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Academy Awards, Academic Rewards

The most exciting moment of the convention for me is always the awards ceremony followed by the Presidential Address. It sounds Hollywoodesque—and we know how presidents like to mingle with stars (and fund-raise among them). The MLA’s version of the Academy Awards recognizes distinguished work in the fields of language and literature. For me, it’s a thrill to be in a grand ballroom, filled to capacity by 9 p.m. on 28 December, and to see each award recipient (often accompanied by colleagues, family, and friends) ascend the stage and receive one of the most gratifying things a scholar can get: an award, judged by a jury of one’s peers, for scholarly work that has taken years to produce. We often work in such isolation: how amazing to see us come together and celebrate one another’s achievements.

René Girard received the MLA Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement, and he made me laugh when he said that some of the conversations he was hearing in the halls of the conference were identical to those he used to hear back in the 1960s. His gracious remarks reminded us all why we need to promote the study of the humanities. The award itself is a Steuben glass artwork—in the shape of a triangle. That’s an inside reference for the academic community who admires Girard’s work on desire, but no intertextuality is required for those who simply wish to admire the glass triangle wherever René Girard chooses to display it.

When I stand before the hundreds gathered in the ballroom to deliver my own report to members on the activities of the MLA during the past year, I feel about six things at once. Nervousness, of course. Joy, because in that one moment I get to see those for whom I work year round—the members. Gratitude: the people in the audience are the ones who give their time, expertise, and all measures of support—including monetary—to the association. I also feel optimism for the work ahead of us, and pride for what we’ve accomplished together. Last but not least, I feel the self-consciousness of one who knows that she is the visible face of the MLA staff, and I secretly call on all my colleagues who do the day-to-day work of the association to join me on stage. As I said in my remarks, “We’re all in this together.”

The main event of the evening rolls around at about 9:45. It’s such a privilege to introduce the president on his big night, and Jerry Graff’s writing over the decades certainly has given me great pleasure (and nervousness and optimism and self-consciousness!). I said that you can’t take Chicago out of the man (Jerry Graff’s life and work have always been deeply connected to his native city), and, true to form, Jerry delivered an address that was clear as a bell, funny, courageous, and consistent with the ideas he has always embraced.

In his presidential address, Graff described the signs he saw of a pedagogical renaissance in which language and literature faculties are playing a leading role. There were lots of nods in the audience when he noted that the profession is now significantly more committed to teaching than we once were. But he also worries that we keep thinking about the classroom as an isolated space, with each course being taught as a self-enclosed bubble (he calls this thinking “courseocentric”).

After the talk, I saw a colleague who teaches at a small college, and she said, “Wow, that’s vintage Jerry, but with a new twist.” Part of the new twist is Graff’s recognition that the conditions of our profession have changed significantly (he alluded to the “adjunctification” of the faculty). As we move toward dismantling courseocentrism (something, my colleague told me, that has already happened at her college), as we cease to think of ourselves as “independent contractors,” we may finally become “community builders.” That’s an academic reward worthy of our efforts.

As the ceremony ends and those of us on the podium circulate among the audience to meet and greet, I feel a sense of belonging that I can hardly describe in six words or less. I hope each of you here at the convention has found at least one such “I belong” moment, too.
 
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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.