ASECS 2009: “what is tacit cannot be reproduced”

I’m wrapping up my ASECS posts with this phrase, because it seemed to me to be an important subtext for a lot of the discussions I was having throughout the conference.  In fact, the phrase popped out during a very nice dinner I had with Laura R. and some others, and it was still floating in my head when I heard the panel mentioned earlier by Carrie S., “How long was the eighteenth century?”

Let me explain the connection: while we were having the usual “where the hell is the profession headed?” discussion Friday night, I talked about my frustration with the disconnect between senior scholars and the conditions everyone else is working in.  This was not news to anyone at the table, and everybody there had found ways to adapt their work to the new conditions: curricular work in digital humanities or performance and reception studies; interventions in assessment or accreditation efforts on-campus; initiatives in undergraduate research, and so forth.  So in that sense I am not at all worried about where the profession, or our specialization, is going.

My point, however, was that questions like Hans Gumbrecht’s “what is the future of literary studies?” (meaning, does literary studies even have a future?) are no longer “theoretical” questions about future innovations.  In other words, I am not simply talking about the usual mid-career anxieties of the tenured about missing out on the cool new stuff that others are doing.  Instead, questions about the future of literary studies have a different kind of urgency in the face of the “permatemped” conditions of the corporate university discussed by people like Marc Bousquet.  Can specialized studies in a humanities sub-field like the eighteenth century survive in any recognizable way in institutions like ours, which represent the spectrum of public higher education? And do senior scholars, by virtue of their privileged positions in more elite institutions, have an obligation to address audiences beyond their fellow specialists, and begin to take a stand on the steady de-professionalization of humanities teaching at their own universities and beyond?

My point was that some of the recent dismissals of cultural studies I’ve seen from more senior scholars seem to blame cultural studies, and not the very real economic and political forces identified by Bousquet, for the declining institutional role of humanities teaching and liberal arts education at most non-elite institutions.  So I think that any discussion of the future of literary studies, theoretical or otherwise, must acknowledge the very real and concrete concerns about how we might sustain and reproduce this field for future generations of scholars.  What kinds of jobs will those scholars have?  What kinds of research and teaching will they be expected to do?  What will their students look like, or be expected to do?  And I don’t expect the answers to these questions to resemble answers for previous generations of scholars, including myself.  And I get concerned when I see the most distinguished scholars of my own field nostalgic for a time when literary studies did not need to justify itself, when what the Humanities most urgently needs are intelligent and persuasive advocates to address its multiple publics and defend its practices, in all their diversity.  Under changing conditions, what is tacit cannot be defended, let alone reproduced, without some acknowledgment of what has changed.  So who will play this role of advocating for the humanities, when the future arrives?



28 responses to “ASECS 2009: “what is tacit cannot be reproduced”

  1. There’s a related (if rather cynical) post about history over at Dead Voles (also here.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Greg, for directing me to those cynical, night-time thoughts of yours and Carl’s. I suppose this is why I got started on the cynicism project in the first place.

    I don’t think, though, that the need to address the public, in whatever form it might take, ever goes away, even when we think that what we do is ungrounded, or that our justifications are just high-minded nonsense. I do like Carl’s pedagogical maxim that the best starting assumption is that no one really believes that “our” stuff has any value until they’ve gone some distance in thinking about it. That seems about right, to me. Yay, dead voles!

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    Blaming cultural studies for the current defunding of the humanities is just silly. This is essentially David Horowitz’s argument, but it is not at all supported by studies I have seen of student engagement or satisfaction. Bousquet is right to show the economic forces at work, although I think his positon is somewhat complicated for our field by the recent MLA report on academic labor, which found that a surprisingly high percentage of part-time instructors are in fact not seeking full-time work. This doesn’t negate his argument, but I think it complicates it. The decline of tenure-track/tenured instructors is still horrendous. A more broadly contextualized argument is Christopher Newfield’s in *Unmaking the Public University.* He argues that underlying the “culture wars” was an effort to preserve, and even deepen, stratification by race and class by undermining public universities, which traditionally provided some access to upward mobility. (There is much more to the argument, but this is one pieces of it.) The reason I bring up Newfield in this context, though, is that it’s not just a matter of advocating for the humanities (although this is important), but there is also a need to look at the institutional issues around higher education. One point that Newfield makes is that access has been declining because states have not expanded higher education to keep up with their populations.

