Expanding Career Horizons: Possibilities, Pitfalls

Originally published in the Summer 2014 MLA Newsletter

In recent years, the MLA has been exploring a new project to expand career opportunities for PhD holders, one we expect to refine and develop in the years ahead. Before I tell you more about the project, I want to acknowledge several potential objections to it. Some MLA members have told me that discussions of careers beyond the classroom are the wrong kind of conversation for us to have. This group of members believes that the MLA should concentrate on fighting for tenure-track positions on campus in language and literature fields—even though staffing decisions are particular to each institution. Some argue that the employment conditions of those already working as adjuncts deserve more of our attention. Still others note that, to the extent graduate education needs reforming, it should, if anything, focus more on preparing PhD candidates for the research expectations that they will face should they win one of the coveted tenure-track jobs.

I can see why members might feel this way, yet this project doesn’t need to be an either-or effort. The association has worked extensively on issues related to academic careers (full- and part-time), and we won’t abandon our advocacy and research role in these matters. We will continue to collect and analyze data, to argue for appropriate working conditions, and to create models for departments and institutions to follow. We will speak out and act up by naming harmful practices and calling for solutions. We will increase our support for graduate students, adjuncts, and unemployed members. And we will also provide resources so that PhD students can expand their career horizons.

When we began this collaborative project with the American Historical Association (AHA), our aim was to collect and disseminate information about long-term employment outcomes for humanists who hold the PhD and to develop structures that individuals and departments can use going forward as far as careers are concerned. Most people assume that the relative paucity of tenure-track jobs translates into long-term unemployment or underemployment for PhDs who don’t land a tenure-track position. Yet PhDs who desire full-time jobs can indeed find them—though not necessarily as professors. Data show that PhDs have had diverse employment outcomes for some time now. David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, has studied this issue. He observes that “people who enter the long and arduous path of doctoral study in the humanities do so having a postsecondary faculty career as their primary goal, and people who pursue graduate education in the humanities actually find careers in a far broader range of professional positions than postsecondary teaching, even if their first job after graduate school is a postsecondary faculty position on or off the tenure track.” The question, then, is not whether PhDs should pursue careers other than teaching, but rather how we as a field will respond to the evidence that they do.

From what PhD students report informally, the field has typically responded in ways that prove less than constructive. Students say that when they express their inclinations to explore careers other than tenure-track assistant professorships, they often receive little support from their graduate advisers, who perhaps don’t know how to help or disapprove of the choice. Advisers may also feel compelled to adhere to the existing rewards structure for job placement: Research I university placements count big, liberal arts colleges count medium, and nonacademic jobs don’t count at all. The first necessary change is attitudinal. Andrew Green, associate director at the Career Center at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that PhDs who “take jobs that they find very rewarding in business, government, or a non-profit—but are not faculty positions—typically become non-entities within their graduate programs” (qtd. in Segran). Put simply: graduate programs must recognize that a significant percentage of PhDs can and will get jobs that are not like those of their mentors. As a profession, we must support students who pursue these careers, which should be viewed not as “alternative” but as valid options in their own right.

What can scholarly associations do to make it possible for PhD candidates to broaden their career horizons? With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the AHA has embarked on a project that holds great promise for history PhDs (“AHA”), and the MLA is planning its next steps. A major report to be released soon from the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, chaired by Russell Berman, past president of the MLA, will map out the essential changes that departments can undertake as they seek to meet the needs of PhD students today and to engage in better tracking of graduates’ careers. The recommendations in this report lay the foundation for a more expansive view of what we train PhD candidates to do and what they can do with that training.

The MLA has begun offering panels and workshops at the annual convention to showcase a variety of careers, and the ADE and ADFL Summer Seminars for department chairs have also taken action on the topic. Under the title Careers for Humanists, the Vancouver convention will feature a suite of activities, including a job-search workshop for those interested in pursuing careers beyond the classroom or the campus. Attendees at the session I organized for the 2013 convention, “Leaders on the Right Track in the Academy,” told me that they felt encouraged that the distinguished PhDs on the panel had found successful jobs related to the academy, jobs that involve high-level decision making, a degree of autonomy, responsibility for overseeing major projects and supervising teams, and so on. These career paths don’t come into view in most graduate programs.

