Columns by Roland Greene

Speaking for Interpretation

Originally published in the Winter 2015 MLA Newsletter

As our convention in Austin approaches, I’ve been reflecting on our profession as I have observed it from the vantage of president of the world’s largest scholarly organization. My three previous columns noted several of the important initiatives that the MLA has recently begun and will continue: an extensive survey of present and past members, which has yielded valuable insights into their needs; the Action for Allies initiative, which confronts the disproportion of undergraduate teaching (as much as 75%) by non-tenure­-track, often precariously employed, and poorly compensated faculty members; and the Connected Academics program, which encourages expanded career paths for humanities PhDs. The theme I proposed for our upcoming convention in Austin—Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future—is meant to provide a common ground for many of the issues, intellectual as well as professional, that bring us together.

In this final column, I would like to address a topic that has been perceptible if not obvious in my past columns: the state of what I call the interpretive humanities. On a national scale, we hear laments over shrinking humanities enrollments and other symptoms of decline. It seems clear that we are witnessing a change in the place of the humanities in the larger culture. Are there any opportunities in these changes?

For example, there is one measure that seems to contradict any story of decline: the arts are booming in higher education. Colleges of all sorts are dedicating new buildings for the practice of the arts; in En­glish departments that include majors in creative writing, those students are often in the majority; and public humanities programs are eager to put practitioners before their audiences. The arts are indispensable to the humanities, of course, but I wonder whether their appeal to administrators and donors indicates the health of the rest of our disciplines.

What goes untended in this story of institutional attention to the arts is one of the hardest capacities to cultivate, with no natural constituency. For intellectual and pragmatic reasons, we must invest in interpretation.

What do I mean by interpretation? To me it is the intellectual thread that runs through the professional lives of MLA members: it is what we do with literature, film, video, and the writing of our students. The weighing of evidence, the encounter with difficulty, the saying about a work (or a period or a cultural phenomenon) what it cannot say for itself—these things belong at the heart of a humanistic education and are the basis of citizenship and cosmopolitanism. Yet they can seem unrewarding (in every sense) to students who see themselves as makers rather than readers and who, with their parents, may resist the slow accumulation of understanding and argument. As I see it, our challenge is to reconnect interpretation—as it happens in the student’s response in writing or on video, the assistant professor’s conference paper, and the senior scholar’s book—with the public face of our discipline. This is part of what it means to trace the links between “literature and its publics.” We ought to do this not only on our own behalf but in concert with our natural allies across the interpretive humanities and social sciences, the law, and the other disciplines as we make a renewed case for the particular kinds of knowledge we deliver.

The urgency of a reinvigorated sense of interpretation was on my mind as I assembled events for the convention in Austin. I wanted to feature speakers who are both artists and interpreters, who understand literary interpretation from the standpoint of the other disciplines, and who can speak to the role of interpretation in public life.

To mention a few highlights of our upcoming convention: the Irish writer Colm Tóibín will join us for an event called “The Novelist, the Critic, and the Public”; the world music legend Caetano Veloso, a founder of the Tropicalismo movement in Brazil, will be interviewed by Marjorie Perloff on his work as an interpreter of poetry in song; and we will welcome the historian Jo Guldi, the NEH chairman William Adams, and the United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a panel on interpretation as public work. These figures—and many more like them—are our counterparts, interlocutors, and supporters.

I hope you will join us in Austin to consider literature (or rhetoric, film, video, and so on) in dialogue with its publics and the role of interpretation in making that dialogue happen.

Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future

Originally published in the Fall 2015 MLA Newsletter

Are you ready to go public? When we convene in Austin on 7 January, we will experience all the familiar elements that make an MLA convention an intellectually rich, sometimes overwhelming event: more panels speaking to our interests than anyone could ever attend, meetings of allied organizations, and the informal encounters that can change minds or careers. But I hope you will also join us in conversations about the presidential theme, Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future. In selecting the theme, I meant to provoke reflection on one of the most salient problems in our common discipline.

What is the public life of literature—and of film, digital media, rhetoric, and other kinds of texts?

In framing this kind of question, I want to evoke both the past offices of literature within the general culture—including its reception, its political engagements, and its translation into other media—and the conditions of the present. Some of our members believe that literature’s cultural force has diminished, whereas others, like me, think that its place in the general culture is continually under negotiation and that nostalgia for an imagined past has little value as we negotiate in our complicated moment. Some have no use for the term literature at all, seeing it as a spent institution with little relevance to a world in which everyone can produce art but few read deeply and disinterestedly.

