Get Engaged at MLA 2018

Originally published in the Fall 2017 MLA Newsletter

We’re excited to welcome the convention back to the MLA’s home city, New York, in 2018. And I’m especially pleased that my first convention as executive director will bring thousands of members to my new home, a city with a vibrant history of literature, art, theater, and cultural and political engagement of all sorts.

Engagement—activism, advocacy, and participation in the arts—is an overriding theme in this year’s convention. The presidential theme, #States of Insecurity, calls attention to the role of the arts and humanities in national and international politics, and the convention will offer participants many opportunities to think about and take action to support the arts and humanities.

Tables will be scattered throughout the convention hotels, marked by MLA Action Network banners and staffed by volunteers who will help you send your senators and representatives handwritten postcards (which are more effective than e-mail). We’ll have postcards, stamps, and even sample messages for you so that you can convey your support for federal funding for language study, maintaining and strengthening the National Endowment for the Humanities, affirmative action in university admissions, or whatever topics are most important to you.

The humanities and arts in this country need public champions, and the MLA is eager to lead, supporting the study of literature, language, writing, and culture and making clear the value of research in our fields. The convention represents all our disciplines and our work, from activist sessions on adjunct labor (e.g., Organizing from the Inside: Effecting Change for Adjuncts in Insecure Times) to pedagogical sessions on the writing classroom (e.g., Ways of Writing in High School and College) to research presentations on the newest approaches to literature and language (e.g., James Baldwin’s Speculative Imaginary; Why Teach Literature?; New Currents in Medieval Iberian Studies). In keeping with the convention theme, several sessions will focus on advocacy and activism, such as The Humanities and Public Policy and Sanctuary, Contingency, and the Campus as a Site of Struggle.

We’ve shifted the focus of the convention over the years and introduced a wide variety of new session formats, including workshops, roundtables, and sessions dedicated to professional development and advocacy. And, of course, job interviews take place at the convention. While the MLA continues to advocate for secure, well-paid teaching positions, we also recognize that tenure-track jobs are not the main employment destination for those of us in MLA fields, and, in fact, they were never the sole destination. Those who study and work on language and literature have always pursued a variety of vocations, such as university and community college teaching, public humanities work, secondary school teaching, public service, and even corporate work. Since 2015, the MLA’s Connected Academics project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has offered a yearlong career-exploration proseminar for twenty doctoral students from universities in the New York area. We’re looking for ways to make the proseminar available to more doctoral students, and so this year’s convention will feature a Connected Academics boot camp for twenty doctoral students from around the country. During their four days in New York, the boot camp fellows will participate in a series of linked sessions as well as in special group workshops and a behind-the-scenes visit to the New York Public Library. We hope that participants will be enthusiastic ambassadors for humanities careers, taking their experiences and learning back to their home departments to benefit their colleagues.

Last year’s convention featured our first Benefit for the Humanities. The proceeds from that event enabled us to expand our advocacy for the humanities and our support for contingent faculty members and graduate students. We have been able to fund workshops with the OpEd Project, which trains subject experts to write op-ed pieces for newspapers; to provide travel grants for graduate students and contingent faculty members and internships for graduate and undergraduate students; and to develop the Connected Academics boot camp, among other projects. If this is the kind of work you believe in, I hope you’ll join us at this year’s benefit on the opening night of the convention. Stay tuned for more information in the MLA news digest.

I’m looking forward to seeing you at the 2018 MLA convention in New York City.