What’s next? The possibilities we are exploring include establishing campus-based projects, creating regional networks, using MLA Commons for career development, and perhaps even holding a job fair. Graduate students will lead many of the projects and develop transportable leadership skills in the process. Our data collection and analysis will also evolve as we learn more about the employment choices of PhDs in our fields. For any of our efforts to be successful, however, three things have to happen. First, graduate departments need to take an expanded approach to job preparation and career tracking. Second, graduate students and faculty members must recognize that, while the assistant professorship may be the primary career goal, a multitude of opportunities are out there, and people can find immense satisfaction when they elect to pursue them. Third, employers need to see PhDs in the humanities as potential hires. The MLA is one such employer, and the dozen plus staff members who hold the PhD can attest to the applicability of the degree to the work of the association. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Expanding Career Horizons project.

Works Cited

“AHA Receives Grants to Expand Career Tracks for History PhDs.” AHA Today. Amer. Historical Assn., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Laurence, David. “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1.” MLA Commons. MLA, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Segran, Elizabeth. “What Can You Do with a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?” The Atlantic.com. Atlantic Monthly Group, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Why Was There a Session on Academic Boycotts and a “Right to Enter” Resolution at the MLA Convention?

Originally published in the Spring 2014 MLA Newsletter

As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 MLA convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy.

Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than eight hundred sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about sixty percent of the approximately five hundred special-session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the Program reflects.

Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and e-mail messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the Program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.

Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues—sometimes difficult and complicated issues—in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.

Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support” (qtd. in Jaschik).

Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward—and was even announced at the MLA session.

An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members—and only members—can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not—nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.

Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.

As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a month-long period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site. This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage you to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the ten-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.

Work Cited

Jaschik, Scott. “Should Panels Be Balanced?” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 3 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.

Professor No Longer: On Capacity and Risk

Originally published in the Winter 2013 MLA Newsletter

This fall, during the week of 22 September, I served as the guest blogger for PhDs at Work, a Web site where people like me who earned PhDs but do not hold academic appointments describe the daily activities they perform in their jobs. I welcomed this opportunity, because I think it’s important for those of us who use our degrees outside the classroom to speak about our positions and to offer our guidance to others who wish to pursue alternative academic careers. What follows is a modified version of my blog post for Friday, 27 September.

My workweek draws to a close, and I’m satisfied with what we’ve accomplished on staff. Rather than tell you about my day—the highlight of which was wonderful discussions with the Publications Committee and the Committee on Assessing Student Learning—I’d like to reflect on my response to one of the statements PhDs at Work asked me to complete: “If I had to do it all over again, I would. . . .” What I wrote was this: “I would have been less conventional and more of a risk taker when young. I’m making up for that now.” What does this mean for my career? To most academics, I probably appear to be conventional, at least more conventional than they are. I hold an administrative position in an association that runs like the not-for-profit enterprise it is. Lawyers, auditors, fund managers, and consultants all pass through my office. I study the bottom line, I assess progress on strategic priorities, I assemble creative teams, I run workshops, and I work long hours in the office and on the road.

Yes, I recognize the conventional in me, yet I know I take more risks now than I did in my professorial days. I always had many interests, and learning languages, which came naturally to me, served as a connector to the larger world. By the time I was seventeen, I had spent a summer in France with a school group and a year in Guatemala as an exchange student. If you’d asked me back then what I wanted to do for a living, I would have said (and did say, in fact) “secretary of state.” Yet I didn’t pursue an academic path that might have led to government service. Instead, excelling at languages meant that I majored in French and Spanish and studied literature. I didn’t know that I would love doing the literary part or that I’d have a talent for it. In my senior year, I half-heartedly applied to law school (just one) and wasn’t admitted, and I also applied to a PhD program in Spanish—and was courted. The conventional path begins here, and, in some ways, it was the path of least resistance.

The usual stages of an academic career ensued: TA, MA, ABD, adjunct, PhD, more adjunct, postdoc, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, department chair. During those twenty years I wrote a few books and dozens of articles, gave conference papers, continued expanding my scholarly range, taught tons of courses, got very involved in the MLA, and so on. None of these things could be construed as “outside the box” or risk taking. I suppose some of the scholarly work I did treated unconventional topics, but it was all in the service of a typical academic career.

When I say I take risks now and am making up for the conventional years, that’s an exaggeration. First off, it never really occurred to me to take risks by exploring nonacademic jobs when my life as a professor seemed to be unfolding so well. Had I not obtained a tenure-track position (I worked for three years off the tenure track after I finished my PhD), I would have surely sought out other options. Yet I do wish I would have known I had so much untapped capacity in me. Whenever I describe the varied responsibilities of my current position, most of which I learned on the job, I can hardly believe that the trained academic has become a proficient executive. But why not? I see models all around me now that I know where to look.