I mean to invite conversation about the future too. When I attended my first convention in Los Angeles in 1982, there was little reason to think that our profession would be drastically different thirty-some years later, except for the concern (then as now) over a shrinking job market. Now in an era of new technologies and troubling forces in our industry, we are obliged to consider who our students will be in another ten or twenty years and how we will educate them. Who will read literary and other works as well as our analysis of them? Disciplinary custom and inertia can often mask the urgency of these questions, about which I’ve written elsewhere.1 To me, one of the values of a big tent like the MLA convention is the exchange of views across the breadth of our common discipline and the chance to see the horizon together. We’ll take stock at the Presidential Plenary on Friday morning, 8 January, featuring Bruce Holsinger, Albert Russell Ascoli, Deidre Lynch, Ato Quayson, and Marjorie Perloff, and at many more sessions throughout the convention.

From editing to translation to evaluation, MLA members enact all the roles that bring literary works to their publics. We make informed readers and teach those readers to respond in clear writing. And at every stage, we interpret. In fact, the public act of interpretation is something like a subtheme of the 2016 convention. On Friday afternoon we will hear the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín discuss how his interpretation of other writers (most recently, Elizabeth Bishop) informs his fiction, and on Saturday afternoon three interpreters from other disciplines—the historian Jo Guldi, the NEH Chairman William “Bro” Adams, and the United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer—will consider how interpretive acts contribute to public discourse, comparing history, public humanities, and law with the interpretation of literature.

The 328 sessions that engage with the convention theme (out of nearly 850) run across a wide spectrum of topics, methods, and, of course, languages, from “Reading Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Her Publics” to “The Public Jane Austen in Austin; or, How to Keep Austen Weird” to “Charlie Hebdo and Its Publics,” “‘Prison Literature’ and Its Publics,” and “Disrupting the Digital Humanities: New Radical Publics.”

The intellectual work of making literature public is inseparable from the conditions of the academic workforce, in which the tenure-track professoriat is being replaced by contingent faculty members who often lack employment security, pedagogical resources, or the occasions for intellectual renewal that make for fresh interpretation. This is the most urgent public issue we face: how to bring our tenure-track and adjunct members together with our allies in the interpretive humanities, students, parents, and the public to challenge exploitative conditions, as in the MLA’s Action for Allies project. Our sense of the value of literary and humanistic study will scarcely register without a corresponding strategy for resisting the hollowing of public education and the disinvestment from the public good. The MLA does this work every day, but the convention in Austin will be a site for assessing our approach to these challenges, as individual members and as a scholarly association.

Since these intellectual and professional matters are closely braided together, I hope the conversation in Austin will move fluidly between them. Not only is the public watching us—at least in the journalistic coverage that follows every MLA convention—but, as many of us know from experience, often the discoveries we make when we convene quickly become part of the public work of our teaching, research, and institutional service.

I look forward to seeing and hearing you in Austin.

Note

  1. See, e.g., my blog post “The Social Role of the Critic” (http://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/social-role-critic), among others.

Closing the Circle

Originally published in the Summer 2015 MLA Newsletter

What should the MLA be five and ten years from now? In a time of acute change in higher education, how should the association adapt to serve its members and our profession? These are questions the officers, the Executive Council, and the staff are considering as we make plans for the near future. I would like to outline three challenges the MLA will confront over the next several years and mention briefly how we are already addressing them. There is much to be done, however, and in the coming months we will want to hear from you.

Representation. First and foremost, the MLA is a scholarly association and a membership organization that exists to promote the shared interests of all those who study language in its various manifestations. For this reason, the Executive Council considers having a broad base of members important, not for the sake of numbers but to ensure that the association represents the diverse interests of those teaching, studying, researching, and practicing the humanities. As the workforce changes, the MLA is committed to increasing participation by those who have been less represented in the past—including teachers and scholars in disciplines other than literature, community college faculty members, and of course the full-time and part-time contingent faculty members who do most of the teaching in United States (and, sometimes, Canadian) institutions. While new incentives for being an MLA member can be offered, this challenge finally comes down to people wanting to join or renew because the association promotes their values and gives them a voice.

