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From the President

What We Can (and Can’t) Do—and What We Have (and Haven’t) Done

Reprinted from the Spring 2012 MLA Newsletter

The MLA today is a very different organization from the one I joined twenty-five years ago; in the 1990s it was the first major scholarly association to create a committee on disability issues, and in 2011 it became the first to create an office of scholarly communication to meet the challenges of the digital age. Along the way, and as the result of a series of initiatives launched by the membership, the MLA has changed the composition and structure of its elected leadership to facilitate greater participation from graduate students, part-time faculty members, and faculty members from a wider range of institutions, including community colleges. And yet the impression persists in some quarters that the MLA belongs to a small handful of tenured faculty members who are purportedly untouched by and unaware of the conditions under which most of their colleagues actually work.

If I do nothing else during my year as your president, I will try to correct that impression—not only by setting our critics straight but also by acknowledging where they are right.

On the one hand, the belief that the MLA is resistant to internal change is simply misinformed: there is no one in the leadership or on staff—literally, no one—who opposes the greater inclusion and involvement of a broader and more diverse body of members. On the other hand, the belief that the MLA has ignored non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty members is deeply vexing, because it speaks precisely to what we have and haven’t done as an association. It reminds us that we still have much to learn about how to publicize and promote our policies.

What We’ve Done. In 2003, we produced a document setting out detailed standards for the ethical treatment of NTT faculty members. How detailed was it? We dealt with faculty access to office space, to phones and computers, to professional development, to library facilities, and even to parking. (That’s not a trivial matter for “freeway flyer” faculty members who commute among campuses trying to make ends meet—and trying to get to their classes on time.) That 2003 document is but one part of our Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit (available at www.mla.org), and most recently was incorporated into a more comprehensive report, Professional Employment Practices for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members: Recommendations and Evaluative Questions, released by the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession in June 2011. (And did I note that we are the first scholarly association to have a committee on contingent labor?)

What We Haven’t Done. We didn’t do enough to disseminate our work on behalf of NTT faculty members. Everyone who teaches modern languages and literatures in the United States, from the richly endowed professor to the harried freeway flyer, should know that the MLA has an admirably specific set of recommendations for the working conditions of our most vulnerable colleagues.

“Yes, well,” some of our critics have told us, “you may have recommendations, and you may want to publicize them, but you have no way of enforcing them.” This is true, all too true. We cannot enforce our recommendations for the working conditions of NTT faculty members, just as we cannot enforce our recommendations for salaries and benefits for tenure-track assistant professors and for NTT faculty members working on a per-course basis. For that matter, we cannot enforce the citation practices recommended in the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. We do not have, and cannot develop, the capacity to negotiate employment contracts for faculty members on a campus-by-campus basis, just as we do not have, and cannot acquire, a team of investigators to dispatch whenever someone violates one of our recommendations. So far as I know, no disciplinary association has that capability.

But the MLA can offer—and has published—rigorous, well-researched studies of (for example) the conditions of academic employment, of the practices of peer review, of the status of women in the profession, and of the prospects for foreign language study in the still embarrassingly monolingual United States. Those studies have amassed critical data about the state of the profession. For example, our survey of departmental staffing and the surveys we conducted with other academic associations through the Coalition on the Academic Workforce represent a significant accomplishment—compiling reliable information on employment data over time, in an area where there is so much misinformation and disinformation. Information gathering may be only a first step, but it is an absolutely indispensable first step.

That information, in turn, can have real effects—if you and your colleagues bring them to bear on your own campus policies. I remember my first year on our association’s Executive Council: it was 2002, the year MLA President Stephen Greenblatt released his famous letter on the crisis of the monograph. I took that letter to my dean, who informed me that (a) tenure and promotion policies would remain the province of individual departments but that (b) the College of Liberal Arts, in response to the letter’s argument that humanities research is undersponsored in research institutions, would create a start-up research fund for every newly hired faculty member.

Meanwhile, back at the MLA, Greenblatt’s letter became the impetus for the Task Force on the Evaluation of Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion—a multiyear initiative that in 2007 produced a seventy-page report that was widely hailed and whose recommendations are still being debated and assimilated, campus by campus, particularly with regard to the increasing digitization of scholarly communication.

The MLA has indeed changed with the times—responding to the challenges facing its members (and our students) by working assiduously to formulate the standards that should govern our discipline. In my next column, I’ll suggest some ways we can make those standards and recommendations more widely known; in the meantime, I invite your suggestions—for promoting the work we’ve done so far, and for new initiatives on the issues that affect us all.

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Michael Bérubé
2012–13 MLA President Michael Bérubé
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