Columns by Simon E. Gikandi

At the MLA Convention!

Originally published in the Winter 2019 MLA Newsletter

The arrival of the MLA convention Program is something I have looked forward to since I joined the organization over three decades ago. The Program has changed over the years: following the redesign of PMLA, its plain brown cover has given way to a light gray one with a colorful image. Although the Program is now available to the membership in electronic format, I have to confess that I’m still attached to the print issue. Going through the whole issue page by page with red or blue pencil in hand is a journey through the changing landscape of our profession, including its desires and anxieties.

In 1985, the year I attended my first MLA convention in Chicago, debates in the profession revolved around the role of theory, especially poststructuralism, in the field of literary studies. Today, as even a cursory glance at the Program for the 2020 convention in Seattle indicates, our desires and anxieties have shifted. The theories that used to generate so much heat in the mid-1980s are now so embedded in the profession that the only disputes they create are about ends rather than means. The center of our intellectual attention has certainly moved elsewhere—to questions about the human or the species, environmental survival, law and rights.

Some of these preferences have, of course, been overdetermined by the presidential theme and its linked panels, but I suspect that they also reflect a collective sense of the precarious situation in which the humanities find themselves. The need to figure out how to manage the crisis in the humanities has certainly prompted the MLA to develop programs and forums to train and prepare its members for the changing professional landscape.

But amid this concern with survival and coping in precarious times, the MLA convention also showcases the kinds of stories and conversations that enrich us all. This year’s convention features, for example, panels and sessions that recognize how the humanities, even though they seem to be under siege in the university, are thriving in public. The success of the humanities in the public sphere in the twenty-first century is evident in how communities across the country have come to embrace the mission of the national organizations charged with the protection and nurturing of the humanities, including the NEA and NEH.

Moreover, within the concentric circles that bring together scholars of literature and supporters of the humanities inside and outside institutions, there is an important, though not always acknowledged, binding force: our community of writers. We know that writers are important to literature because they provide us with the texts that are the bread and butter of our trade; we turn to them and their words of wisdom in times of cultural stress; we count on them to connect us with a reading public; and, above all, we turn to these masters of the word to help us think through the myriad issues that we face as we try to figure out what it means to be human.

For the January 2020 convention in Seattle, I have invited two distinguished writers to help us think about what it means to be human: Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, will help us understand the meaning of lives lived across and outside borders. And Charles Johnson, the author of the acclaimed novel Middle Passage, will remind us, once again, about the meaning of our shared humanity. Finally, since the twenty-first century marks the return of poetry to the center of public conversations, I will be delighted to present the Phyllis Franklin Award to Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, the founders of Cave Canem, the sacred space that has taught us about the invaluable place of poetry “in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Toni Morrison and After

On the morning of 6 August 2019, I was trying to find an appropriate topic for this column when the death of Toni Morrison was announced. In the hours that followed, I tracked the reaction to the passing of this icon of American letters across several time zones. On reading and reviewing the numerous tributes and obituaries, I was struck by three things.

First, there was the indisputable position Morrison had come to occupy in world literature and the influence she had on creative writing in the second half of the twentieth century. There was no tradition of writing—especially writing concerned with questions of historical memory, identity, and human dignity—left untouched by Morrison.

Second, Morrison’s influence went beyond the world of scholars of literature and language; she touched the lives and experience of readers across languages and cultural geographies, including some with immense influence in the management of world affairs. I recall President Bill Clinton saying that Morrison’s novels had taught him how to cope with life after a childhood and youth spent in “the trailer park.” One of the first tributes to Morrison after her death was a piece in the London Guardian by Diana Abbott, a veteran of the fight for minority rights in Britain and the Shadow Home Secretary. Describing Morrison as “part of an extraordinary generation of African American women writers,” Abbott underscored why she was “the most special”: “She was the queen. To understand the impact she had on me you have to appreciate that I came of age in an era when there were very few black female role models.”

