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MLA Convention Blog

All That Glitters

Part One

The Gold Room in the Fairmont Hotel is a visually stunning room that has hosted some of San Francisco’s most prominent social events. Today the distinguished guests are chairs of departments of English, languages other than English, and comparative literature; they have gathered to discuss issues that concern them. Their first activity: reviewing the statistics on job listings in our field. The number of job postings in the MLA’s Job Information List are projected to be down 21% in 2008-09. For English language and literature, the drop is expected to be 22.2% and for foreign languages, 19.6%. Most department chairs report knowing of searches canceled either in their departments or in other departments on their campuses.

On another level, the recently released report on the academic workforce (http://www.mla.org/report_aw) is generating energetic discussion. David Bartholomae, who chaired the committee that produced the report, talked about the need for us to think about the two-part structure—research faculty and teaching faculty—that many institutions have adopted. The report charts in fine detail who is doing the teaching (full- or part-time, tenure-track or non-tenure-track) and points the way toward better practices. Between the decline of available positions this year and the erosion of full-time tenure-track positions in the academic workforce overall, we are facing a situation that demands our advocacy and action. There is a session (478) on the report on 29 December, 10:15-11:30 a.m., in Continental 3 at the Hilton. It’s really important to learn about these issues, and I encourage everyone to attend (and to share the report with your colleagues, deans, and provosts).

One department chair at a small liberal arts college made the point that parents should be looking at “who is doing the teaching” when they choose colleges with their sons and daughters. Will there be enough full-time professors to give extensive office hours, write letters of recommendation, mentor students throughout their undergraduate years, and so forth? Another question the chairs are discussing: what can we do to strengthen the humanities at a time when everything is being tightened? As a profession, the chairs say, we are facing an unpredented situation. How can we make budget cuts without doing damage to the long-standing American tradition of providing humanities education to the largest number of students possible, at the highest level of quality possible?

Another chair commented that all faculty members are “in it together, and it’s essential that we support one another and advocate for working conditions for every faculty member.” “The MLA can help,” said another chair. The MLA produces research, best-practice documents: the best thinking of our profession has gone into formulating goals, and we need to aspire to getting there. Catherine Porter exhorted the group to “make an appointment with your dean,” bring the MLA’s research to your administrators, and encourage them to make decisions based on the standards set by those in the field. That’s really great advice. You’ll find all our policy statements and research at www.mla.org, especially here: www.mla.org/resources.

And that concludes the first part of the chairs meeting. They are now adjourning into breakout rooms, and I’m breaknecking it back to the Hilton for my next event!

Part Two

This is an exciting moment for me, I have to say. Over sixty community college faculty members have gathered at the Hilton for a workshop designed especially for them. The MLA’s Committee on Community Colleges came up with the idea for this workshop as a way of serving the needs of community college faculty members, who have asked us for more convention sessions that are relevant to what they do. The Executive Council received this idea enthusiastically and set aside funds to support session applicants so they could attend. And here they are, from all over the country, working with Jerry Graff and Cathy Birkenstein-Graff on “the central move of academic writing.”

Jerry and Cathy emphasize the importance of looking for the “they say/I say” moments in writing and in conversation. Students who familiarize themselves with these moves in speaking are likely to recognize them in writing, too. Faculty members can benefit from knowing these moves not only to help our students learn them but also to make their own communications more effective.

It’s good to see colleagues who have been members of the Committee on Community Colleges. They share a special relationship, since they are in the minority among MLA members. Too often, community college colleagues suppose that the MLA does not provide enough of what they need to justify being members. As the members of the committee can attest, the MLA is a “large tent” under which all participants can find a place. They tell me they enjoy planning sessions for the convention and promoting conversations among community college members. Their contributions to the association’s publications matter a great deal to the academic community at large, and we are a richer MLA because of what community college professors show us. As more and more graduate students look to community colleges as a great place to develop a career, we can ask for assistance from our colleagues who work there and know (and like) the ropes.
 
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