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From the President

The Conventions of Narrating Lives

Reprinted from the Fall 2010 MLA Newsletter

The 2011 MLA convention will be groundbreaking in many ways. It is the first convention to take place in January and the first in this century in the City of Angels. It inaugurates alternative scholarly communication formats. In response to member concerns, most sessions end by 7:00 in the evening. The opening day features sessions in every time slot devoted to an issue of paramount importance to all members—the impact of the economy on the humanities. These sessions will focus on the troubling ratio of tenure-line to non-tenure-line faculty members and the difficult employment conditions faced by contingent faculty members. The convention will also be conspicuously networked, as those in attendance and those at home can stay connected and current through Facebook, blogs, and tweets. This is not our grandfathers’ convention or our mothers’, or even our own accustomed mode. January 2011 inaugurates the “new normal” in scholarly exchange for the MLA.

If we understand the convention as a site and set of modes for performing professional identities, it is a fitting environment for exploring the Presidential Theme “Narrating Lives.” Until the late 1980s, the study of life narrative was rarely acknowledged as a legitimate field of inquiry, except in a few convention sessions on the autobiographies of “great” literati. It was deemed a marginal genre of “nonliterary” forms, such as slave narratives, women’s diaries, and testimonies. My first convention paper was delivered in someone’s hotel room to a handful of people during an ad hoc special session on biography and autobiography in 1979. In one decade, however, literary scholars, many of them feminist theorists and specialists in ethnic and postcolonial studies, recovered archives of texts and articulated the historical import of genres of life writing for historically invisible subjects and communities. Teaching and research opportunities now abound for understanding the (auto)biographical as discourse, generic mode, textual practice, social action, material object, commodity of exchange, and mode of reading. The enthusiastic response to the call for papers on issues of life writing, broadly understood, reflects the historical specificity, global reach, and generic diversity of modes of life narrative. More than two hundred convention sessions will touch some aspect of life narrative, whether in writing or in oral, visual, or performative mode.

But there is more to note about how the theme of “Narrating Lives” bears on the work we do and the lives we live in the academy. Some of our colleagues have helped assemble rich archives available to the general public as well as to scholars for research. Philippe Lejeune, a pioneer in studying life writing and theorizing the autobiographical pact, cofounded the Ambérieu archive in France, which now includes over 2,500 unpublished life writing texts—diaries, autobiographies, scrapbooks, letters, and e-mails—from the nineteenth century to the present. In Britain, the Mass Observation Project, housed at the University of Sussex under the auspices of the Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research, has been collecting the personal stories of everyday people since 1937. In the United States, oral history archives range from the highly publicized Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale to the Transnational Feminism oral history archive housed at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan to modest, local projects undertaken by students and mounted on the Web. Such projects document the lives of people at once ordinary and extraordinary, preserve narratives of survival, constitute communities of storytellers, and prompt new research questions.

Other colleagues have contributed to the contemporary memoir boom. As Cynthia Franklin observes in Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today, academic memoirs have become an alternative mode of scholarly communication. Often hybrid in form, they join theoretical metacommentary on memory, subjectivity, identity, and cultural legacies to experientially based stories of how the scholar’s formation is part of national and transnational stories of family, class, gender, classrooms, and knowledge production. Most strikingly, all of us could, and do, tell stories of our professional lives.

However narrated, the stories we tell inform our philosophies of teaching, intellectual pursuits, and activism. Of course, the conventions and discourses of narrating lives in the humanities alter over time and differ across generational divides, the effect of changes in the discipline and the challenges and crises affecting higher education. My generation was fortunate to come into the academy in the late 1960s, a moment of turmoil but also of promise and public support for higher education. We could respond to calls to pioneer the new fields of feminist, ethnic, cultural, and life writing studies; change the terms of inclusion governing the construction of academic lives; and reshape scholarly practices. At least, that’s the story I now tell about my academic life. In the early twenty-first century, academic lives are playing out in a radically changing environment for teaching, publishing, and employment. The current generation of technologically adept students seems to be losing the capacity for deep reading; the faculty is increasingly casualized; the future of the book is unclear; the “femininization” of the humanities, as Lynn Hunt puts it, may herald a decline in prestige (22); and public support for higher education has eroded, threatening a secure route to life as a tenured professor.

The contemporary environment for narrating lives in the academy returns me to the theme of my earlier columns, graduate education. Our graduate programs must prepare the next generations to negotiate these daunting realities as they write new professional identities. As new scholars prepare for performing and narrating lives in the profession, how will they imagine linking the stories of their lives to technologically proficient, “postliterate” students; digital worlds; increasingly collaborative research communities; online, filmic, or drawn scholarship; differently configured interdisciplinary contexts; and new modes of public scholarship? How will they compose the new “dissertation” and prepare for the future of the distributed, multimedia “book”? How will they plan for and imagine success in choosing among a range of professional careers that we have yet to specify and factor into our thinking about graduate education? The conventions of doctoral education are bound to change as new lives in the humanities are narrated and performed.



This column is dedicated to Roger Salomon, professor emeritus, Case Western Reserve University, my revered mentor.

Works Cited

Franklin, Cynthia. Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today. Atlanta: U of Georgia P, 2009. Print.

Hunt, Lynn. “Democratization and Decline? The Consequences of Demographic Change in the Humanities.” What’s Happened to the Humanities? Ed. Alvin Kernan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. Print.
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Sidonie Smith
2010–11 MLA President Sidonie Smith
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.