1974.  Under the creative leadership of Marianne Hirsch, the immediate past president, a working group approved by the MLA’s Executive Council solicited members’ opinions about developments in their specialized fields of study, long-established and new, small and large. The working group, which I cochaired with Professor Hirsch, collaborated on creating a draft document that was then substantially revised in the light of members’ comments. The revised draft of the proposal includes a number of new intellectual groups (to be called “forums”) and a description of a new kind of group, a “seminar” on a topic of interest to members, that would have a guaranteed session at the convention for three years. Anyone can see the current proposal by visiting the Commons; posting an opinion is a benefit of membership.

The Commons home page will point you to various pages where you can read about matters of shared interest. I hope that you will explore past presidents’ columns on this site and a blog by Rosemary G. Feal, the MLA’s executive director. I also invite you to read an informative new blog on the Commons, The Trend, by David Laurence, the MLA’s director of research. In addition, you can visit a discussion group focusing on the new Common Core State Standards for K–12 students, which focuses on how the implementation of these standards in the forty-five states that have adopted them may affect two- and four-year-college teachers of language, literature, and writing studies. This group is of special interest to me since one of my goals as president is to work on strategies for improving communication between college teachers and our humanities colleagues in primary and secondary schools. It’s especially important to include colleagues who teach non-English languages in our MLA discussions, since the authors of the Common Core State Standards focus on “English language arts” but not on the arts of bi- and multilingual communication so important for students in the United States at all levels of education in the twenty-first century.

This is a critical time for our profession. Please stand with us in our commitment to defending the principles of academic freedom and fair and just employment practices. If you work in one of the many fields of inquiry and teaching represented by the MLA, and if you are interested in fostering and developing the role of the humanities in the global public sphere, please join the MLA or renew your membership. I am very much looking forward to meeting you on MLA Commons or at the 2015 convention in Vancouver.


Margaret W. Ferguson