“¡Miel, éste es el Trópico!”: Survival American

Originally published in the Summer 2017 MLA Newsletter

As I stood near the Hotel Inglaterra on the Parque Central in Havana in early March, I was consciously occupying Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s vantage point as represented by the cover image of La Habana para un infante difunto. It shows a photographer reclining against a lamppost with his old-fashioned camera, ready to snap pictures of tourists and locals, a custom I saw repeated on my visit nearly four decades after Cabrera Infante’s work was published (“Photo, lady?”). My knowledge of Cuba had come through literature, history, art, and scholarly writing, and I was eager to put my feet on Cuban soil now that travel to the country had been eased.

Little in my theoretical training prepared me for the lived realities of contemporary Cuba. I expected Havana to be a mix of beautifully restored buildings and crumbling colonial-style ruins, and I was not disappointed. I had not imagined Centro Habana’s stray dogs and cats scavenging for food in the roads, where pedestrians walked because the rubble-filled sidewalks were often impassable. I knew that daily life presented major challenges for Cubans, who have lived with the United States embargo for over half a century and have endured the Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago. Seeing the store shelves empty of basic goods brought home to me what scarcity means on a daily basis. Watching Cubans compete for my peso convertible—the currency that can purchase household goods, a restaurant meal, or an airline ticket, if authorization to leave the country can be granted—made me feel constantly solicited.

Everyone knew that I was a foreigner, even though I speak Spanish fluently and do not look the blond gringa type. People asked, “Where you from, lady?” as I passed by. In situations where I had to give an answer, I didn’t always say “the United States,” mostly because of the legacy of my country’s actions toward Cuba since the nineteenth century. My spoken Spanish links me to the madre patria of Spain, but I quickly inflected the mother tongue with a Caribbean accent and, Canadian dollars in hand (to avoid the 10% penalty levied on US dollars), passed as some hybrid (North) American. Vaya gringada.

It’s a particularly potent time to reflect on what it means to be an American (read: citizen of the United States). The Cubans with whom I spoke were eager to talk about “Troomp” and seemed well aware of many aspects of American culture, knowledge gained through the weekly download of the underground el paquete, delivered by hand on a flash drive to anyone with the convertible pesos to pay for it. The guard in the museum of Cuban art asked me if we had paintings like the ones by Wifredo Lam in the United States, and she quickly moved to the question of how much my airline ticket cost, noting many Cubans would like to leave the country. I didn’t anticipate such openness to the United States. Yet the positive attitude makes sense, given the age of these Cubans (the revolution is all they’ve known) and the cultural influence of American media, consumer goods, and even food.

Cubans talked to me with dismay (which I share) about the wall between Mexico and the United States that Trump has threatened to build and the ban against citizens from majority-Muslim nations. The Modern Language Association has communicated a collective sense of outrage against immigration policies that violate human dignity and opposed the drastic cuts in the 2018 federal budget that would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts, and other cultural and educational programs. Cuba is a country in which prominent writers like Nicolás Guillén and Miguel Barnet have participated actively in the intellectual and political life of the nation. It is true that they must align themselves politically with the regime to play such a role, something that writers like Cabrera Infante ultimately refused to do. Yet, it should be noted, intellectual freedom in Cuba was a fraught issue long before the 1959 revolution; for example, the United States–backed dictator Gerardo Machado had the writer Alejo Carpentier arrested in 1927 for subversion and shut down the university in 1930 in the face of student protests.

And what of the writers, historians, literary scholars, artists, poets, and other practitioners in the United States, with its vast material riches and tradition of infrequent government interference in cultural production, especially in the modern era? The United States government offers relatively little economic support to the humanities community. Less than 1/21,000th of the federal budget goes to fund the NEH annually, an amount that is barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp. The NEH might be seen as the forgotten research and education outreach institution in Washington: it represents less than one percent of the federal budget for scientific research and less than one tenth of one percent of the federal research-and-development budget. In the current political climate, in which public defunding and privatization are rapidly becoming the norm, the NEH, even costing the minuscule amount that it does, is endangered. The federal budget functions as a mechanism for setting policy, and by eliminating funding for the NEH, we as a nation would be saying that the humanities don’t rank at all among our priorities. This sorry state of affairs is certainly not as dire as government censorship and persecution of writers in Cuba like Reinaldo Arenas, but make no mistake: it constitutes neglect and ostracism of our intellectual heritage. It calls for “survival American,” a continual public discourse of resistance and opposition to the threats to our humanistic work that emanate from our government.

In Cabrera Infante’s first novel, Tres tristes tigres, the interplay between Spanish and English constitutes a major component of the pleasure that the work offers to readers who know both Spanish and a fair amount of conversational English and American popular culture. In the section “Los visitantes,” the story of a cane is purportedly told and retold by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, then corrected by Rine Leal. The mistranslations from English to Spanish and vice versa give the text its nonsensical quality, but the reader’s ability to read between languages rescues it from unintelligibility. Mrs. Campbell, on arriving in Havana for a weekend, supposedly observed to her husband, “¡Miel, éste es el Trópico!” (186). In Spanish, miel (“honey”) does not connote endearment, and the oral stress on the definite article, unlike in English, fails to transmit emphasis (the stress would fall on the noun) and thus sounds rather silly. I realized I was at moments seeing Havana through the language of Cabrera Infante. I observed myself as the American who, despite proficiency in the common Spanish language that allows me to travel to so many countries and be understood and despite having studied so much about Cuba for decades, knew so little on the ground that I might as well have uttered “¡Miel, éste es el Trópico!” myself. And that is because humanities learning always starts anew. Survival of the humanities requires continual personal, societal, and governmental commitment and investment. The America that makes me proud upholds and supports its writers, thinkers, artists, and creators, and it’s an America well worth fighting for.