    Having said this, however, I also think while cultural studies is not reponsible for diminishing English departments, without some sense of particular, central texts that we think future generations should read a vulnerable field like eighteenth-century studies risks its own claim to the importance of having specialists in it.

  4. Dave Mazella

    I think that expectations regarding full-time employment have been lowered tremendously by the past 20 years’ experience, so I’m not sure Bousquet is really off the mark. I don’t know the Newfield, but would like to read it: could you share the cite?

    Nonetheless, the situation of the humanities structurally in the contemporary university is that our TAs and underemployed graduates become the instructors of the gen ed requirements throughout the university, esp. writing instruction. It would be interesting to know, for example, what percentage of undergraduate student credit hours are taught by humanities TAs/adjuncts/whatever.

    As for the literature vs. cultural studies competition, I’m not so sure that forming a reproducible canon of “central texts” is either possible or desirable. Chances are, such a list might not include any 18c British works at all, at least in American “English” departments. I think we do better by emphasizing the variety and breadth of things they can read and research.

    I think the point is not to teach a literary history lacking structure, but to teach students how to structure literary histories for themselves.


  5. good enough cook

    I agree that cultural studies is not to blame for the current plight of the humanities; rather, the dead vole blog that David linked seems to support Laura’s point that the issues raised by cultural studies, the ways that its critical frameworks invite students to be dispassionate observers not only of texts, but of the functions those texts serve, is what often gets students engaged.

    The finger should be pointed not at the content of academic research in the humanities, but as Bouquet points it, at the form that research has taken (thanks to a variety of institutional pressures). I also fear that the possibility of saving ourselves by constructing a life-raft of cherished and mutually-agreed-upon texts is gone. On the other hand, I routinely encounter students from non-liberal-arts sectors of my institution who take my gen. ed. literature classes because they want a passing encounter with Great Literature.

    I remain chilled by something that happened at my own roundtable on Teaching Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Panelists and audience commentators alike, most from research universities, compared techniques, mostly on getting English majors to slow down and pay attention to the unusual pleasures of C18 poetry. Have them translate Milton’s blank verse into Popean couplets! Teach the transition from manuscript to print culture! Require paraphrases! Get them to start by isolating three key words in a poem! All good stuff (and stuff I plan to use in my own teaching).

    But we had one panelist from a community college in Florida. She spent most of her allotted time contextualizing her teaching: a 6/6 load, consisting in large part of remedial writing for the woefully underprepared population of some 40,000 students served by her CC. She teaches the only Brit. Lit. class offered by her institution to those 44,000 students: a survey, which she has had to turn into an online course in order to get the enrollment necessary to keep it in the roster. The pass rate for her course is something like 35%–many students at her CC simply don’t have the reading skills to cope with the Longman anthology.

    This situation may be extreme, but it also seems more typical of how many college students encounter literary study, and symptomatic of the kinds of social and economic pressures that we are all going to be feeling in the coming years.

    The holy grail of book and article publication (books and articles to be read by a headful of fellow specialists), may well make for better teachers at more elite institions, but it doesn’t offer much that can undermine the situational logic that produces one neglected literature course to serve tens of thousands of students.

    What kinds of creativity are possible, in reworking the relationships between teaching and research, between period expertise and the kinds of information-processing skills our students are seeking, between what we understand literary study to mean and its connotations for non-academics? How can we get away from the “cultural studies good/bad” meme that seems to characterize efforts to define the significance of the liberal arts in the public eye?

  6. good enough cook

    “Good enough cook” is me, Kirstin–my computer sometimes seems to have different ideas than I do about who I am.

  7. Dave Mazella

    Hi Kirstin,

    I like your distinction between the content of academic research, which often gets blamed for the ups and downs of the humanities, and the forms humanities research takes because of the institutional pressures which help to shape it.

    One of the points I made after the “how long was the long 18th?” panel was that we should think very concretely about what forms of scholarship, even period-based scholarship, might help bring insight and better practices to your CC teacher with a 6/6 load. I’d like to think that slowing things down is an effective way to do this, but I suspect that that requires careful management of classtime, to make sure no loafing occurs. It would be interesting, though, to see if there were ways for CC’s to break free of the survey course model, and figure out ways to present their readings differently to students still struggling with their own writing.

