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.