Work Cited

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Tres tristes tigres. Seix Barral, 1970.

Read earlier columns in my “survival” series: “Survival Spanish” (Summer 2007), “‘Tan cerca de Dios’: Survival Poqomchi” (Spring 2008), “Return of the Pensative Daughter: Survival English” (Spring 2011), and “Tamales for Dollars: Survival Guatemalan” (Spring 2013).

Advocacy in 2017: What We Can Do Together

Originally published in the Spring 2017 MLA Newsletter

I write these words ten days after the forty-fifth president of the United States was inaugurated. The landscape for MLA advocacy has already registered the seismic shifts that the new administration set off when it issued executive orders to construct a physical wall between the United States and Mexico and to close United States borders to citizens of seven nations with majority Muslim populations, as well as when it threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many of you wonder what role your scholarly association should play in these times. We all realize that issuing MLA statements on what promises to be a flood of worthy causes could dilute the power of our collective voice and expend energies best directed toward other actions. At the same time, we recognize that silence can be interpreted as complacency, so as an association we commit to speaking out on those issues that intersect most directly with our professional interests. The MLA also joins with other scholarly associations in making statements that endorse or oppose particular causes (a recent case in point: the joint statement on threats to academic freedom and higher education in Turkey).

The MLA has formed strategic alliances to promote the interests of our members and to engage in advocacy efforts, especially at the federal level. Here are some of our key partnerships:

  • The National Humanities Alliance (NHA). As a founding member of the NHA, the MLA has a central role in shaping the advocacy priorities of this Washington-based group. A coalition of more than 170 organizations and institutions, the NHA advocates for humanities education, research, preservation, and public programs. In addition to lobbying for humanities funding, the NHA works to advance policies that support the humanities, develops policy initiatives, and promotes public awareness of the humanities. MLA members can participate in the NHA’s National Humanities Advocacy Day and learn how to lobby effectively on Capitol Hill and in their districts.
  • The Coalition for International Education (CIE). A coalition of over thirty higher education organizations, the CIE works to support programs, like Title VI and ­Fulbright-Hays, that promote greater awareness and understanding of the world’s languages and cultures. Through symposia, reports, videos, and other campaigns, the CIE educates policy makers, officials, and the media about the importance of United States global competence.
  • The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS), a nonprofit education-policy organization with more than one hundred organizational members, works to “ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn and use English and at least one other language.” JNCL-NCLIS promotes awareness of language issues through its lobbying and publications and through events like the annual Language Advocacy Day and Delegate Assembly. The event draws language advocates who want to make the case for language education to Congress while learning more about programs and policy issues.
  • The Conference of Executive Officers (CEO) of the American Council of Learned Societies brings together leaders from the council’s member societies to discuss issues that affect humanities research, teaching, and scholarly communication. The CEO collaborates on policy documents and public advocacy statements, such as the recent statements about the January 2017 executive order on immigration.

In addition to participating in these organizations, the MLA frequently joins with other groups to speak out on specific issues. Recent MLA efforts include a briefing for congressional staffers on adjunct working conditions, led by the New Faculty Majority, and a panel at the Albert Shanker Institute on the emergence of the precariat.

The MLA is often called on to participate in policy discussions at the highest level. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked me to serve on the Commission on Language Learning, which has just completed its work. One of the commission’s reports, The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait, draws heavily on MLA research and analysis. I will be in Washington, DC, in late February, when members of the commission will present the report at a congressional briefing.

To help members keep track of the association’s advocacy efforts and participate more fully, we will soon introduce an advocacy hub to our Web site. You expect the MLA to work hard to advocate on behalf of our common interests, and we commit to doing so with increased vigor in the months and years ahead. In a paper originally delivered at the MLA Annual Convention in 1977, the year I joined the association, Audre Lorde told us, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you” (41). I carried a sign with that famous second sentence at the PEN America Writers Resist event at the New York Public Library this past January, and I thought about the connection between language and action. “For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call america,” Lorde said, we must speak out and be seen. “And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength” (42). May we recommit to speaking, writing, and acting out, and may you find in the MLA a source of strength.

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 40–44.

The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2016.

Your MLA, 2020 and Beyond

Originally published in the Winter 2016 MLA Newsletter

The Executive Council has put a great deal of thought into the future of the association as we approach a transition to a new executive director. As many of you know, the executive director search committee expects to conclude its work by the end of the academic year. Because humanities professions are rapidly changing to adapt to shifts in higher education, the council has also been developing and refining an ambitious strategic plan to take the organization through 2020 and beyond (www.mla.org/Strategic-Planning).

I hope you will look at the brief summary of the strategic plan we released at the start of the fall semester. We are working to build a flexible, responsive scholarly association for the future. This endeavor means broadening the range of members that we serve, creating new opportunities for members’ professional development, facilitating new connections between members and among their communities, and finding new ways to get members’ work out to the world.

Yet all of that work requires investment, particularly in new technologies. Technological transformation is rarely straightforward and without complications, but we believe that investing in new technologies will enable the association to respond to developing member needs. The strategic plan will be a success if we sustain and support the vibrant intellectual communities within the MLA and create new ones beyond our current membership.