Knowing that I have a depth of potential, and that I have already realized a good chunk of it, means I can take risks. In fact, leading an association requires an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to calculate risk and then go for it when warranted. I have led major change (though hardly by myself!), and this is decidedly not your mother’s or grandmother’s MLA. Not only do I want to pursue the right kind of change, I also want to shake things up in more ordinary ways that reflect my personality. Come to my party at the annual convention, and there may be a conga line, much to the surprise of those who are accustomed to a tweedy kind of dignity. I have found ways to carry out my duties with the seriousness required of the position while also managing to “be myself,” because who else is going to do that?

In my professorial days I was raising a child, which added to my sense of inhabiting conventional limits. Now, my after-work hours belong to me. Since becoming executive director of the MLA, I have trained for and completed two half marathons, joined a hiking group, learned meditation, attended four silent retreats, walked the English Way of the Camino de Santiago, and, just this fall, taken sailing lessons and achieved my basic keelboat certification. My job energizes me to learn more, try something new, reach a bit further. It also pushes me to take leisure time and use it for something other than work whenever possible. I’ll be back on a sailboat this weekend, enjoying a few hours on the Hudson River, too busy tacking and jibing to worry about drafting and revising.

Postscript: More than one person who read this text as it was originally published on PhDs at Work remarked that my going to graduate school for a PhD could hardly count as a conventional thing to do. Even though the year was 1977 and the gains of feminism were fairly well established, I had no family members after whom to fashion a postgraduate career path. My father had a high school education, and my mother, who immigrated as an infant to the United States from Sicily, attended what was then called Buffalo State Teachers College. Her parents studied reading and writing in primary school, and they were proud that their daughter became an elementary school teacher. If my mother had graduated in 1977, she surely would have been seen as “PhD material.” In truth, I’ve been a risk taker from the moment I boarded a plane for France at fifteen, as were my immigrant, working-class family members who sailed on a ship bound for Ellis Island nearly one hundred years ago.

Why Was the Session I Submitted Accepted for the Convention?

Originally published in the Fall 2013 MLA Newsletter

Now there’s a question I have never gotten—you can imagine the one I do hear—yet I think it’s important to let members know how we choose convention sessions. The first key thing to understand is that some of the association’s entities (such as divisions, discussion groups, allied organizations, and MLA committees) are entitled to sessions that do not undergo review by the Program Committee. Sessions that the committee reviews fall into two groups: special sessions, which are organized by individual members, and nonguaranteed sessions, which are submitted by MLA entities that wish to organize additional sessions (e.g., a discussion group is guaranteed one session and can compete for up to two more nonguaranteed sessions). The committee generally accepts around fifty percent of proposals; this percentage varies by year and depends in part on the number of guaranteed sessions and on space considerations.

Using a process analogous to what granting agencies do when they evaluate proposals, the Program Committee makes public a set of criteria, provides examples of successful proposals, and offers assistance before submission (or before resubmission, if your proposal wasn’t accepted). The committee scores each proposal on a 1 to 5 scale. Few proposals receive the highest score (5), which indicates that “the session proposal is well thought out, the rationale is convincing and properly documented, the panelists are shown to be well qualified to undertake the topic, and the session will be attractive to an audience.” Most accepted proposals receive an average score of 4; this means that “one or more elements” of the proposal may not meet the qualifications of a 5: “For example, the rationale might be underdeveloped; the discussion of previous scholarship might be insufficient; or one paper might not be as stellar as the others” (“Scoring Guidelines”). The committee looks for clearly articulated proposals that promise new ways of seeing (or doing) things and for presentations (or workshops) that form a coherent whole and that promise to reward attendees with a well-integrated intellectual or pedagogical experience. Just as fellowship and grant panelists learn to evaluate submissions once they’ve read stacks of them, so do Program Committee members, who typically read over four hundred proposals each year.

The reason your session was accepted is not (only) because the topic is compelling or (only) because the participants have relevant experience or name recognition that might draw an audience. The committee also considers the way you explain the focus of your proposed session and how it builds on existing knowledge, why you chose the speakers and presentations you did, and how those speakers will relate to one another in the session. (Session proposers can find plenty of guidance on the MLA Web site; especially helpful are “Proposing a Special Session,” “Convention Session FAQs,” and “Special-Session FAQs.”) The Program Committee tends to accept sessions that are supported by a strong written proposal and not those that feature solely a timely subject, a worthwhile cause, or a prestigious speaker or two. In short, proposers should not assume that the committee will “get it” and should not simply trust that a good topic, a list of interesting paper titles, and a set of fabulous panelists will a great session make.

