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From the President

An Agenda for the Future

Reprinted from the Summer 2011 MLA Newsletter

In today’s environment we have to fight tooth and nail to defend the humanities. Defense is good, but don’t forget that we need to play offense too. Let’s set our goals high and define a future for the humanities that can challenge existing assumptions and reinvent the goals and conditions of language and literature study. This is no time for modest proposals, and the fight for the humanities is not for the faint of heart. Instead of caving in to the powerful social and cultural pressures to marginalize the humanities, we have a chance—and we have a duty—to fight for our place at the center of American education. This is the agenda I have publicly outlined during the first months of my presidency, and I want to share it with you here.

Language Learning

Languages mean career skills for the workforce, but they also contribute to each person’s cognitive growth. Without sufficient language learning, American students will suffer from diminished educational opportunities, and we sabotage their prospects in the global economy. Building first- and second-language literacy has become a matter of national urgency.

It is time to set a national goal of universal bilingualism. All high school students should attain a strong ability in a second language. This will require robust language programs starting in elementary school, as is common in nearly every other industrial country. To worry about globalization without supporting a big increase in language learning is laughable. Unfortunately the current Department of Education appears to have forgotten about foreign language programs altogether.

Because second language acquisition builds first-language ability, the current dearth of language-learning opportunities helps explain the poor English literacy results for US students. Students who have studied a second language use their first language better. We language and literature scholars are well positioned to articulate a comprehensive language agenda that encompasses both “foreign” languages and English and includes a national goal of improved first- and second-language literacy for all students. Broad-based literacy is the democratic form of the humanities.

Graduate Education

To prepare today’s graduate students for tomorrow’s jobs, we should increase attention to training teachers: today’s graduate students are tomorrow’s faculty members, and we have to equip them with all the requisite skills for promoting student learning.

A principled focus on teacher preparation will force a rethinking of many aspects of graduate education, none more urgently than the status of the dissertation. It is high time to ask why the presumed capstone of graduate education remains a dissertation (i.e., a draft of a book that takes several years to write), even though academic book publishing is in free fall and academic books are seldom purchased or read. There is no reason to insist that the traditional dissertation remain the exclusive goal of graduate study.

Nor should we design graduate humanities education to lead solely into academic paths. On the contrary, graduate education builds important transferable skills—the ability to interpret, to make evidence-based arguments, to work creatively across disciplinary borders, to use language well—that can also lead to nontraditional careers. Our programs should systematically equip our students to succeed in them.

Digital Humanities

The future of our fields depends on our integrating new media and technologies, and our students deserve the chance to become familiar with them as part of their course of study. Not only do the digital humanities pose fundamental questions about culture; they also respond to aspects of the contemporary media environment, which define students’ horizons of expectations. To engage undergraduate or graduate students today, we cannot forgo the digital dimension.

The challenge goes far beyond using technology to cover established curricula or to disseminate knowledge. As humanists we ought to be among the first to recognize how knowledge itself is changing. Our goal is to transform the core of the curriculum by incorporating engagement with technology. The contrast between a defense of the old humanities, as traditionally understood, and a vision for the humanities of the future is nowhere greater than here. This is no time for business as usual. The digital frontier is already upending conventional humanistic research and teaching and will fundamentally reinvent the study of cultures. We have an opportunity now to get in front of this revolution, to assimilate the digital turn into the humanities enterprise, and to lead the way in the transformation of the teaching and learning environment of higher education.

Academic Workforce

No educational agenda can succeed without supportive working conditions for all faculty members, including (but hardly limited to) job security. Yet the increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty members continues unabated. This casualization of the academic workforce is devastating higher education: it undermines the continuity of instruction for students, it wears down instructors deprived of stable employment, it erodes faculty governance of educational institutions, and it discourages talented students from pursuing higher education as a vocation.

The MLA has been among the leaders in resisting this deprofessionalization. We will not back off. To pursue the comprehensive language agenda suggested above, this battle is especially important, since contingent faculty members are concentrated in the language and writing sectors. The scandal of American higher education today is that the greater the importance of teaching in one’s job, the lower the level of job security. Talk about saving the humanities does not mean much unless it addresses this systemic denigration of teaching. On the contrary, it is the dignity of teaching to respond to the urgency of learning and to build the literacy on which democracy depends.

These are no doubt tough times for higher education, but together we can achieve a lot to promote the study of language and literature, the core mission of the MLA. I ask for your support for this agenda, and I ask for your thoughts on how to implement and expand it. I welcome your comments and your participation.

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Russell Berman
2011–12 MLA President Russell Berman
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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.