We might say, borrowing from Teresa de Lauretis’s pioneering notion of the technologies of gender, that MLA intellectual communities are both the product and the process of technologies such as the material forms in which we disseminate and interpret scholarship and the institutional discourses that establish and subvert hierarchies. The council has studied the association’s practices and technologies with an eye toward aligning them with our changing mission.

MLA members will undoubtedly be interested in what the strategic plan means as it applies to their research and teaching. By employing new technologies, the MLA will soon be able to do things like release individual chapters of Approaches to Teaching volumes for instructors preparing to teach only one short story of an author’s work.

The strategic plan will also serve members’ professional lives and bolster the humanities. Technology will help the MLA create regional advocacy networks; provide departments with resources for helping PhDs discover a wide range of careers; and, yes, raise funds to support teachers, students, and programs.

To make all this possible, we are launching a campaign, Paving the Way: For the Future of the Humanities, which you’ll hear more about at the convention in Philadelphia. In the meantime, I invite you to read the plan and offer feedback at strategicplan@mla.org.

Work Cited

de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Indiana UP, 1987.

Your Professional Development: To Be Continued (at the Convention)

Originally published in the Fall 2016 MLA Newsletter

As most of you already know, more and more departments are shifting their in-person first-round interviews for academic positions to videoconferencing platforms such as Skype.1 Yet candidates may still envision the MLA convention primarily as a job market, during which they interview, if they are fortunate, and attend ADE- and ADFL-sponsored demonstration interviews or sessions on graduate school life or the academic workforce. The faculty members who conduct interviews generally describe their convention experience as time spent in a hotel room with the same colleagues for long mornings and afternoons, leaving them few occasions to attend sessions, go to the exhibit hall, or participate in one of the MLA-sponsored cultural excursions. Not ideal for anyone, especially in a brutal humanities job market.

When we surveyed members recently, we learned how they want the convention to change. Many said they would like to see even more opportunities for career development than already exist. As part of the MLA’s current strategic plan, that’s exactly the direction the convention has begun to take. We have started to expand the scope of offerings at the convention to reflect members’ burgeoning interest in new forms of career development. Of special interest in this regard are the sessions linked to Connected Academics, the MLA project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to prepare humanists for a wide variety of careers. Workshops focus on transferable skills, writing for broader audiences, networking, and job-search strategies. For the second year, we are showcasing the diverse and rewarding careers of humanities PhD recipients. Attendees have an opportunity to discover the wide range of employment possibilities available within and beyond the academy. Presenters, available for one-on-one discussions about their jobs and the career paths that led to them, include PhDs who work in universities, secondary education, nonprofit fund-raising, finance, management consulting, public humanities, journalism, and public policy. For a complete list of convention sessions related to Connected Academics, see https://connect.mla.hcommons.org/2017-mla-convention-activities/.

Members frequently tell me they have few chances to learn what it’s like to teach at institutions that don’t resemble their own. The Philadelphia convention offers several sessions to guide members in this regard. Session 329, Teaching at Teaching-Intensive Institutions, elucidates the rewards and challenges of careers at schools with 4-4 and 5-5 teaching loads. Attendees are invited to bring their CVs and cover letters for practical assistance. Session 414 features faculty members in English and foreign languages who discuss career opportunities in community colleges, focusing on job seekers who are starting their careers. Panelists in session 495, Career Training for Humanists: Best-Case Scenarios, consider innovative public humanities programs, multi-institutional initiatives, faculty best practices, and career center workshops. In the words of the session organizers, “[t]hese talks recalibrate career training as essential to our discipline: a way of acting on our values, challenging academic and public boundaries, and articulating our purpose.”

As we plan future conventions, we are thinking about the kinds of support that our members want across the arc of their careers. Graduate students may wish for information about building an online research profile or making connections with scholars in their fields. Early-career faculty members might seek guidance as they take on new responsibilities in student advising, personnel matters, or curricular development. Senior scholars seeking new career challenges might want to explore possibilities for moving into administration. Some members will want to focus on grant writing, journal editing, national humanities advocacy, or collective bargaining as developmental areas in which to engage. The convention will, of course, remain a site for scholarly exchange and informal networking, which have always been its heart and soul. Yet in expanding the range of professional opportunities at our annual meeting, we think more members will find attending the convention an even richer experience, one that might produce anything from discovering effective ways to restore shared governance to forging a new career path. If you have ideas for the kinds of professional-development workshops you’d like to see, please let us know by writing to execdirector@mla.org. I hope to welcome you to the 2017 convention in Philadelphia!

Note

  1. ADE and ADFL guidelines for remote interviewing may be found at https://ade.mla.org/remote-interviews/.

Learning from the Pros in the Connected Academics Proseminar

Originally published in the Summer 2016 MLA Newsletter

The more of these amazing people I meet, the more I’m convinced that graduate students with a strong alt-ac plan are exactly the sorts of colleagues you want to hire in your departments. (Always assuming, of course, that a great nonprofit or library hasn’t swooped them up already!) —Beth Seltzer

Beth Seltzer, who holds a PhD in English from Temple University, is one of twenty PhD candidates and recent PhD recipients taking part in the inaugural year of the Connected Academics proseminar on careers in New York City. Connected Academics (connect.mla.hcommons.org) is an MLA initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that addresses a concern raised by both the study of career outcomes of 2,200 language and literature PhDs and the Task Force on Doctoral Study: the need to prepare PhDs in language and literature for a range of careers. Proseminar fellows such as Seltzer are connecting with peers from eleven different academic institutions to learn how to apply their research and teaching credentials to articulate transferable skills, create a professional Web presence, and gain an understanding of the humanities workforce beyond the classroom. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Connected Academics is the opportunity to meet with humanities PhDs at the organizations where they work, such as the New York Public Library, Ithaka S+R, the American Council of Learned Societies, Bard High School Early College, and the Frick Collection.