I realize that session proposals often get written without much lead time for review and revision. Only a superproficient special-session-proposal author can turn out a 4.5–5 quality proposal in the wee hours before 1 April. For most of us, the time-consuming process of drafting, consulting (with fellow panelists and other colleagues), and rewriting produces the best results. Let us know how we can help.

Work Cited

“Scoring Guidelines for MLA Special Sessions and Competitive Sessions.” Modern Language Association. MLA, 22 Mar. 2011. Web. 3 Sept. 2013.

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.

Tamales for Dollars: Survival Guatemalan

Originally published in the Spring 2013 MLA Newsletter

“Why did you stay away from Guatemala for forty years?” “Why did you decide to return now?” These are questions that friends, family members, and colleagues asked me in the weeks preceding my travel back to the country where I completed the final year of the bachillerato. In truth, I had always intended to revisit the people and places that meant so much to me when I was a teenager. But the seemingly endless military and paramilitary conflicts of the late seventies, eighties, and early nineties served as a major deterrent to returning.

I studied and taught Guatemalan literature and culture, and I did not want to go while the political situation was atrocious. Every time I read about a massacre or saw footage of villages being razed, I felt a combination of horror, fear, and sorrow. Granted, the likelihood of my experiencing violence was low, but I could not overcome the gut reaction that told me to stay away.

As it happens, after I graduated from the Instituto Belga Guatemalteco, I shifted my linguistic alliances to the Spanish spoken in Spain. I studied in Madrid for one college semester, and I have returned to Spain annually, with a few exceptions. How could I have ever imagined that family trips to the northwest region of Spain (Galicia) would keep me distant from la tierra chapina of my youth and that I would trade in cuadras for manzanas, boletos for billetes, and camionetas for autobuses?

So why would I visit Guatemala now, sixteen years after the historic peace accords that put an official (but not complete) end to state-sponsored violence? In a word: Facebook. My Guatemalan school has a page, where I found several of my good friends. Finding them gave me a tangible reason to travel back. I planned most of the trip to take place away from the capital city, despite my having lived there for eleven of the twelve months I resided in Guatemala. I wanted to see the country as the tourist I know myself to be today. In Antigua, the colonial capital destroyed by earthquakes, I rediscovered what I had glimpsed on a day trip in 1972, but it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site transformed into a lively destination for language learners, community volunteers, and wealthy Guatemala City dwellers with second homes.

The spoken Spanish was more standard than I remembered, so I was grateful when familiar regionalisms cropped up. I heard some expressions I may never have known in the first place: when I was asked if I wanted to “cancelar” at the hotel, I reacted with surprise, since I was checking out (it means “to pay your bill”). I was touched to hear the age-old lines of the women inviting me to buy their wares: “No he vendido nada hoy.” “Aunque solo sea para el autobus.” (“I’ve sold nothing today.” “Even if it’s just to cover my bus fare.”) Most of all, I felt the soul-rattling of the familiar rendered foreign, of things remembered as if dissipated into the clouds shrouding the volcano Agua that towers over Antigua to the south. This was the country of my second birth, and it had been lost to me. On the ruins of Antigua I stand, with surprising calm and contentment, mentally putting together the pieces of my life.

The driver who took me from the airport to Antigua talked about a woman who sells the town’s best tamales on Saturday evening near the church of La Merced. The plaza by the church was filled with food stands of all kinds, but the tamal vendor was a few blocks away (everyone knew where when asked). The old indigenous woman had special holiday tamales that smelled amazing. The only problem was I didn’t yet have quetzales, the national currency. “Acepta dólares?” I asked. She didn’t answer right away: there was some consultation with the younger woman who was helping. I named my desired exchange rate, and the transaction began. A twenty dollar bill became 150 quetzales, and 30 quetzales bought the tamales to be enjoyed with a fresh-squeezed limonada (made of limes) back at the hotel. I tipped her. I later found out she had added a quetzal or two to the price of the tamales, a custom in the country whereby locals pay one price and tourists pay more (this happened on boat rides across Lake Atitlán). It’s how poor Guatemalans survive in a brutal economic and social system. The entire exchange with the seller could not have happened if I didn’t know Guatemalan Spanish: the language, the customs, the food. But it also wouldn’t have transpired in the way it did had I not been a dollar-toting foreigner, aware of her place in a globalized Guatemala where indigenous women carry food in baskets on their heads while chatting on cell phones. Nothing unheimlich about it.

