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 ... Read More...

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.

Language Matters

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).

The Right to the Humanities

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.