    And yes, I think the cultural studies= good/bad meme is a distraction from the real questions I wished we would try to answer.


  8. Dave,

    I’d be interested in “thinking very concretely about what forms of scholarship, even period-based scholarship, might help bring insight and better practices to your CC teacher.” What forms do you think such period-based scholarship might take?


  9. Dave Mazella

    I’m probably not the best person to answer this, since it’s been nearly 20 years since I did that kind of teaching at the College of New Rochelle, DC 37 campus. So I do hope others who are doing this right now will chime in.

    But from my perspective, the biggest problems faced by the CC instructor come from a coverage-model curriculum for lit courses, when the curriculum itself is one that the CC instructor must “reproduce” mechanically. Courses of this type, designed for majors, are then taken by gen ed students, at least at my institution. This meant survey courses, too much reading, too much coverage, and insufficient focus on anything in particular to satisfy instructors or students. So it’s really important for the full-timers at such institutions to design sufficiently flexible curricula and course sequences that others can intelligently elaborate. And I think it’s important to teach even struggling students the reading and writing practices that allow them to focus upon particular aspects of their reading, even if that means throwing away the anthology.

    From the point of view of research, I wonder if we might rethink the notions of the research product or forms of dissemination linked with such teaching: if we’re able to conceive of the final student project in forms other than the traditional essay, then why not explore other formats for disseminating scholarship, including the scholarship of teaching particular authors, genres, etc.?

    For all the people who are exploring new electronic forms of scholarship and dissemination, none of this is news, but then the question becomes: which medium and why? And there will be times when the traditional scholarly essay will be the most appropriate form, and times when it will not. The difficulty is the tendency in academic life to maintain the hierarchy long after the reasons for it are gone.

    So departments and colleges and universities need to be able to recognize, encourage, and reward the whole spectrum of scholarly and teaching activity, and to encourage their convergence, if they can. That would be a start.


  10. Laura Rosenthal

    Christopher Newfield’s book is available here:

    The 2007 MLA report “Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English” has a lot a great information about staffing and contingent labor. It is available on the MLA website:

    There is a clear downward trend. For example only 32% of faculty members in English hold t/tt positions (4). The percentage of classes taught by different kinds of instructors is broken down by categories in the appendix.

    So Bousquet is right in many ways, but at the same time I think there are limits to treating this decline as only a labor justice issue (although that’s a big part of it). For example, of 37,500 part-time faculty surveyed, “50.1% would prefer a full-time position and 49.9% would prefer a part-time position” (11).

    Nor will, as Kristin points out, a canon save the university–although I’ll bet if you’re teaching 6/6 you’re glad that anthologies exist.

    Newfield’s proposal so far (I’m only halfway through) seems to be that we need to reorient thinking about higher education away from the financial model and (back?) toward a model of social benefit. I’m sure that’s a reductive characterization, but at the same time it seems that without this social contextualizing there isn’t enough of a case.

  11. Dave Mazella

    I looked at the MLA report, and it seems to me that the labor justice issue is thoroughly entwined with gender/workplace issues. The part-time route is “preferred” because it is a (forgive the term) “mommy track” position that allows women to do the variety of things they need to do alongside job responsibilities. That, at any rate, is how I was reading the trends. But I don’t see how any of that changes Bousquet’s big picture or the downward trends.

    The other quote that caught my eye was this one about employment patterns in English relative to other fields:

    English has a far larger population than most other teaching fields (84,100 in 1992–93 and 82,400 in 2003–04), but it is one of only two fields whose total faculty population did not grow, and in fact declined slightly, between the two NSOPF years (the other field is law). Looking inside the overall totals, with only three exceptions, the arts and science fields show growth across all tenure and employment categories and especially in full-time non-tenure-track and part-time positions. Only English, history, and sociology show declines in any employment category, and only for English do the declines in any one employment category outpace the growth in others (5)

    Finally, the anthology question is not only about the standardization of the lower division curriculum that allows multiple sections to be taught quickly to large numbers of students, but the nature of the instruction offered. How comfortable are we with standardized forms of instruction and curriculum, if these become divorced from any expectation of research, problem solving, engagement? This to me is the issue raised by those anthologies in lower division courses, whether found at CCs or in the 4 year universities.