Connected Academics is about encouraging language and literature PhDs to recognize the fullest expression of their abilities and to realize that the humanities workforce is not limited to teaching. Seltzer emphasizes in her blog post that she prepared for and pursued multiple career options at once, including tenure-track teaching positions at postsecondary institutions. Indeed, she felt more prepared for the academic job market because of her varied professional experiences. In Seltzer’s case, the outcome of her job search was a full-time position at Bryn Mawr College as an educational technology specialist—a job that will draw heavily on the teaching and research skills she acquired while pursuing her PhD. Her year in the Connected Academics proseminar has made her aware of her capabilities and of the variety of organizations in which she could put them to use.

With an awareness of the many possibilities for employment come energy, optimism, and ambition—and our proseminar fellows possess these in abundance. I invite you to read their blog posts at the Connected Academics Web site, where they have addressed a broad range of topics in a manner sure to provoke further thought. They write with the conviction that their professional training as humanists will serve them well in roles in academia, secondary education, the nonprofit sector, and even the for-profit world. Most of them do not see careers beyond the classroom as an abandonment of the ideals that led them to undertake advanced study in the humanities—quite the opposite. As another member of the current proseminar cohort, Manoah Finston, puts it, “[W]e should not think of employment off or on a tenure line as the sole determinant of success, just as we can no longer permit the distinction of in or out of the academy to decide the legitimacy of our choice of career.”

Most graduate students today, including our proseminar fellows, look to their faculty advisers, chairs, and directors of graduate studies to help guide them on a career path. It’s understandable that those without experience in careers beyond the classroom have been hesitant to endorse students’ desires to explore a breadth of career options, yet those of us involved with Connected Academics believe that things will begin to change as our proseminar fellows share their confidence and enthusiasm with others at their home institutions.

Our three partner institutions are exemplary in the adaptability and innovation they have shown in the face of the breadth of graduate student career ambitions. Georgetown University’s Reinvent the PhD project has, as one of its central goals, the creation of a Georgetown Center for the Public Humanities and a new, interdisciplinary doctoral program in the public humanities. Arizona State University is focusing on enriching the doctoral experience through the incorporation of additional skills—digital, quantitative, and entrepreneurial. Finally, the University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Humanists@Work program provides opportunities for graduate students to expand their professional experience through statewide workshops and paid summer internships.

While participating in the Connected Academics proseminar has convinced participants of the value of their wide-ranging work, it is, of course, the MLA’s core belief that all labor should be fairly compensated. I want to emphasize here, as I have elsewhere, that we will continue to advocate better working conditions for adjuncts and for the creation of more tenure-track positions at universities. Yet the enthusiasm generated around the Connected Academics project demonstrates that our conversations on academic labor and post-PhD humanities work must become broader. The MLA is prepared to work with departments to help graduate students prepare for an expanded range of career opportunities. We owe the next generation of humanities scholars our support for their ambitions as they apply their humanities PhDs to a broad range of satisfying careers.

Note

I thank my colleagues Stacy Hartman and Nicky Agate for their assistance with this column.

It’s Time to Strengthen Your Programs

Originally published in the Spring 2016 MLA Newsletter

Just over five years ago, the world of higher education was shaken by the news of the planned elimination of programs in several languages and in theater at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Stories about other programs at risk followed, as did outcries from educators and the public. I wrote about the shortsightedness of such cuts in this publication and in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Five years later, few stories about closed or merged programs make the front page in the higher education press. But these programs remain at risk. Proposed cuts have been announced, for example, at Rider University (Clark), at the College of Saint Rose (Bump), and at Calvin College (Delph, Bosch, and Parks). On some campuses, no programs seem more vulnerable than those in languages other than English, and I’d like to tell you what the MLA has been doing to help.

In 2010 a working group of the MLA’s Executive Council, under the leadership of 2009 MLA president Catherine Porter, began the project to develop what became the ADFL-MLA Language Consultancy Service (adfl.mla.org/Resources/Consultancy-Service). The service is designed to help members of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) anticipate problems before they become critical. Typically, the service sends one faculty expert to visit the campus of a department requesting assistance. The consultant draws on MLA resources to provide information and advise the language program on a variety of issues (e.g., curriculum design, faculty governance, strategic planning). Consultants are faculty members with a wide range of experience in administration; many have served as program directors, chairs, and deans or held other positions in upper-level administration. During the 2014–15 academic year, faculty experts, identified and trained by the ADFL staff together with faculty members who have worked previously as consultants, visited an extraordinary variety of departments and programs ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large departments in R1 universities. The Language Consultancy Service has supported public, private, and faith-based institutions. Consultancies have been organized for single- and multilanguage departments as well as for general humanities departments that include languages at comprehensive public institutions.

The consultant spends approximately a day with the department’s faculty members to discuss innovative educational trends and to address institution-specific concerns. The goal is to create ongoing and productive dialogue in the academic unit. Language Consultancy Service visits can provide effective preparation for an external review. Many departments have scheduled consultancy visits in connection with faculty retreats or with the first faculty meeting at the beginning of a new academic year. Financial support for the program is shared by the MLA and the institution requesting a consultation: the MLA pays the consultant’s honorarium, and the college or university covers the costs of travel and on-site expenses.

