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From the President

Avenues of Access

Reprinted from the Fall 2012 MLA Newsletter

As many of you know, the presidential theme for the 2013 convention in Boston is Avenues of Access. The term access is multivalent, of course, and I want to take the opportunity, at the convention, to explore some of its available meanings in various intellectual contexts—from disability studies to the digital humanities. I’ll say more about those meanings in a moment; but first, I want to go back and revisit the debates over access we had twenty years ago, when I was starting out in the profession.

I titled my second book Public Access because, at the time, one of the problems besetting our profession was that we were being mocked and pilloried by journalists for using words like heteronormative and counterhegemonic. Granted, some of our theoretical jargon was impenetrable to the uninitiated, but it struck me then that no one was complaining about the existence of recondite terms such as prosopopoeia or hendiadys. Moreover, the debate over the accessibility of critical language seemed to me to obscure a more important question, namely, the question of our access to nonspecialist print media in the public sphere. As I saw things, it didn’t matter very much whether some theorist was writing about phallogocentrism in Diacritics, any more than it mattered whether some mathematician was writing about motivic cohomology in the Journal of K-Theory. But it did matter that there were so few people in the humanities writing about the humanities in nonspecialist venues. And during the years when humanities professors were being attacked for “political correctness,” our absence from general print media did not serve us well.

I don’t think we have to worry about that anymore. It was a debate we needed to have at the time, but its time has passed, just as we no longer have debates over the forbidding inaccessibility of modernist poetry. Over the past twenty years, the field of cultural production has shifted more than anyone could have imagined, and academic humanists now routinely write in all kinds of media, from magazines to blogs.

I maintained my own blog for some years, and while it was great fun, I know that sometimes the claims for new media can sound hyperbolic. Why does it matter, a curious colleague once asked me, that scholars in the humanities can now publish online—whether they publish substantial arguments in refereed online journals or occasional thoughts and musings on blogs? The answer, I told him, is that the digital humanities aren’t just an exchange of print for pixels. They have the potential—which they are just beginning to realize—to reshape the structure of scholarly communication and the processes of peer review. Which is to say that the digital humanities will change the terms of access to scholarship, for researchers and for general readers.

Disability studies involves a different sense of access, of course. But ever since Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads broke down the barriers facing students with disabilities at Berkeley over forty years ago (thereby igniting the disability rights movement in the United States), disability studies has also been concerned with access to scholarship—gradually growing into its own field of study in the humanities. If the idea that the digital humanities are “the next big thing” sounds a little odd to people who have been working in the field for twenty-five years, surely the idea that disability studies is an “emerging” field of study sounds similarly strange to scholars who have witnessed almost two decades of work in the area. The question now, perhaps, is not, What can the understanding of disability contribute to the study of language and literature? but, How can we think about disability, language, and literature when we are no longer thinking primarily about representations of disability and are thinking instead about the meanings of access? I hope my Presidential Forum on the state of the field will help carry forward the work of what some scholars are calling disability studies 2.0—wherever it may lead.

The central feature of Avenues of Access, and probably the subject on which I have spent the most time and effort as president, concerns the status of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty members. At this year’s convention NTT and adjunct faculty members will for the first time take center stage at a Presidential Forum to discuss the growth in the number of faculty members teaching off the tenure track—and the conditions under which they work. I have convened four national leaders on NTT issues—one of whom suddenly became a national leader this year, thanks to the power of social media and a savvy idea. That idea—Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project—now has an extensive counterpart on the MLA Web site—the Academic Workforce Data Center—where faculty staffing at United States higher educational institutions may be viewed and where NTT faculty members can upload institution-specific information . . . confidentially. We hope, through the Academic Workforce Data Center, to discover best (and worst) practices in North American higher education and to use those data to improve working conditions for every faculty member who works off the tenure track. After all, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. How can we bring this idea, so critical to the educational missions of our institutions, to the attention of parents, legislators, trustees, and policy makers? I will be pursuing this question long after I step down as president, but I hope this Presidential Forum will spark new ideas and new strategies to pursue.

Needless to say, I am very excited about Avenues of Access, and I think the Presidential Forum—and the nearly fifty related sessions I have chosen to be affiliated with the theme—will contribute to a most exciting convention. I look forward to seeing you in Boston.

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Michael Bérubé
2012–13 MLA President Michael Bérubé
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