  12. Melissa Mowry

    Hi all,
    I am an occasional tourist on this blog where I’ve often admired the caliber of conversation, but the current conversation about the “state of the profession” has inspired me to shift from tourist to contributor.

    So, here goes. There is, as both Dave and Laura have noted, much of the periodic hand-wringing we go through from time to time, about the current debate, but I also think that this time there may well be a difference.

    It’s really interesting to me that one of the features of the economic cesspool we’re all in is that a lot of people in the financial sector attribute our current condition to widespread ignorance among bankers about the “shadow” banking world. “No one knew what was going on.” If this is true, it seems to me that there must be a lot of people running the economy who are at a loss for how to read evidence as an aggregate rather than as individual discrete “facts.” And an awful lot of people who failed, volitionally or unconsciously, to be curious.
    This is an oblique way of getting me to one of Dave’s opening points that “what is tacit cannot be defended.” It seems to me that one possible strength of the humanities and potentially English studies is its ability to teach and enhance people’s abilities to interpret multiple modalities of evidence at a given moment.

    Laura and I had an interesting lunch conversation at ASECS where she pointed out that English Studies really needs a definitive body of knowledge. I think this makes sense on a lot of levels, particularly institutionally, but I think that in many ways our emphasis on the “text,” which has both conservative (New Criticism, etc.) interations and more progressive interations (Deconstruction, etc.) has done us a disservice because we make tacit assumptions about the value of textuality and therefore are ill-positioned to defend that emphasis either institutionally, or culturally. As one adminstrator put it: We’re the books people, not the jobs people.
    But I think the underlying assumptions about the innate value of some texts is that such “tacit” assumptions tend to focus on the “objective,” in the Lockean sense, features of the text. Unless we make a concerted effort to resist such constructions we loose precisely what Newfield talks about in larger institutional context– the way meaning functions largely through the relationship between things, or in the aggregate, or in terms of the social.

    I agree with Laura that the labor issues are important, but they have an importance that exceeds Bousquet’s concerns. In other words, I think that we need to address the labor concerns, but if we don’t attend to our own declining position within colleges and universities and the declining position of colleges and universities within our culture, we stand little hope being able to make anyone’ s working conditions any better.
    Not to be too alarmist, but we’ve gotten ourselves into a kind of double-jeopardy. Not only have our assumptions about the value of English Studies been tacit, they’ve been isolated from the decline of the University generally. We’ve got two cases to make to our colleagues, to administrators, and to Boards and legislators, one for our institutional importance and a second for the social importance of our institutions. Sooner rather than later would be good.

  13. Dave Mazella

    Hi Melissa,

    Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I particularly appreciated the way you described the tacit valuations that often occur in literature courses:

    But I think the underlying assumptions about the innate value of some texts is that such “tacit” assumptions tend to focus on the “objective,” in the Lockean sense, features of the text. Unless we make a concerted effort to resist such constructions we loose precisely what Newfield talks about in larger institutional context– the way meaning functions largely through the relationship between things, or in the aggregate, or in terms of the social.

    I agree that when we reiterate that Lockean emphasis on the “thing” as it is experienced, we may very well lose sight of the “the relationship between things, or in the aggregate, or in terms of the social”: in other words, we lose sight of the rhetorical dimensions of what we’re doing. This perspective, I would argue, is precisely what a cultural studies approach is intended to provide. For one thing, an awareness of the concrete, multiple publics we address. If you’re interested, look here, especially the link to the work of Bruce Robbins.


