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From the President

In Defense of Learning: The Seattle Convention

Reprinted from the Fall 2011 MLA Newsletter

This is a crucial time for us all, advocates of language and literature study, to stay strong and to reaffirm both our participation in the MLA and our commitment to the profession. For many years, we have been facing profound challenges, including a dismal job market and the ongoing casualization of the academic workforce, as more and more college teaching is assigned to instructors without prospects of tenure. In recent years, however, especially since the crisis of 2008, we have faced a rising chorus of strident attacks: mean-spirited public assaults on the humanities, painful reductions of second-language-learning opportunities and program closures, and across-the-board denigrations of teachers and teaching. We are confronting nothing less than a determined counterenlightenment intent on diminishing the cultivation of independent thought. The MLA has been a leader in opposing this program of cultural repression—I draw your attention to our new statement on language learning (“Learning Another Language: Goals and Challenges”) and to the MLA recommendations for fair treatment of non-tenure-track faculty members, which were developed by the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. These documents are important steps forward. Still, in the current atmosphere in which humanistic learning is under siege, we cannot let our determination flag. Let me therefore ask you to join your colleagues at the 2012 MLA convention, where we will proudly gather under the banner “Language, Literature, Learning.” These are our core values. Come to Seattle to defend them.

Our convention is a demonstration of resistance to the rollback of the humanities and a statement of support for literary culture. We stand for the importance of writing and for the urgency of international perspectives, and we have organized a program to show off both. At this, our first convention in Seattle, we will host public discussions with celebrated authors from the United States and Canada. These distinguished guests include Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage (winner of the National Book Award in 1990); Ruth Ozeki, famous for My Year of Meats; David Shields, whose recent Reality Hunger was described by Chuck Klosterman as “the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years”; Richard Van Camp, whose children’s novel The Lesser Blessed, translated into German, won the Jugendliteraturpreis at the 2001 Frankfurt Book Fair; and the renowned Chinese poet Xi Chuan. I also hope you will attend some of the Creative Conversation sessions involving Harry Burton, Frank Corrado, Speight Jenkins, and others. This is rich literary fare in an exciting city. I hope you will join us there, but don’t forget why. Our opponents prefer parochial nationalism and diminished literacy. We have the better values. The convention is a chance to stand up for them.

Itself a kind of genre, the convention has been undergoing an important evolution. While most of the schedule belongs to specialized sessions with the familiar format, many sessions are now structured as roundtables that can generate lively discussion among panelists and with the audience. I urge you to avail yourself of these opportunities for active participation. The MLA is also expanding the opportunities for new media, and I expect there will be plenty of blogging and tweeting. As the modalities of scholarly communication change and develop, so will the forms of our professional structures, allowing for more and more diverse participation.

On the topic of participation, let me also remind you that a key governance body of the MLA, the Delegate Assembly, meets at the convention. While only elected representatives may vote in the Delegate Assembly meeting, any MLA member who is registered for the convention can attend as an observer and has the right to speak. I encourage you to check out the Delegate Assembly on Saturday afternoon (1:00 p.m., 6B, Washington State Convention Center)—if not for the whole session, then at least for part of the discussion. Watch your representatives at work. Speak your mind. We will be stronger as an association if more members understand and participate in our governance. (A highlight of the Delegate Assembly is the open discussion hour, dedicated to current issues facing the profession. You can propose discussion topics for the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee by writing to Carol Zuses by 19 October.)

The presidential theme, “Language, Literature, Learning,” displays to the public and reaffirms to ourselves the rich nexus of intersecting goals that defines our scholarly world. Whether we specialize in English or another field, the study of language and of literary works of art is central to our scholarship. Literature has a special connection with language, and learning is inseparable from our professional lives—many convention sessions related to the presidential theme will explore the complex relations among these three terms. I was very gratified that members demonstrated their enthusiasm for the theme by submitting an exciting array of proposals. I especially hope to see you at the Presidential Forum on Friday morning (10:15 a.m., Metropolitan A, Sheraton), when we will address the topic by examining the triad—language, literature, learning—in the light of ongoing changes in identity, performance, and media. Three linked sessions (which will all take place in Metropolitan A, Sheraton) will each zero in on urgent questions of broad import: “What Makes Language Literary?” (6 Jan., 1:45 p.m.) will examine the claimed affinity between literature and language. “Language and Learning” (7 Jan., 10:15 a.m.) brings together controversies in current educational policy (e.g., No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top) with debates about second language acquisition. “Democracy, Language, and Literature” (7 Jan., 1:45 p.m.) will look at literary culture and protest movements in contemporary China, Cuba, Egypt, and Iran and test the frequently made assertion that the humanities provide a special path to democratic citizenship.

That is, admittedly, an ambitious topical stretch, and I have not even tried to summarize the range of related sessions. Yet there’s method to this madness. With the theme “Language, Literature, Learning” we assert our mission as teachers and scholars to cultivate language abilities—nurturing our students to be good readers and writers and conveying to them an appreciation of the intelligence inherent in literature—and to assert to the public that the learning we impart in the classroom can contribute to a lifetime of thoughtfulness for our former students, whatever their career paths. Education turns the tongue-tied student in the first-year language classroom into the informed citizen in the voting booth. To our obscurantist opponents who would dismantle the humanities and who demonize teachers, we reply, Our students deserve more learning, more literacy, and more enlightenment.

If we are not for ourselves, who will be? It’s up to us to make the case for the indispensability of language and literature study. That’s the Seattle agenda. See you there.

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Works Cited


Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. “Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions.” Modern Language Association. MLA, June 2011. Web. 5 Aug. 2011.

“Learning Another Language: Goals and Challenges.” Modern Language Association. MLA, 24 May 2011. Web. 5 Aug. 2011.
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Russell Berman
2011–12 MLA President Russell Berman
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