Organic Planting at the MLA

Originally published in the Summer 2013 MLA Newsletter

If you hang around a campus long enough, you will become aware when the next strategic plan is in the works. Surveys will crop up in your in-box, you’ll be summoned to special meetings, and, if you are in an administrative position, you’ll be directed to assemble reams of data. Unfortunately, faculty members off the tenure track and graduate students might not be clued in to a strategic planning process (another by-product of the overreliance on contingent labor in the profession).

Many scholarly associations also produce strategic plans, often hiring consultants to guide them. Formal strategic plans can help when institutions or organizations undergo repositioning—that is, making major changes in mission and vision in response to shifts in the environment. Some of these plans offer detailed goals and metrics; others dwell in noble aspirations to excel in all the organization does. I’ve seen strategic plans become part of the fabric of an institution, shaping major initiatives, driving the budget, undergirding capital campaigns, and pushing cultural changes. I’ve also seen many a strategic plan do no more than gather dust on the shelf.

The MLA Executive Council has adopted a different model, one that does not require a published strategic plan. The council has always played an important role in middle-and long-term planning for the association, attempting to balance immediate needs (choosing convention sites, speaking out about a curriculum change on a particular campus) with longer-term goals (reinvigorating the annual convention, responding to changes in faculty demographics). One of my responsibilities is to advise the council on governance matters, and, in thinking about the best ways we might do planning, I was heavily influenced by Richard Chait’s Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Chait stresses the importance of generative governance. Boards operating in generative mode don’t just ask “what should we do?” or “how should we do it?”; they also ask “why should we do this?” and “why aren’t we doing that?” They can formulate questions such as “where do we want to be in five years on this?” and “what data and research do we need to inform our answers?”

Because we do our strategic planning in generative mode, the result is a kind of “organic planting” of ideas that we nurture over time. Some council initiatives take root quickly and produce projects that come to fruition in a relatively short time span, often directed by groups of members (I’m thinking of the Report of the Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion). Other initiatives, once germinated, may take a full decade to ma­ture. Certainly the shift in our scholarly communication models, an ongoing process, is one of those slow-growth strategic plantings. The major new directions the MLA has taken—for instance, the launch of MLA Commons and the migration of several key publications to a digital-only environment—would not be possible without years of careful tending and investment of strategic capital.

How does the council do this work? At every one of its meetings, the council receives reports from committees and from the staff and analyses of data and trends related to our field. Council members bring to the table first-hand experience of departments and campuses. A special role is played by MLA presidents, who sit on the council for two years before their presidential year and begin spearheading projects in the months leading up to the presidency. Mari­anne Hirsch, our current president, began working with members on the division and discussion group structure shortly after she was elected and continues to make that project a cornerstone of her presidency. Like other presi­dents, she works with both her predecessor and her successor to ensure continuity on association projects.

In recent years, the council has made strategic planning a regular part of every meeting, working in subgroups that change as the needs of the association do. Some groups continue their work over a long period (for example, the academic workforce is an area in which we must always be engaged in generative thinking), whereas other groups assemble and disperse within the span of a few council meetings, often because the work rises to a broader administrative level (for example, the language consultancy project came out of a strategic planning subgroup and is now under the guidance of a joint MLA-ADFL steering committee headed by a past MLA president and a past ADFL president). The council also examines the budgetary implications of all new projects, just as it assesses ongoing projects for value to the association. The MLA staff collaborates with the council in strategic thinking; staff members serve as the day-to-day administrators of the directions the council charts.

At recent meetings, the council subgroups have focused on extending the international reach of the association, on outreach to parents and students about the undergrad­uate experience in humanities classes today, and on con­tinuing improvements to participants’ experiences at the MLA convention.

Members and former members often comment on what the association is (or isn’t) doing. Every time I get such a communication, I think of the extraordinary work that is done by MLA committees and officers, and I reflect on the choices that the council must make every time it commits funds to one project or another. Generative explorations of “why” and “why not” allow us the free range of criti­cal thinking that we claim the humanities is especially ca­pable of imparting. The members of the Executive Council practice what they teach. Finally, let me state the obvious: the primary reason the council works so well in generative mode is the intelligence, flexibility, creativity, and collegiality of the members whom you nominate and elect—and who, I should add, are always eager to hear from you so they can plant new seeds in the fields in which we labor.

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