  14. Anna Battigelli

    Dear All,

    This is a particularly welcome and needed discussion. I especially agree with Laura Rosenthal’s claim that we need to do a better job of articulating the “definitive body of knowledge” we offer as a profession. This involves much more than establishing the contents of a literary canon, though that debate will inevitably continue, as it should. Rather, a crucial part of what literary studies offers, as Melissa Mowry suggests, is the way meaning functions through the relationship between things. One of the chief benefits we offer is the way we activate judgment, honing it through exercises of literary analysis, broadly defined, that take place both within our classrooms and within our scholarship. We teach more than texts, or canons, or cultures; we teach how language shapes ways of seeing and deliberating. We also teach the peril of not criticizing, reviewing, and re-reviewing our own assumptions, narratives, and conclusions. Once activated and tested, the literary judgment we work so hard to cultivate in the classroom surely spills over beneficially into realms beyond the classroom. Now would be a good time to boast of the social benefits of teaching self-scrutiny, self-criticism, and critical thinking.

    The labor and governance issues brought up by Dave Mazella suggest some of the difficulties we face in rapidly changing classrooms, as we work to create a viable community of informed thinkers and readers. A greater attention to enriching the teaching climate at our colleges and universities–beyond building newer dining halls or fancier gyms–is required. As Melissa concludes, we need to address both what we offer as a profession and the changes in governance that have further marginalized the humanities, and, as she puts it, we need to do this sooner rather than later. My question is how to divide and conquer.

  15. Dave Mazella

    Hi Anna, great to see you here again.

    I agree with your notion that a “definitive body of knowledge” for our field (Laura’s term) need not be equated with the “contents of a literary canon,” since it is this canon, as you point out, that is continually subject to debate and further refinement in our field. My compromise is to discuss literature as a field that needs to have a historical reservoir of texts that function as a canon, without pre-specifying which texts will serve that function.

    At least since the demise of formalism, however, your statement seems very apt: “We teach more than texts, or canons, or cultures; we teach how language shapes ways of seeing and deliberating.” This seems important for anyone trying to figure out the special role of literary language in people’s lives.

    I also think that literary studies, especially at its higher reaches, involves exercising one’s judgment, assessing one’s evidence from multiple perspectives, synthesizing others’ points of view, making and responding to arguments, and so forth. So, yes, “critical thinking” seems to be involved.

    On the other hand, one of the reasons for the turf battles I’ve seen between composition/rhetoric and literature is that comp/rhet can make very similar claims for its own version of “critical thinking.” Teaching argument to students, rather than reading novels and poems, seems like a more direct way to move students along toward critical thinking.

    So I think your line of thought is absolutely right, but I wonder whether one of the reasons why comp/rhet causes so much anxiety in English departments is because of the way it appropriates that discourse of critical thinking. And how should those interested in literature inflect that argument, I wonder?


  16. Melissa Mowry

    It seems to me that Anna’s questions/challenges are exactly right. The real challenge we face in English/Anglophone studies and the humanities in general is practical. We’re really terrific at generating innovative pedagogies and innovative course content. We’re sometimes less good at explaining to administrators why these things are valuable in a larger social context. But there is clearly an emergent sense of what I spoke about earlier, namely that the root of the financial crisis is attributable to completely inept and “bankrupt” (pun intended) methodology for interpreting evidence. There was an evocative piece in yesterday’s digital CHE by Richard Posner to this effect, though I think he didn’t know where to press this point.
    I think Anna and Dave are right that critical thinking is seminal to the humanities. I’d argue, though, that our real value lies in combining those diacritical methodologies with teaching students how to read evidence as an aggregate and the relationships between pieces of evidence that make such aggregations possible.

    It doesn’t shock me that Larry Summers had his hand in this collapse even while he was President of Harvard. Neither was he the only college or university president to be so tarnished. In some ways, it’s suprising that more university presidents haven’t been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. There wasn’t, after all, a compelling counter-argument/methodology, or at least one that was loud enough to be heard, to illuminate for them that what seemed like huge endowment windfalls would turn out to be devastating social corrosives, despite the fact that the evidence was there all along.