Every tourist who goes to Guatemala knows about Lake Atitlán, the volcano-surrounded paradise dotted with indigenous villages; I had spent several holidays there forty years ago.  In the past decade, Lake Atitlán has suffered some horrific effects of natural and man-made disasters: Hurricane Stan (2005), which caused mudslides that killed nearly 1,500 people, and Tropical Storm Agatha (2010), which produced a destructive rise in water levels. Untreated sewage and runoff from fertilizers have turned parts of Lake Atitlán into a blue-green algae swamp. Approaching villages by ferry, I saw half-submerged homes that wealth built but couldn’t save. Also visible were the tops of restaurants, community centers, and other service buildings. The depths of the lake harbor another submerged world: beneath thousands of years of sediment lie the ruins of a Mayan site destroyed around 250 AD by rising waters.  It’s no wonder that locals call Lake Atitlán “el ombligo del mundo” (“the navel of the world”). It rises and falls with the earth’s gentle and violent movements.

Santiago Atitlán, the site of infamous assassinations and massacres during the years of armed conflict, now appears as a town bustling with its food and craft markets and with the cult of Maximón, a syncretic Mayan-Christian folk saint. Little children offer to take tourists to the place where he is venerated; the effigy of Maximón smokes and drinks, with assistance from the men representing the brotherhoods that watch over him. When I paid my tribute (in quetzales), I was allowed to observe the prostrated man praying in Tz’utujil before Maximón. This vision, amid flashing Christmas lights and statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus, and sundry saints, was unlike any I’d ever seen. I quickly took familiar refuge in the Catholic church down the road, where women knelt in rapt devotion to an image of Christ on the cross.

In Guatemala City, I encountered the most familiar sights I was to see on this trip: my school and the neighborhood surrounding it, as well as the most familiar faces—those of my former classmates. Walking through the old wooden door to the Instituto Belga Guatemalteco, I stopped in the patio, where an indigenous woman was scrubbing the floor, as if forty years had not passed. Next door to my school stood the same little snack shop with the homemade sweets I used to love: dulce de leche canillas and cuadritos. (I bought some to take home, but they quickly fossilized. So much for the madeleine.)

At lunch that day, I met up with seven of my classmates from the Instituto Belga. Like most reunions, this one was punctuated with “You haven’t changed a bit” and “Really? How could you have a thirty-year-old daughter!” My classmates gently teased me about my Spanish (of Spain) accent, exaggerating the “sh” sound in the word español, while also congratulating me on having kept up my bilingualism. We passed around pictures, and I asked everyone to have another go at signing the autograph book in which they’d written something to me back in 1972. This reunion was sweetly familiar, and it’s when, on my last full day in Guatemala, I felt truly at home.

The one sight I found uncanny in the capital city was the twelve pillars outside the Metropolitan Cathedral. Inscribed on them are the names of those who were disappeared, tortured, massacred, and assassinated during the decades of what is often called a civil war (but more appropriately named, as it was in Argentina, a dirty war). Having just seen a photography exhibit in Antigua that featured images such as one with women weeping before an unearthed mass grave (photo four) in the vicinity of Santiago Atitlán, I had these recent historical events on my mind. According to Amnesty International, some 200,000 civilian lives were lost. Organized by departments (the geopolitical divisions of the country), the alphabetized lists read like a history of the Spanish viceroyalty: Castilian names, indigenous names, hybrid names like Canil Mendoza. From the highland department of Quiché come the Menchú family names. Towering above one pillar is the name of Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, beaten to death two years after the peace accords were signed. (For more on the bishop’s murder, read Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder [New York: Grove, 2008]).

I used to come to this cathedral often, since it’s only two blocks from my former school. Standing near these engraved pillars, having just seen the sculpture commemorating the peace accords in the National Palace next door, I felt a sense of hope for Guatemala’s future. Then I remembered the name of the vast urban slum that dominates a central ravine in Guatemala City with its metal shacks and persistent, abysmal poverty and violence: La Limonada. “Is it still there?” I asked my driver on the way to the airport on the last day. “Yes,” he said, “bigger than ever.”  And still somehow they survive, I think, as I prepare to become a returnee once again.