Third, and perhaps more important for readers of this column, Morrison’s works provided us with a handle to deal with the great moral problems of our time. In her novels and essays, she exposed the scab of racial violence, the haunting of a nation by its troubled past, and the abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful. Without planning to be so, Morrison had become the moral guardian of our times. Consider these words from The Origins of Others, one of what will now be described as Morrison’s last works:

The spectacle of mass movement draws attention inevitably to the borders, the porous places, the vulnerable points where the concept of home is seen as being menaced by foreigners. Much of the alarm hovering at the borders, the gates, is stoked, it seems to me, by 1) both the threat and the promise of globalization; and 2) an uneasy relationship with our own foreignness, our own rapidly disintegrating sense of ­belonging. (94–95)

I first came across those words early this year when I was looking for a presidential theme for the 2020 MLA convention in Seattle. That last phrase—“our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging”—confirmed my suspicion that we are living in a time like no other, a time when our sense of what it means to be human is disintegrating—and, with it, the whole world, its environment, and its species.

The presidential theme for the 2020 MLA convention is Being Human. I invite you to join me in Seattle to engage in debates and discussions about what it means to be human. As you will see in the impressive convention Program, hundreds of sessions will approach this theme from a range of perspectives and formulations.

In Seattle, a city where the possibilities and limits of technology are a daily concern, we will engage in a rare conversation with Microsoft engineers who grapple with what the human means in the age of machine learning. Working together with the Being Human Festival, based at the University of London, we will be shown some of the ways the public humanities can be harnessed for the common good.

And, yes, at the convention there will be a tribute honoring Morrison, the writer who taught us the meaning of that other, hidden side of modern life.

Works Cited

Abbott, Diane. “Toni Morrison’s Genius Was the Inspiration of My Youth.” The Guardian, 6 Aug. 2019, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/06/toni-morrison-­appreciation-­diane-abbott.

Morrison, Toni. The Origins of Others. Harvard UP, 2017.

Language Matters

Originally published in the Summer 2019 MLA Newsletter

In “Politics Lost in Translations,” a recent column in The New York Times, Gail Collins seemed to suggest that foreign languages in America might become an issue in the forthcoming presidential elections. I hope she is right. While the MLA is a nonpartisan organization and hence does not endorse any political position or candidate, a commitment to research and teaching so-called foreign languages has been part of the association’s mandate since its founding in 1883. The association’s objectives, first published in 1884, named this point in the scope of its activities: a central mission of the MLA “shall be the advancement of the study of Modern Languages and their Literatures.” Although the founders of the association probably conceived foreign languages to be primarily European, there is no doubt that the MLA’s charter did not want to limit what qualified as a modern language. Over the years, the number of languages represented by the MLA increased, and when the mission statement was revised in 1990 the range of languages was assumed to be global, and “more and less commonly taught languages,” from English to Uzbek, were given equal standing (History).

Increasingly, however, the MLA’s commitment to the study of diverse languages and literatures has faced institutional and political constraints. When it comes to cutting back liberal arts programs, foreign language departments are easy targets—and the reductions have had devastating consequences. The total enrollments in languages other than English dropped by 9.2% between 2013 and 2016 (Looney and Lusin 1; see fig. 1). While there is no single explanation for this drop, reports from universities and colleges that have made cuts in programs suggest that non-English language departments are the most vulnerable both because of their small sizes and because of the misleading assumption that such languages are superfluous in a world where English dominates (e.g., at Fort Lewis College [Johnson]; at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point; and at the University of Tulsa).

Language learning is further complicated by a myth that the United States is essentially a monolingual country. I’m surprised by the persistence of this myth and its self-fulfilling nature. Surprised because, for instance, a quick glance of Jill Hubley’s linguistic map of New York City indicates that nearly all languages of the world are to be found in this metropolis. Indeed, a survey of almost any college or university classroom—especially those in community colleges—would reveal that many of our students speak languages other than English at home. Between 2000 and 2017, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum reports, the number of Telugu speakers in the United States rose from 88,000 to 415,000. Among the many Telugu speakers who have brought their high-tech expertise to the country is Satya Nadella, president of Microsoft. Could there be a connection between Telugu and technological innovation? There is an easy way of accessing Telugu culture—through the literature produced in the language since the tenth century and its flourishing cinema.