    In some ways the practical matters are harder because of what Dave pointed out in his first post that “what is tacit cannot be defended.” If we want to turn around this situation, we need to make the case to anyone who will listen that those of us who work in the humanities can, better than anyone, show students how to put together both pieces of evidence and the multiple valences of meaning within pieces of evidence as an aggregate.
    In some ways it’s counterintuitive in this atmosphere of contraction, but I can’t think of a better time to think more expansively about the humanities in the university. I also think we should think beyond our institutional limits to our communities. One of the reasons that the NEA landed money in the stimulus bill and the NEH didn’t as much is that people in the arts have been much more involved in their communities and schools.
    I like the school district we live in a lot, but they do better with math and science than language arts, so I decided to augment things a little by offering a book club in my kids’ elementary school. The principal loves it. The kids think its groovey–symbols and metaphors are way fun, and next year we may expand it so that it also provides the high school students with a service learning opportunity, which they must fulfill in order to graduate. Last but not least it augments/enriches the intellectual flexibility and agility we need as a culture. Anyway, my point here is not that we should all go out and start book clubs, but that if we want to make the case that the humanities have real social value, it would help if we thought and acted more in terms of the institution/social interface ourselves.
    In the spirit of aggregation/collectivity, if we each do a little, it will mean a lot.

  17. Laura Rosenthal

    Both Christopher Newfield and David Kirp (Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line) point out in convincing detail that the common understanding that sciences bring in money to the university through their grants, and that small bits of this money get thrown over to the humanities, is not at all true. Grants in the sciences, while beneficial for the knowledge they produce, actually cost universities a considerable amount of resources that are never made up by the overhead charges. Universities make up this gap by moving some of the money that the humanities and social sciences earn through higher enrollments and teaching loads over to the science departments so they can continue their very expensive research.

    In answer to Anna’s excellent question, then, I think that we need more well-documented studies like Newfield’s and Kirp’s. Fortunately, I see a lot of this happening. Sometimes I think that these kinds of studies are what theory was to the 1990’s (not that people entering the discipline no long have to learn classic theory, but in the sense these are topics increasingly of interest to a range of scholars across different fields).

  18. Anna Battigelli

    Laura’s point provides a really useful starting point. We need an MLA committee or some authoritative article to present universities and the general public with data documenting which departments and divisions bring in money and where that money gets spent at research institutions and at smaller liberal arts colleges. Do Newfield and Kirp do this? If we could show such data to administrators, we’d provide material evidence for the significance and value of humanities grants and scholarly work to our institutions. Having mapped out the materialist groundwork for our significance, we could then move to defenses and to self-definitions that are more philosophically interesting than the dollar value of our work.

    Does anyone know whether MLA is looking into this? Laura, you say that a lot of this kind of work is happening. Where can it be found?
    I think this would make a fantastic MLA article or forum.

    As for Dave’s point about critical thinking belonging either to rhetoric and composition or to literary studies, I think that that is a false binary. But you’re right, Dave, that rhet. & comp. scholars have done a better job than literary scholars of marketing the marketable skills they teach. This problem bleeds into the labor issues you brought up earlier and into philosophical and methodological divisions within our discipline (and into rigidities that result from overprofessionalization). As long as composition gets taught primarily by part-time faculty, it will be seen as categorically different from literary studies, another false binary.

  19. Dave Mazella

    First of all, Melissa, could you provide the link to the Posner piece? I’m interested to see how he would go after this kind of topic.

    Secondly, I think the critical thinking piece of this is crucial, but there are all sorts of practical and theoretical issues with it that humanities advocates need to wrestle with. Some of these issues come up in the Dead Voles piece cited by Greg, above. The amorphousness and predisciplinary nature of critical thinking makes it tougher to rely upon in arguments of this sort, but I think we should try.

    Thirdly, I agree with Laura that “future of the profession” studies like Newfield’s or Bousquet’s or Donoghue’s represent something like a non-specialized area of conversation nowadays, and all to the good, as far as I’m concerned.

  20. Melissa Mowry
    Above is the link to the Posner piece.

    In response to Anna’s comments, judging from Catherine Porter’s citations of Newfield’s most recent book in her presidential address, I’d say there’s significant will to address these issues. And I think fora for discussing such matters within professional organizations are important.
    What I also hear Anna expressing, though, is a desire to figure out some substantive strategies that might affect how we live our professional lives and our ability to educate our students on our individual campuses. Where, in other words, do we get strategic advice for combatting crazed demands to cut budgets or equally ill-advised shenanigans like those being indulged by the NY Gov. vis a vis SUNY tuition.

    I wonder if MLA either by itself or inconjunction with other organizations like AHA or AAUP might need to develop an office/officer whose job it would be to help depts. either individually or as part of a system strategize about making sure that we get our fair share of resources and are in a good position to minimize or resist budget cuts. Would this be something we could bring up at Delegate Assembly?

