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MLA Convention Blog

You Say You Want a Resolution?

I am chair of the Program Committee, and I help select the specials sessions and the forums for the convention, but how many do I actually get to hear? Precious few. When I was a civilian, as I call my professorial self, I spent most of my time at the convention attending sessions, delivering papers, chairing panels, and the like. Now I facilitate, and I’m delighted to do so. But I miss hearing the debates going on while I’m doing governance duties. As a former chair of the Delegate Assembly organizing Committee (DAOC), I fully appreciate all the hard work that goes into applying the association’s governance structures. And now, as clerk of the Delegate Assembly, I have responsibilities for those structures. The afternoon of 28 December is taken up with open hearings on resolutions and on the agenda of the assembly. The DAOC then moves into closed session to go over the agenda one last time.

At 1 p.m. on the 29th, the Delegate Assembly is called to order. Catherine Porter gave an elegantly subtle pound of the gavel, and silence descended on the group. There are close to two hundred people in the room (delegates, observers, MLA staff members). It’s quite an event, which can last anywhere from a few hours all the way to 11 p.m. (that hasn’t happened in recent times, but I’ve heard tales). The agenda is jam-packed with business that is both routine (receiving and reviewing reports) and extreme (trying to outline solutions to the most pressing problems of our time). Being with the Delegate Assembly is like seeing a microcosm of the MLA membership. Every division has a delegate; so does every region of the United States and Canada. There are also special interest delegates and ex officio delegates—including council members.

This year, as in recent years, the delegates spent an hour considering urgent matters in an open discussion period during which no motions come before them. Their first topic was “avenues to advocacy”: what should the MLA, as a scholarly association, be doing on issues related to the profession, on larger political issues in the United States and throughout the world, and so on? Some delegates argued that the MLA should concentrate its attention to the most serious professional issues before us, such as the problem of the changing academic workforce, the defunding of higher education in general and the humanities in particular, and the deteriorating working conditions for most academics. Other speakers said that the MLA should advocate more vigorously on large political issues that have an impact on everything we do as professionals.

The second open topic concerned the structure of the academic workforce. The Delegate Assembly has long been concerned with the working conditions of faculty members, in particular those who work off the tenure track. The delegates, the DAOC, and representatives of the Executive Council were in total agreement that the MLA needs to continue to address issues related to contingent labor with vigor, and to that end, the assembly passed a motion calling on the council to appoint a group consisting primarily of non-tenure-track faculty members to map our next steps.

The Delegate Assembly meetings follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and parliamentary procedure creates order out of potential chaos. Even so it often takes hours for motions and resolutions to be perfected. The delegates did a fabulous job with what can be a whirlwind of statements like “I speak in support” and “I move to amend by substitution.”

One of the most touching moments at the convention occurred during the assembly meeting when the person who has guided us through parliamentary procedure for the last nine years was recognized for her extraordinary service. Martha Grise, a life member of the MLA and a registered parliamentarian, has provided thoughtful advice to chairs, and she has helped the Delegate Assembly through some tricky procedural situations. Catherine Porter presented Martha with a tribute that brought the assembly to its feet in a long standing ovation. I’ve never seen the likes of that, nor have I seen tears flowing at the meeting, which they did as Martha told us how much she has enjoyed serving her association in this capacity.

The cash bar hour is at 5:15, and the Delegate Assembly finished its business shortly after 5 p.m. Coincidence? I’ll let you decide. But I do have three receptions I said I’d attend after the assembly meeting, if it adjourned in time, and I managed to make the rounds at all three.
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© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.