Mark Pietralunga, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University, arranged for a consultancy visit to his department at the beginning of the academic year in 2016. He reports:

The ADFL-MLA Consultancy Service provided our large and diverse academic unit with the valuable opportunity of having an independent and expert consultant assist us in exploring a wide range of short-term and long-range questions that impact our programs and students. During the visit, the consultant presented insightful data and feedback on the links between enrollments and curriculum, building majors and degree programs, recruitment, retention, careers, and post-degree pathways. Moreover, the consultancy service helped in the articulation of some overarching questions as “How to promote languages as areas of strategic emphasis?” and “How can a foreign language department make itself more vital to the University?” The visit enabled the consultant to meet not only with the general faculty but also with specific groups, including coordinators of the language sub-units and directors of language programs, all of which led to an informed and productive dialogue. Equally beneficial was the follow-up data supplied by the service that addressed specific questions, strategies, and program development and growth issues that emerged during the visit. In all, the information and discussions resulting from the visit contributed greatly in allowing us to have a much clearer focus in the development and implementation of a strategic plan.

To date, the Language Consultancy Service has made twenty-seven site visits in twenty states, with at least ten more visits to come in 2016.

The recommendations of the 2007 report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World, which guided the creation of the consultancy, continue to function as a useful starting place for the conversation between the consultant and the department. The report proposes that all faculty members (full- and part-time) work together to structure curricular offerings so as to address a variety of needs that students experience today, recognizing that very few students will go on to graduate studies in literature. The report acknowledges the intrinsic value of language study but also argues for the necessity of thinking more about instrumental applications of language. In particular, the report challenges departments to confront and overcome curricular bifurcation along the all-too-­familiar split between language and literature. The report encourages a curricular design that emphasizes culture from the beginning (literary, filmic, popular, and so on) and language to the end (including graduate studies). A program built around such offerings is both pedagogically effective and has the potential to resist the division of the academic workforce into non-tenure-stream faculty members at one end of the curriculum and tenure-stream faculty members at the other. Rethinking the curriculum becomes an occasion to address labor practices and faculty governance in the department. And it becomes a chance to implement change where it is needed.

Note

I thank my colleagues Dennis Looney and Mara Naaman for their assistance with this column.

Works Cited

Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World. Modern Language Association. MLA, 2007. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <https://www.mla.org/New-Structures>.

Bump, Bethany. “Saint Rose Cuts Twenty-Three Faculty Jobs, Slashes Academic Programs.” Times Union. Hearst, 11 Dec. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Saint-Rose-cuts-23-faculty-jobs-slashes-academic-6692774.php>.

Clark, Adam. “Rider University Slashing Thirteen Majors, Laying Off Professors.” NJ.com. New Jersey On-Line, 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <www.nj.com/education/2015/10/rider_university_slashing_13_majors_laying_off_pro.html>.

Delph, Anna, Katelyn Bosch, and Josh Parks. “Recommended Program Eliminations Initiate Discourse between Students, Alumni and Administration.” Calvin College Chimes. Calvin Coll., 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://www.calvin.edu/chimes/2015/10/01/recommended-program-eliminations-­initiate-discourse-between-students-alumni-and-administration/>.

Feal, Rosemary G. “The World beyond Reach.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 7 Nov. 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <http://chronicle.com/article/the-world-beyond-reach-why/125267/>.

———. “The World within Reach?” MLA Newsletter 42.4 (2010): 4–5.

Pietralunga, Mark. Message to Dennis Looney. 21 Dec. 2015. ­E-mail.

“Responses from the Academic Community.” Save Our SUNY. N.p., 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. <https://saveoursuny.­wordpress.com/responses-from-the-academic-community/>.

Where Have You Gone, Paul Simon? A Nation Turns to Languages Once More

Originally published in the Winter 2015 MLA Newsletter

This past summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) announced the formation of the Commission on Language Learning, “a national effort to examine the current state of U.S. language education, to project what the nation’s education needs will be in the future, and to offer recommendations for ways to meet those needs” (American Academy). I represent the MLA on the commission, whose members include directors and presidents of associations dedicated to language education and to the humanities. This commission follows up on the work of the AAAS Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, authors of The Heart of the Matter in 2013.

The Commission on Language Learning is the result of a bipartisan request by eight members of Congress from both chambers, who asked the AAAS to examine these questions: “What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?” and “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans?” That the need for language study should inspire bipartisan agreement is cause for hope.

This is not, however, the first time that a national commission has been formed to address the issue of language competence in the United States. The 1979 report of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Study, Strength through Wisdom, offers a trenchant critique of attitudes and inaction. The report notes that “Americans’ scandalous incompetence in foreign languages” explains “our dangerously inadequate understanding of world affairs” (7). The sixty recommendations in the report mostly remained as desiderata, with one major exception. In 1980, Title VI legislation was incorporated into the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title VI programs began to focus on the value of international studies within the context of higher education rather than solely as support for government, military, and security needs.

Another significant outcome of the President’s Commission was the work of Senator Paul Simon, who served on the President’s Commission when he was in the House of Representatives and went on to publish The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis in 1980. Extending the work done in Strength through Wisdom, Simon points to the strong link between language competence and international relations, business, education, and other vital areas of national interest and identifies a resistance in the United States to the study of languages and world affairs, passionately arguing for an end to “the language crisis.”