In this, we are making progress. The new intellectual structure—in which redrawn forums have replaced the old divisions and discussion groups, and the annual convention has changed accordingly—is a step forward; the council is imagining further changes to make the convention more accommodating to new and emerging groups. Now all members may nominate themselves (or any other member) to serve on committees of the association, an opportunity we hope more will take. Around half of those appointed to committees this year came from the online nomination process. The Nominating Committee is determined to keep a range of professional standpoints (including those of adjuncts, community college faculty members, and graduate students) on the Executive Council. Looking outward, we are strengthening our ties with associations such as the National Council of Teachers of English. As this past February’s National Adjunct Walkout Day began to take shape, the MLA launched a complementary initiative, Action for Allies, which provided hundreds of full-time faculty members a platform to declare their solidarity with the most exploited segment of our profession and to take action on their campuses. The work of advancing representation continues.

The MLA Convention. In-person job interviews at the convention became indispensable in the 1960s as an egalitarian reaction against the clubby customs of earlier decades. For nearly all of us, the only MLA convention we have known has been colored by the tensions of the job market. The gradual decline of in-person interviews at the convention in favor of online media means that, for the first time in generations, we have an opportunity to rethink the nature of our annual meeting. How should we envision a convention in which the apparatus of the job market is only a small part and where our intellectual connections can thrive in new ways?

Informed by a recent survey of members, the Executive Council is starting to think about this question. The possibilities include a less populous, more intellectually concentrated event; deeper attention to matters of mentoring and professionalization; and more occasions to engage with our allies in other disciplines and sectors, such as curators, librarians, and humanities PhDs in the tech industry. I suspect that how we respond creatively to this evolutionary change in the life of our fields will do much to define the MLA for the next several generations.

Closing the Circle. The MLA of recent decades has advocated for the profession by bringing people together, gathering information, and making recommendations for standards and practices. As we carry out these vital operations, we are committed to following through. We must ask: what results came from our advocacy, and what can we do next? How can you put this information to use in your department? Were the recommendations adopted, and what happens next? As the Executive Council and staff have heard me say, this is about closing the circle. This imperative has many dimensions, from developing MLA Commons into our town square to encouraging the Delegate Assembly to serve as a year-round source of advice and insight to the council as well as a site of activity on professional matters.

A few weeks ago, during a visit to Indiana University, I was asked to speak to a group of graduate students and faculty members about the work of the MLA. Their hopes for the association—as a force for improvement in a dispiriting professional climate, and as a community in which their voices will be heard—reminded me how important it is to maintain our progress on the challenges I have mentioned here, and more. Key to closing the circle will be MLA members themselves. The broad survey of the membership is already under way. As we reach out, I want to hear from more of you: what do you think the MLA should be in the next decade? I promise to use your responses to shape our action agenda.

A Welcome from MLA President Roland Greene

Dear Colleague,

Welcome to the Modern Language Association. As the MLA’s president for 2015–16, I would like to remark briefly on where we are today and where we are going in the near future.  My membership has meant a great deal in my professional life, and sharing my understanding of this association with you is an important part of my work this year.

The MLA is the largest scholarly association in the world and a major force in the humanities in North America.  Its two main activities are to sustain the intellectual and pedagogical work of its nearly 27,000 members and to advocate for better conditions for all of us (scholars, teachers, students, and more), in our profession and the broader humanities.  While these aims may seem different from each other, they are really about helping you carry out all of your roles: as you seek a job, or write an article for publication, or prepare to teach an unfamiliar work, or speak to your dean about teaching loads or class sizes, the MLA has developed resources to support you.

We publish books and journals, produce the indispensable MLA International Bibliography, conduct research into working conditions in our industry, promulgate guidelines on a wide range of professional matters, and bring the community together once a year at the annual convention.  We also intervene when members confront challenging professional conditions that have implications for the rest of the profession—say, when academic freedom is violated or teaching conditions are compromised.  With a staff of about one hundred, the MLA aims to stay ahead of events in nearly every aspect of the humanities, and your support will keep it there.

Even the most seasoned members must refresh their view of the association from time to time.  I urge you to explore both the MLA Web site and MLA Commons: the former is a gateway to our publications, the Job Information List and related professional guides, the impressive collection of materials on our advocacy for the workforce, and the dozens of committees through which members’ perspectives shape the association, while the latter is an innovative platform where members exchange ideas with one another.

What’s ahead?  This is a time of unusual challenges in higher education, but the MLA’s elected officers, Executive Council, and staff remain encouraged that we can continue to make a difference in your professional experience every day.  We’re undertaking a survey of the members to explore how to serve you better.  The governance of the MLA is continually expanding to include a wider range of members on our various committees, and I encourage you to nominate yourself or others.  We’re exploring different ways of putting the information we compile about the profession into your hands, helping you improve conditions in your workplace.  We are working to expand our outreach to potential members in community colleges, K–12 schools, overseas institutions, and libraries.  With partner institutions such as the University of California Humanities Research Institute, we’ll be finding new ways of staying connected to the entire population of PhDs in language and literature, not only those who found work in our profession.  And the convention continues to evolve as we respond to advice from members on how to meet your needs.