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



The Humanities: It’s What We Do

Originally published in the Winter 2012 MLA Newsletter

I am always alert to news about MLA members, so I was pleased to read in September the announcement that Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a Columbia graduate student, had discovered an unpublished manuscript of a novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, his adviser, authenticated the work through “themes that recurred across McKay’s work, like Communism and labor strikes in Harlem, and characters, like the real-life labor leader Sufi Abdul Hamid” (Lee). Also in September, we learned that Angela R. Mace, a Duke graduate student, had solved the riddle of an Easter sonata often attributed to Felix Mendelssohn. Under the tutelage of her adviser, R. Larry Todd, Mace researched the history of the piece, tracked down and inspected the manuscript, studied the handwriting, and demonstrated that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and not her more famous brother, was the composer.

Graduate students rarely hit “scholarly gold” in the way that these two humanities scholars did, and yet examples of major discoveries abound in areas other than the natural sciences. The field of archaeology may be said to hinge on encounters such as the one Hiram Bingham experienced when, during an Andean trek a century ago, some local people led him to Machu Picchu. Art historians continually update our knowledge of provenance, attribution, possession, and other factors concerning works of art as they are created and circulated across time. Many advances in the humanities don’t emerge from the realm of manuscripts, monuments, or canvases, of course, and they don’t usually make headlines in the New York Times (except perhaps in obituaries). I find myself asking, What if we did think about them as newsworthy? Imagine what it would mean if the general public read about ideas in the humanities, told in understandable language and illustrated with enticing stories. So accustomed are we to defending our scholarship as discipline-specific, with its own vocabulary and audience, we rarely try to present it in any other terms.

What does it mean to “do the humanities”—in contrast to teaching, studying, or doing research in the humanities? I’ve heard a variety of voices on the subject recently, from digital humanists, who aspire to “more hack, less yack,” to scholars like Martha Nussbaum, who speak of “profitable skills,” to Neal Lester, director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, who recently organized a forum that I introduced at the National Press Club on this issue. There is general agreement that the everyday practices involving the humanities could be rendered more visible (and potentially more valuable) by marking—and, yes, marketing—them with their country of origin (the imagination, the mind).

Remember New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s erudite and articulate answers to the call-in questions on his radio program? English major. How about “We Real Cool” poet Gwendolyn Brooks? Also an English major. Look around at college and university presidents, and you will note a large number of English, French, and German PhDs. The proverbial query “What will you do with that degree?” rarely gets answered with “Become the first woman astronaut in space,” “Serve as Secretary of State,” or “Be the journalist who uncovers Watergate.” Yet in those instances, too, we find humanities majors making their mark.

We should keep telling our students (and their parents) that “doing the humanities” prepares them generally in a way no narrow occupational degree can; they can always pick up the specialized knowledge they need later. We should be teaching them to do hands-on research in the humanities in ways that engage them with others in the classroom, on the campus, in the community, and around the globe. Each one of us should be able to explain our teaching and research pursuits in compelling, clear language. We won’t all boast a jaw-dropping original Fanny Mendelssohn or Claude McKay tale, but we all have an interesting story to tell. Because if we don’t—if we are instead inducing somnolence in our students and in one another—then we’re missing the lessons that humanities-doers have imparted.

I remember running down the stairs one day back in the 1980s, so excited I could hardly speak. I had figured out what Salvador Dalí’s Hallucinogenic Toreador had to do with José Donoso’s El jardín de al lado, in formal terms of the painting and the text and also in the psychoanalytic meanings of both works. I went on to publish quite a bit on the relation of the visual arts to literature, and a few years ago I received a message from a graduate student who came across my article on Donoso. That she found my decades-old work useful filled me with pleasure and wonder, because I vividly recalled the joy of discovery when I was doing that research. When we say the word research, most people don’t think of the humanities, and they have trouble recognizing the product as useful. It’s true that “doing the humanities” doesn’t produce scientific knowledge that can, say, cure cancer. But it can yield imaginative works on cancer like Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman and Mary Cappello’s Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life that change people’s lives. Can you tell your research and teaching stories with passion to a broad public? Will you? The best way to promote the humanities is through demonstration. To wit (I borrow here from Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life”): “Let us, then, be up and doing.”

Works Cited

“Angela Mace and the Mystery of the Lost Sonata.” Duke Music. Duke U, Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Lee, Felicia R. “New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found.” New York Times. New York Times, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.