Of course, we still face a crisis in language study, and conversations about it are ongoing. In my thirteen years as executive director of the MLA, I’ve been invited to many conferences and summits on the issue (see list below). I hear new research and I present data from the MLA language enrollment surveys and other association projects. Yet the research produced at these conferences points to the same basic conclusion that Simon reached thirty-five years ago: native English speakers are voluntarily tongue-challenged, primarily because language education is not accorded priority in the public school system.

At the local level, we see advances in curricular offerings in languages, increasing opportunities to study outside English-speaking countries, and technological facilitation of language acquisition and practice. We could also look to K–12 education, where exciting developments in dual immersion programs are taking place. The MLA, in fact, has established a working group to explore how higher education can cooperate with and learn from the many progressive initiatives taking place across the country at the local level.

But the sad truth is that far too few students are studying languages. At the national level, language study faces more obstacles than ever: the push for STEM careers coming from the White House and the general reduction of humanities offerings on college campuses discourages it. Further, as long as No Child Left Behind and its aftermath are driving the agenda in the Department of Education—and the appointment of John B. King, Jr., to replace Arne Duncan portends this—then language study won’t be prioritized at any level of the educational system.

So I ask myself, what will the new Commission on Language Learning recommend that hasn’t already been recommended? How can the commission possibly exert influence when a long line of heavily influential public figures has not? I look forward to consulting with our membership as I represent the association in this endeavor. And I imagine a day in which United States educational policy embraces Mary Louise Pratt’s dictum: “Monolingualism is a handicap. No child should be left behind” (8).

Works Cited

American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “American Academy of Arts and Sciences to Conduct First National Study on Foreign Language Learning in More Than Thirty Years.” Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 30 July 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <https://www.amacad.org/content/news/pressReleases.aspx?pr=10239>.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Building a New Public Idea about Language.” ADFL Bulletin 34.3 (2003): 5–9. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. DOI: 10.1632/adfl.34.3.5.

President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. Strength through Wisdom. Washington: US Dept. of Health, Educ., and Welfare, 1979. Print.

Simon, Paul. The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. New York: Continuum, 1980. Print.

Meetings on Language Study That Have Included the MLA

“The State of Language: K–12 Teacher and Higher Education Faculty Capacity.” Internationalization of US Education in the Twenty-First Century: The Future of International and Foreign Language Studies: A Research Conference on National Needs and Policy Implication. Coll. of William and Mary. 12 Apr. 2014.

Beyond Preaching to the Choir: Realizing the Vision of a Multilingual Nation. National Foreign Language Center Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Symposium. Washington, DC. 12 May 2011.

Foreign Language Summit. Central Intelligence Agency. University of Maryland, Hyattsville. 8 Dec. 2010.

Committee for Economic Development and the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress Forum and Luncheon. New York Univ., New York. 16 May 2006.

United States University Presidents Summit and Educational Stakeholders on National Security Language Initiative. United States Dept. of State. Washington, DC. 5 Jan. 2006.

“Higher Education and Languages: An Overview of Resources, Progress, and Potential.” National Language Conference Center for Advanced Study of Language. University of Maryland, College Park. 30 June 2004.

Fast-Forward Forty Years: Launching the New Convention

Originally published in the Fall 2015 MLA Newsletter

“Keep Austin Weird,” countless bumper stickers on cars in the city admonish. As I’m sure some MLA members know, “weird” derives from Old English “wyrd,” which denotes “fate” or “destiny.” So in the spirit of Austin’s unique character and the MLA’s efforts to support the future of the profession, it is fitting that this year’s convention is on course to be a year of firsts.

It’s the first time we are meeting in Austin, the state capital and home of one of the country’s most distinguished public universities. It’s also the first convention in more than forty years that will feature a new intellectual structure: the newly created forums. And it’s an exciting moment. The previous, and rather rigid, structure of divisions and discussion groups has been transformed into a network of forums that will evolve over time as members’ interests shift. The 2016 convention program shows such originality that it’s apparent how enthusiastic people are for this change. To get a sense of how the new forums came about and what work they will do starting in 2016, I recommend you (re)read 2014 president Margaret Ferguson’s Commons article.

The other big change in the annual convention is the marked increase in sessions devoted to professional issues and development. The MLA’s Connected Academics project (https://connect.mla.hcommons.org), generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is organizing workshops and presentations focusing on careers for humanists that will permit attendees to interact with those who have found satisfying work beyond the classroom (including sessions 233, 306, and 364). Other sessions related to the project include “Articulating the Value of the Humanities to the Larger World” and “Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur.”

Other professional issues to be covered include mentoring: session 58 offers small-group mentoring on the job search, focusing on different institutional types. In addition, representatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State Department, the Defense Language Institute, and others will speak with attendees about grant funding and career possibilities. Those interested in academic freedom for contingent faculty members will want to attend session 41, which is devoted to learning about how due process rights can be established. Session 518 will consider the future of tenure.

The Austin convention offers plenty of opportunities to explore new pedagogies in areas such as animal studies (24), oral proficiency in the language curriculum (25), graduate student writing (170), comics (222), service learning (253), second language acquisition (289), digital scholarship (411), public humanities (461), large-scale online teaching (506), and language teacher education (680). Administrators (chairs, writing directors, language program coordinators), editors, translators, and archivists will find a wide range of sessions designed to support their work.

