the mla is dead; now go enjoy yourselves

I’ve provided this cheerful subject heading, along with Marc Bousquet’s upbeat post from the Chron of Higher Ed (Skype did it), to serve as an open thread for any MLA-goers who wish to report back on their discoveries and discussions at MLA.  And best of luck to all of you who are  interviewing or being interviewed this week.  Even LA can get cold at this time of year.



5 responses to “the mla is dead; now go enjoy yourselves

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    I went to three fantastic panel yesterday:
    “The Strange Death of the Liberal University in Britain”
    “Cognitive Cultural Studies: Cognitive Approaches in Dialogue with Other Approaches”
    “The Academy in Hard Times”

    So the MLA seems to be alive and well. You would think at least two of those panels would have confirmed Bousquet’s point about the death of the MLA, but they were lively and even inspiring and gave me some optimisim that people are thinking in serious, intellectual, and potentially productive ways about the future of the humanities in higher education. “Hard Times” included Barbara Bowen, Reed Dasenbrock, Monica Jacobe, Gary Rhoades, Christopher Newfield, and Richard Yarborough, and was chaired by Michael Berube. Reed Dasenbrock argued vigorously and convincingly that we need to put undergraduate education at the center of our mission; that it was being treated at a ‘cash cow’ funding other sectors of the university but not being sufficiently tended to itself. He also make was I thought was the bold point that we professors are often guilty of doing this ourselves.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    “Strange Death” was quite a bit more sobering, but Rick Rylance made the point that STEM fields have been much better at advocating for themselves (with a little help from their corporate friends). He pointed out that we need to find better ways to advocate for ourselves and a good discussion about this took place. I think, though, that Dasenbock hit the nail on the head with the issue of advocacy: the best way to get anyone to listen to us is to focus on undergraduate education.

    One interesting and revealing moment: at one point in the “Death” panel some in the Q&A said something like: ” What we really need to do is figure out how and what students are learning in humanities fields so we can show this to the public. But I don’t know if we can do this because it would take a lot of research and I don’t know if anyone knows how to do that kind of research or would undertake it.”

    It was, as you might imagine, a very interesting moment for me to see outcomes assessment reinvented spontaneously. It goes to show that there need to be many more conversations between assessment people and humanities (or liberal arts) faculty, and that assessment, potentially, has a key role to play in advocacy.

  3. Hey Laura,

    Glad to hear that the MLA is, in fact, alive and well, and that these kinds of discussions are taking place. I completely agree with you and the panelists about the need for better advocacy for the humanities, and the way that renewed focus on undergrad education could serve this purpose: no better publicity for what we do than students’ own accomplishments and testimonials post-graduation. And undergraduate research can ensure that these students are not simply listening slackjawed in lecture halls, too.

    It’s worth remembering, too, just how few students the big-money disciplines in the hard sciences and engineering actually teach compared to our numbers. Universities can’t, or shouldn’t, be reduced to a few money-making programs that generate a lot of grants.

    The final point I’d like to reiterate from your report is that focusing on undergrad teaching does not take us further away from research, but introduces new forms of research into our teaching practices, and challenges us to improve what we do on the basis of scholarship, evidence, reflection, and so forth. So we are simply reconceiving the research mission of the humanities in such a way that it becomes part of the feedback loop that helps us enhance our teaching as well. The two are brought closer together.

  4. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, that’s a good point to add about research and teaching not being in opposition to each other. Two more points emphasized by panel:
    1. Undergraduate teaching subsidizes research in science, not the other way around. The grant money brought in never compensates for the resources they use.
    2. Since the 1980’s, the humanities has not actually been losing students but in fact have been holding steady. The rumor that students are fleeing from the humanities is a myth.

  5. I think one of the reasons why Newfield’s argument about the money-losing humanities hasn’t gotten a response is that it requires an uphill, internal battle of persuasion to happen inside universities. It is potentially divisive, and demands that humanities people challenge one of the major self-justifications of those disciplines, not an easy task, especially when we’re looking to remain united in the face of budgetary cuts.

    I’m also inclined to think that the largely instrumental attitude of universities towards enrollments, enrollment moneys, and programs designed for such purposes (the “cash cows”) have affected views of those departments and disciplines. Enrollments and the money they bring in do not represent the “new” or movable money that enable administrators to address the gaps left by declining state contributions. I think the decline in state contributions has put a premium on movable money, and has helped to make university budgeting much more opaque, defensive enterprise.