We Are All Public Humanists

Originally published in the Winter 2017 MLA Newsletter

In the earliest days of the Modern Language Association, the focus of the convention and the association’s publications was members’ scholarly research. That remains, of course, at the heart of what we do. Advanced study in language, literature, writing, and cultural studies links our members across disciplinary specialization, genre, and historical period. But we have never been exclusively a scholarly association; the MLA has always also been a professional association.

The pedagogical insights in the Approaches to Teaching volumes have for many years complemented the extraordinary scholarship in PMLA, because most of us teach as well as research and write. Profession speaks to our members in their various roles as teachers, administrators, and higher education professionals. The MLA Action Network addresses us as scholars who want to make change: to provide our administrations with resources to create better conditions for contingent faculty members, to help graduate students from Puerto Rico who want to keep up with their studies, or to lobby for state funding for higher education.

When you think of your professional self, what does that include? Teacher, scholar, writer, administrator? How does your professional self overlap with your self in your community? Do you bring your reader self to your news consumption, your writer self to activism or cultural work or the PTA? Your humanities training does not shut off when you leave the classroom or the archive. It informs your sense of the world beyond the text, or perhaps it makes the world a text.

We believe that humanities education makes it easier to see nuance, to smell when things are rotten, to hear the differences between lies and truth. And this is why we think it’s worth promoting the value of studying the humanities, at all levels. We want our students to understand language and literature as a way to understand the world; we want them to value writing and performance and film and to understand how the skills and knowledge we get through the study of the humanities make us better readers, better consumers, better citizens, and, yes, better workers. It’s not our business to prepare undergraduates for particular jobs. Instead, what we teach them prepares them for careers, for lives after graduation in which they can put to use the subject area knowledge, the skills, and the values they learn in humanities classes. Humanities education prepares students to contribute to their communities, families, and workplaces, and as professional humanists we can approach that work from at least two sides. We can help our students become articulate about what their education has given them, and we can help those outside the university understand better the value of both undergraduate humanities education and advanced work in the humanities. We can, in short, become ambassadors for the humanities.

This year’s convention invites you to do just that. It will include an OpEd Project workshop, training dozens of attendees to expand their scholarly writing and research skills to write for popular audiences. In addition, we are hosting twenty doctoral students from the United States and Canada who will learn through the Connected Academics project how their degrees are valuable in careers outside academe. Possible Futures, a career fair for new and mid-career professionals, allows convention attendees to talk with employers who respect and appreciate humanities doctorates.

We are offering more convention sessions on pedagogy and on professional development, and we are offering more professional development resources online and in print, for full-time and contingent faculty members and for nonacademic humanists. We are developing programming that helps departments make clear to their majors as well as to their communities and employers the value of humanities degrees.

The more we can talk to the world at large about what we do and why we do it, the clearer the value of our work will become. The more clearly we can demonstrate the value of humanities education, the more it will be valued by the public and our policy makers—and the harder it will be to dismiss it, to close language departments, to badmouth area studies degrees, to shed tenured positions in favor of per-course labor.

Come to the convention. Learn to advocate for what you do, what you teach, what you study. Write, attend meetings, talk. Today, especially, we all need to be public humanists.