I often compare the MLA convention to an ocean liner: it hosts thousands of people, offers a variety of activities, and allows people to stay in small cabins or gather on expansive decks. Yet such a large ship doesn’t tack like a sailboat, and new directions must be charted well in advance of the ship’s turn. I hope you’ll join us in Austin for the great turn—a new intellectual structure and an invigorated focus on our profession. The nearly 850 sessions and events at the 2016 convention promise to maintain the tradition of the humanities in its best sense: as curiosity-driven innovation.

#Ferguson2MLA: Had to Be There

Originally published in the Summer 2015 MLA Newsletter

If you were at the MLA convention in Vancouver on 9 January, you participated in one of the most transformative uses of energy and space imaginable. I’ve attended annual meetings for nearly four decades, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m talking about the Ferguson to MLA (#Ferguson2MLA) action, planned by a small group of members and carried out by hundreds. The organizers let me know about their plan, and my colleagues in the convention office worked with the Vancouver Convention Centre staff to make sure the event went smoothly.

Several members of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color of the United States and Canada took an organizing role before, during, and after the 9 January action. Members of the committee and their invited guests have been using MLA Commons to reflect on the experience, and I want their words to be read as widely as possible by all MLA members. So I turn my column over to Koritha Mitchell, Amber Riaz, and Pranav Jani.

WHAT #FERGUSON2MLA MEANS TO ME

Motivated by the belief that #BlackLivesMatter, a diverse group of scholar-activists began organizing a solidarity action that would take place during the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver. Since August, I had turned down every radio show invitation that had come my way. Though I had been using Facebook and Twitter to speak out, I realized that my stepping back from speaking at #Ferguson2MLA was only the most recent example of my silencing myself. I needed to face the truth: My country has long been sending me a clear message about how little it values me and mine, and that message was having its intended effect. Realizing my pattern of self-censorship, I reached out to the organizers and asked to be reinstated as a planned speaker.

Because the purpose of violence is to mark who belongs and who does not, violence is best understood as know-your-place aggression. The goal is to tell certain people that they should not feel secure in claiming space, even if they have done all the things that the nation claims to respect, such as work hard and achieve according to accepted rules and standards. Studying violence my entire adult life, there’s no question in my mind: the success of marginalized groups inspires aggression as often as praise. They don’t have to be criminals or do anything wrong to be attacked; their success is more often the “offense” that will make them a target.

In this light, it matters that I began crying while marching a couple months ago in a #BlackLivesMatter event in Columbus, Ohio, as soon as the chant became Whose streets? Our streets! For me, this is a claim not of ownership but of belonging, and I was struck by how little I felt that American streets are my streets. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the energy and empowerment I gained from seeing and hearing and feeling people of all backgrounds prioritize the assertion of an our with their words and actions. Whoever we are and wherever we are, we can choose to insist, Whose space? Our space!

A RATIONALE FOR SPEAKING UP

When I decided to speak up at the #Ferguson2MLA gathering, I was motivated by Koritha Mitchell’s assertion that we, as academics of color, belong to the academy, not only because we are exceptional—given how much harder we have had to work to “prove” ourselves—but also because we earned the right to be there by following their rules. We worked hard, and it is because we worked hard that we get to assume positions of authority. It wasn’t enough, however, to simply speak up. What was more important for me was walking up to center stage, claiming the space and then proclaiming my identity, to show that I can occupy the space because I belong in this organization as an equal, not a marginalized identity. This is what #AllBlack-LivesMatter means to me: it is a movement that seeks to lay claim to spaces that have been denied to Black bodies.

I have been told by students that I do not have the right to teach English writing to them. The fact that students felt emboldened enough to tell me (to my face) that I did not belong in my authoritative role is telling in itself. It is a symptom of state machinery that is predicated on principles of racism and violence. This violence must be rigorously questioned.

I write today as an academic who has spent most of her career working on, writing about, state-sponsored violence against “minorities” and “marginalized” people. I am writing because I wholeheartedly believe that the voices and actions of instigators of violence, and perpetrators of that violence (regardless of nationality or religion), should be drowned out by the voices of those who believe that violence is unacceptable. When the state sponsors violence, it tells a segment of its population that they don’t belong, as Mitchell has pointed out. Violence, in all its myriad forms, must end. All Black voices must be heard.

Mitchell’s reframing of the discourse as one about reclamation of space and of citizenship spoke to me at an emotional level. Having been told in numerous ways that I did not belong, I found power and energy in the collective reclamation of space. As a Pakistani Muslim mother, I choose to insist: I belong!

REFLECTIONS ON SOLIDARITY

The energy of the #Ferguson2MLA action came from the conviction, among the nearly two hundred gathered there, that we would not be silent while atrocities were going on, when a movement was going on. And that we would challenge “business as usual.”

As I was inviting people in, I was asked by an African American colleague, “Why is it that all of a sudden South Asians are interested in Black people?” The comment smarted a bit. But I said, “Well, I understand why you might say that. We have anti-Black racism in our own community. We sometimes think we’re white. We sometimes swallow the ‘model minority’ myth ourselves.”

But I also said, “I’m a socialist of color. There’s nowhere else for me to be. I identify because of my racial and ethnic identity, but I can’t be reduced to that. What’s in my head matters as much as who I am. And that means, right now, saying yes, #BlackLivesMatter.”

I’m coming to you from Ohio, the state where twenty-two-year-old John Crawford was gunned down in a Walmart department store for holding a fake gun. Where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down for holding a toy gun in a public park. Ohio is alive with struggle today, with young, Black activists taking the lead.