  21. Dave Mazella

    Just a quick response to Anna, who posted while I was working on my earlier response: I think your point about emptying out and redescribing those false binaries is absolutely correct, so I think that rhet/comp and lit scholars both need to figure out better, more convincing ways to articulate their relations with one another and to the areas that they seem to share.

    This seems especially true when so much comp instruction is delivered by part-time faculty, as Anna points out. So is it possible to draw these distinctions and describe what we do in a way that permits a better collective or aggregative effect, to use Melissa’s terms?


  22. Laura Rosenthal

    Very quickly about MLA: one of last year’s topics for the Delegate Assembly was “Avenues for Advocacy.” MLA in fact is indeed involved in many different kinds of advocacy, on its own and in cooperation with other groups. There has been great concern about the employment issue, which led to the committee that produced the report cited above. The DA also voted at the last meeting to request that the executive committee continue to see that this sort of work is pursued.

  23. Anna Battigelli

    I really like Melissa’s brilliantly practical suggestion that “MLA either by itself or in conjunction with other organizations like AHA or AAUP…develop an office/officer whose job it would be to help depts. either individually or as part of a system strategize to make sure that we get our fair share of resources and are in good position to minimize or resist budget cuts.”

    For one thing, such an office would provide information immediately and pragmatically helpful to MLA’s members. Having empirical data on labor and on university finance would help us see our situation and our influence on our institutions more clearly. (Part of Melissa’s call for seeing evidence in context.) Additionally, such a post would offer opportunities for a much needed eloquent defense of what we do as a discipline. We surely need to do something to contest claims such as the one made by Yale Law Professor Anthony Kronman and quoted in the Feb. 24 NYT article by Patricia Cohen that the humanities may be “a great luxury that many cannot afford.”

    Given, as Laura notes, that December’s DA voted to request the exec. committee to continue this sort of work, we should write up such a proposal. At the very least, a web page on MLA’s web site ought to be dedicated to the kind of updated information so necessary to departments as they argue for positions, resist the proliferation of part-time positions, and argue for the centrality of their role within a liberal arts education. Perhaps asking that someone create and maintain such a web page would be a good start.

    • Dave Mazella

      Agreed. Does ASECS, which is where this discussion began, have a role to play in this, too? DM

  24. Laura Rosenthal

    FYI in case you didn’t get this (and special attention for anyone not on the tenure track!):

    Dear Colleague,

    At its February meeting, in response to a motion approved by the Delegate Assembly, the Executive Council created a new MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. In May, the council will make initial appointments to this new committee. MLA members who hold non-tenure-track faculty positions are invited to nominate themselves for service on the committee.

    If you hold a non-tenure-track faculty appointment, please go to, where you will find the committee’s charge and a self-nomination form. To suggest yourself for appointment, please fill out the self-nomination form completely. Suggestions will be accepted through 1 May 2009.


    Rosemary G. Feal

    Please do not reply to this automatically generated message. To contact the MLA staff, please see here; to contact members, please use the directory here.

    Re the website idea: I think anyone doing a proposal like this would want to look carefully at MLA web site as there is much information there already and think about what specifically seems to be lacking. Also, the way to propose it would be through the Delegate Assembly. If you’re not a DA member, you would want to contact one. Everyone is represented through their field and their region, although you could work with anyone really.

  25. Laura Rosenthal

    FYI, the MLA just released an “Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit,” which seems to be designed for the purposes discussed here.

  26. Dave Mazella

    Thanks for passing this along, Laura. I hope that English faculties are keeping up with these national trends and figuring out ways to address these structural imbalances at the local level.

    But the money issues, especially when universities and legislators share a conventional wisdom about the benefits of science-based research, and reduce English departments (and indeed the liberal arts generally) to purveyors of “skills,” have been very damaging for us over the past 20-30 years.

  27. Melissa Mowry

    Thanks Laura for drawing our attention to this Luara. It’s a step in the right direction, I think and offers members information that helps solve a critical piece of the puzzle. I’d still like to see MLA develop some strategies for helping faculty argue the importance of the humanities in a broad social context. But this is all good.