Our size as an organization can sometimes seem to be a disadvantage—for instance, when the convention looks daunting to newcomers, or when we consult thoroughly on a hot issue.  But our size is also our strength.  We need everyone in the profession to stand with us as we work daily on your behalf, in ways seen and unseen.  Please join or renew, urge your colleagues and graduate students to become members, and make your voice heard. As a start on a new (or enriched) membership experience, I look forward to hearing from you at rgreene@mla.org and seeing you at the 2016 convention in Austin.

Sincerely,

Roland Greene

Telling Our Story

Originally published in the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter

The theme of the 2016 convention in Austin will be Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future. I’d like to anticipate that event with a year of renewed attention to the publics we face as scholars of literature, language, and writing and to the MLA’s particular public, its members. In this first column of my presidency, I reflect on how the MLA braids two identities, as a scholarly association and an advocacy organization, in support of our members’ professional lives.

One of the most enjoyable things about the Vancouver convention for me was the spontaneous conversations I had with members. At one reception, I spoke for half an hour with two instructors from Central Washington University, Lila Harper and Ruthi Erdman, about how they see their membership in the MLA. Their enjoyment of the convention was manifest, and both spoke eloquently about what they have gained. Lila later wrote to me:

I have been a member for thirty years, having joined as a graduate student. Joining back then required that I go to the library, obtain a PMLA to find the address, and write a letter asking to join. I had been told it was my professional organization, so I figured I had better join up. No one else in my family had ever tried doing doctoral work, so I was attempting to figure out the culture. Although I have been non-tenure-track for twenty-five years and have never been interviewed for a tenure-line job, I still believe it is my professional organization.

As I have struggled to find a place for myself in an institutional world that saw me as marginal or possibly threatening, I looked to the MLA to remind me that I belong to a profession with an ethical code, that there was more to my work than the everyday conditions of departmental life, more than answering the continuingly disconnected demands of my employer’s bureaucracy. I need the MLA to remind me that my intellectual goals do not end with servicing the increasing classroom sizes and poorly prepared students and that the continuation of scholarship matters.

If it had not been for the MLA, I would have burned out long ago. Teachers need something for themselves, an intellectual engagement that continues beyond the latest group of students, one that will carry you through yet another set of budget cutbacks, software upgrades, and administrative turnovers. The MLA keeps me connected. It reminds me that there is a world of ideas and conversations out there and that, no matter my status at work, I can still contribute to that world.

Few can express better than Lila what it means to belong to a scholarly association, especially to one the size and scope of ours. In an intellectual sense, our association sustains the intangible bonds of knowledge that keep not only us as scholars and teachers but our disparate fields in conversation.

In the academy of today, however, intellectual connection is not everything we expect of the MLA. It’s an organization that exists to serve the needs of its members by offering advocacy and information as well as intellectual exchange—and it must maintain both threads of this identity together.

Some of this advocacy has been consistent over the decades: the MLA is the humanities organization that leads all the rest in carrying out research on the workforce in higher education, forging partnerships with other humanities associations and foundations, and lobbying for our interests in Washington. However much one may enjoy the warm embrace of a small conference or the easy legibility of a field-specific journal (and I do), the organizations that give us these things don’t have the size or the budget to do the quotidian, often invisible work of the MLA.

In this era of tumult in higher education, the officers, Executive Council, and staff are always asking how the MLA as an advocacy organization can better reflect the profession and serve a wider range of members in ways that recognize the institutional realities they face every day. We’re making the MLA more representative of the profession by reaching out to faculty members across the spectrum of institutions and employment as well as to our partners in K–12 education, our allies in other sectors such as libraries and foundations, and our counterparts abroad. There’s more we can do to put the information we gather directly into members’ hands and to speak explicitly to the needs of members across very different professional conditions.

Our challenge is to make the MLA’s work visible in ways that touch the everyday experiences of our members, potential members, and allies. We know how to interpret others’ stories, but can we tell our own story as the largest scholarly organization in the world? Despite our size, can we become nimbler, more open to new voices, and more about conversations than pronouncements? Posing and answering these questions is my first initiative as president. I intend to report on it throughout 2015 on MLA Commons, and I invite your comments here.