There is another myth to debunk—the idea that foreign languages are only for elites, those who have gone to selective schools and can afford to travel. Using data from the Department of Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that, with one exception, the top ten universities graduating majors in foreign languages were public universities (“Which Colleges”). It is remarkable that public institutions, which are the most vulnerable to political interests, have been able to sustain this record. The number of majors is, of course, not the only measure of success in the promotion of languages. Where a serious engagement with language is central to a liberal arts education, as it is at Brigham Young University and Connecticut College, foreign languages are valued as cultural capital. Some of the most successful language education programs are those that include opportunities for students to engage in service-­learning projects in immigrant communities and internships with international organizations.

What can MLA members do? Next time general education requirements come up for discussion in your department, stand up for the language requirement. And remember that in our multilingual America, your students don’t have to travel far to be embedded in Amharic, Basque, Cantonese, Telugu, or Twi. There is probably a native speaker in your university or neighborhood.

Fig. 1
Fall Language Enrollments and Percentage Change
2013 2016 % Change,
2013–16
Korean 12,256 13,936 13.7
Japanese 66,771 68,810 3.1
Other Languages 34,746 34,747 0.0
American Sign Language 109,567 107,060 –2.3
Arabic 33,526 31,554 –5.9
German 86,782 80,594 –7.1
Russian 21,979 20,353 –7.4
Latin 27,209 24,866 –8.6
Spanish 789,888 712,240 –9.8
French 197,679 175,667 –11.1
Chinese 61,084 53,069 –13.1
Hebrew, Modern 6,698 5,521 –17.6
Italian 70,982 56,743 –20.1
Portuguese 12,407 9,827 –20.8
Greek, Ancient 16,961 13,264 –21.8
Hebrew, Biblical 12,596 9,587 –23.9
Total 1,561,131 1,417,838 –9.2

Works Cited

Collins, Gail. “Politics Lost in Translations.” The New York Times, 17 Apr. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/opinion/­presidential-election-2020-languages.html.

The History of the MLA’s Mission. KnightLab, cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1Nf-R_­bG0Vj48Nem5UE9-jx0ZzaoEhcUB3JEe3Jd8nlU&font=Default&lang=en&hash_bookmark=true&initial_zoom=2&height=675#event-the-history-of-the-mlas-mission.

Hubley, Jill. Languages of NYC. www.­jillhubley.com/project/nyclanguages/.

Johnson, Steven. “A College Lost Its Languages One by One: Can Three Professors Save Spanish?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 Feb. 2019, www.chronicle.com/article/A-College-Lost-Its-Languages/245660.

Looney, Dennis, and Natalia Lusin. Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Final Report. Modern Language Association, May 2019, www.mla.org/Enrollment-Report.

Pullum, Geoffrey. “What’s the Fastest-­Growing Language in the U.S.? You’ll Never Guess.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Sept. 2018, www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2018/09/25/whats-the-­fastest-growing-language-in-the-u-s-youll-never-guess/.

“Which Colleges Grant the Most Bachelor’s Degrees in Foreign Languages?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 Jan. 2019, www.chronicle.com/article/Which-Colleges-Grant-the-Most/245567.

The Right to the Humanities

Originally published in the Spring 2019 MLA Newsletter

It seems that every new president of the Modern Language Association comes to office in the midst of bad news—bad weather, government shutdowns, debates about immigration, and, of course, the crisis facing our profession. January, not April, would appear to be the cruelest month. Even when the weather is good, as it was in Chicago during the 2019 annual convention, one cannot escape the pall cast over our profession by a dismal job market and the continuing threat to the humanities. In a column published in a January issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Kramnick provided us with frightening figures on the bad state of the job market, which, he argued, may not have hit bottom yet (B4). In many departments of English, comparative literature, and modern languages, job seekers and placement officers are coming out of the hiring season with grim faces.