More activity means more questions. What is solidarity? How do we build it? Solidarity is hard, but it’s a responsibility. Imagine if only Black people were outraged today, and no one else showed up to #BlackLivesMatter events? That itself would be an outrage. Solidarity is grounded in firm convictions: I have your back. I am here in alliance with you to create a space for your voice and your suffering. And my liberation is tied in with yours.

Their side wants to divide and conquer. Our side needs to unite and pull together.

We need to examine tendencies within the movement and academia that use theories of difference not just to ask critical questions about unity, which is necessary, but to make unity impossible. Because if the movement is right, if scholars are right, that this is not just about police incompetence or a few bad apples but that this is systemic and institutional, then it’s going to take all of us to defeat white supremacy and anti-Black racism.


I am so grateful to the association’s members for organizing this event, for making sure that it happened at the convention, where it was front and center, visible, and audible. The event was moving, and I was briefly overcome. In a way, you had to be there, in Vancouver, to experience #Ferguson2MLA. Yet through conversations on MLA Commons and elsewhere, MLA members are continuing the work started in Ferguson and taken to Vancouver.

Back on Track: Connecting with Former Graduate Students

Originally published in the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter

This column was written in collaboration with David Laurence, Director of Research and ADE. Discussion continues on MLA Commons in The Trend: The Blog of the MLA Office of Research.

Academic departments understand the need to track PhDs who pursue careers in tenure-track positions—indeed, jobs on the tenure track are often considered the gold standard of a department’s success. Yet today this task isn’t as easy as it once was: PhDs typically go through several years of searches before securing a tenure-track position or choosing other kinds of employment. Departments often start to lose track of former students who take contingent positions in the academy, whereas those who venture beyond the classroom may find themselves disconnected completely from the programs that launched them.

What motivation does a department have to track its students over decades of shifting career paths, some of which seem distant from the scholarly training the university offers? Doing this work allows departments to tell their own story rather than be limited by the narrative that says the only good placement is a tenure-track job. When graduates go on to a variety of careers, they demonstrate the value that their specialized degrees have for careers both inside and outside academe. Departments can take pride in diverse outcomes and attract prospective students who may feel inspired by the success of the institution. Tracking career paths also can help departments shape their mission. If, for example, a substantial number of those graduating from a program take positions in government and not-for-profit organizations, the department might ask how what it is doing produces this result. Faculty and staff members could then orient the curriculum and overall learning environment accordingly.

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA made an effort to determine the positions held in 2013–14 by a random sample of 2,590 graduates who received their PhDs from institutions in the United States or Canada between 1996 and 2011 and who have Dissertation Abstracts International records in the MLA International Bibliography. Of the 2,590 PhD recipients, we succeeded in locating 2,286. In the end, we excluded from the analysis records of 72 individuals whose degrees are in engineering or computer science (these dissertations are covered in the bibliography because they reflect work on speech recognition or similar kinds of language-related computer science and engineering projects), giving us a sample of 2,214 PhD recipients.

Overall, about half of the sample currently hold tenured or tenure-track positions or are deans, provosts, or presidents. Those who hold positions in upper administration generally hold tenure even if they are not currently active as teaching faculty members.

Employment in 2014–15 of 2,214 Modern Language PhDs Who Received Degrees between 1996 and 2011 from Institutions in the United States or Canada
Employment in 2014–15 of 2,214 Modern Language PhDs Who Received Degrees between 1996 and 2011 from Institutions in the United States or Canada

The findings are divided into three temporal groups of roughly equal size: those who received degrees between 1996 and 1999, those who received degrees between 2000 and 2004, and those who received degrees between 2005 and 2011. Looking at the three groups, we see how the percentage in non-tenure-track positions drops as people move forward in their careers. (The non-tenure-track group includes people whose tenure status we were not able to ascertain.)

The percentage of the sample we could positively identify as holding a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in 2013–14 is 46.2% for the most recent graduates. It increases to 51.1% for those who received their PhDs between 2000 and 2004 and decreases back to 46.1% for those who received their PhDs between 1996 and 1999. Much of the drop in the 1996–99 group apparently reflects movement from tenured faculty positions into senior administration or retirement.

Slightly over 20% of the people in our sample are working outside higher education altogether. If one in five PhDs in the language and literature fields has found a job outside academe, surely we must want to keep careful records of the kinds of work they are doing. What is more, in failing to track them we lose a great opportunity to connect in meaningful ways with those who work in positions seemingly unrelated to academe. Shouldn’t we wish to tap their expertise as we help new generations see the possibilities that await them? And shouldn’t we offer intellectual engagement with this group of alumni and (potential) scholarly association members?

With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA, in collaboration with partners such as the University of California Humanities Research Institute, has launched the multiyear project Connected Academics (www.mla.org/connected_academics). As part of the project, we will continue to compile data and reports on the career paths of people with doctorates in language and literature, including individual narratives of those who have found employment in diverse settings. We will also expand mentoring and networking activities at the MLA Annual Convention and at regional MLA meetings, where job seekers can meet with mentors in a variety of occupations. Doctoral students, directors of graduate studies, placement officers, and curricular reform committees need resources to understand expanded career opportunities, something the MLA, with our partners, now has the capacity to develop.

Some departments already keep good track of their PhD alumni (and not just for the purpose of fund-raising) and offer models to emulate. To those who do not, the MLA will soon be able to offer assistance in developing, maintaining, and analyzing placement data over time. So many PhD recipients have already found their way into satisfying careers outside academe. We feel a sense of excitement as we put ourselves back on track to connect with them and embark on our new project.