January can also be a cruel month for a new president of the MLA, for it is in this month when one comes face to face with the paradoxical role of a nonprofit organization in a public sphere dominated by partisan politics. As a nonprofit organization, the MLA cannot engage in politics of a partisan nature, yet many of the issues that dominate political discourse—and their political consequences—are of utmost concern to MLA members. The funding or defunding of organizations such as the NEH, NEA, and PBS, which are crucial to the well-being of the humanities, concerns our members; the closing down of humanities departments and the constant questioning of the role of a humanistic education are of concern to our members; debates and disputes about DACA or walls across borders have a direct impact on some of the most vulnerable of our students, those from migrant communities.

Let me shift from the idles of January to one public issue that has a direct impact on our work and calls for our urgent attention—the continuing decline in the number of international students coming to the United States. On 6 January 2019, The New York Times Magazine carried a story in its “On Money” section on the threat of visa restriction and anti-­immigrant sentiments on education. A key argument in the article, written by Brook Larmer, was that the big increase in the number of students who had come to the United States in the past decade had turned education “almost by stealth” into “one of the most vital American exports” (18). And Larmer had the figures to prove the point: nearly 1.1 million international students attended American universities in 2017 and generated $42.4 billion in “export revenue” (18). Recent restrictions on international student visas had, in contrast, led to a precipitous decline in international student arrivals (an 8.8% drop in graduate students from India was notable), and this had, in turn, compromised the revenues of major research universities.

As a former international student, my initial reaction to this article was one of extreme fearfulness, if not horror. Surely it was wrong, if not unethical, to speak about international students in the same vein as soy beans and cars, textiles and pork, I thought. My initial horror was soon mitigated, though, as Larmer pointed to the ways that international students spurred innovation and growth, in business as well as in science and technology.

There is, however, another kind of innovation and growth that is not always visible in American higher education— namely, the role of migrants as innovators and agents of transformation in the arts and humanities. We know, of course, about the great figures in American music and the arts born elsewhere. What would American symphony orchestras look like without their legendary foreign-born conductors such as Sir George Solti in Chicago, Zubin Mehta in New York, and Seiji Ozawa in Boston? Julie Mehretu, born in Addis Ababa, has been a major figure in the transformation of American abstract art. From Alexander Hamilton to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the list of American writers born elsewhere is too long to recite here.

Though not always visible, migrants have played a crucial role in research and teaching in different areas of language and literature. Comparative literature took root in the United States through the work of exiled European philologists. Indeed, I’m not sure the field could have acquired its identity as an American brand, or its institutional legitimacy in the post–World War II world, without the presence of scholars such as Leo Spitzer, Eric Auerbach, and René Wellek. Their postcolonial successors (Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Ray Chow, for example) have been central in expanding the nature of literary studies in the United States. For over a century now, the teaching of foreign language departments in our universities has been anchored by native speakers from elsewhere. It is ironic that the teaching of foreign languages is declining at precisely the moment in time when the country has been home to speakers of almost every language in the world, including the remnants of dying languages.

Underneath these debates about international visas is the larger question of access. As our executive director, Paula Krebs, noted in a letter to The New York Times, there seems to be an assumption, one that we must strenuously resist, that students from rural and lower-income backgrounds are not entitled to the humanities. And yet, in many institutions, including my own, students from those backgrounds continue to come to English and other humanities departments oblivious to the horror stories about the job market. Even when they are pushed into the lucrative STEM disciplines, these students somehow find their way into our classrooms. In community colleges, first-generation and migrant students meet each other in literary texts—writing and reading literature off the institutional radars that tend to focus on the powerful and privileged. The MLA and its allied organizations must continue to play a major role in making the humanities a right for all. Although the association may not be able to campaign for specific candidates, we can and must speak out to bring the issues we care about to light, and we urge you to do the same: contact your representatives, write an op-ed or letter to the editor, create a blog or podcast—make your voice heard.

Works Cited

Kramnick, Jonathan. “English by the Grim Numbers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Jan. 2019, pp. B4–B5.

Krebs, Paula M., et al.“The Economic Squeeze on Rural Colleges.”The New York Times, 21 Jan. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/opinion/letters/rural-colleges-universities.html.

Larmer, Brook. “On Money.” The New York Times Magazine, 6 Jan. 2019, pp. 16–19.