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MLA Convention Blog

San Francisco, Visto y No Visto

Last night as I was walking over to the Marriott on a balmy San Francisco evening, I ran into a community college faculty member who has been active in the MLA. After chatting about what interested her at the convention, I remarked on the great weather. “When were you last out?” she asked. And then it occurred to me: not since last Friday evening! Since then, I’ve been in meeting rooms at the Hilton from sunup to sundown. The convention just flies by for me once it begins. And here it is, almost over.

I’m writing from the session featuring the MLA’s Teagle Foundation Working Group. I was one of three MLA staff member liaisons with this distinguished group that included college presidents; professors of law, medicine, and education; MLA officers; and other MLA members. David Marshall is framing the big questions that the Teagle Foundation asked us to contemplate. What should a humanities education be about in our current age? What does it mean to major in the liberal arts today? David talks about cohesion and collaboration within departments. He also said that the Working Group reasserted the centrality of language, literacy, and literature as the core of what we do. The environment in which we’re working has changed, so how will we work within it? What do we literature and language scholars bring to the table?

Jenifer Ward says, sorry, we don’t have the prescriptions for you as you take back the ideas from this Working Group to your colleges and universities. We have the kind of diversity in our disciplines that makes it almost impossible to prescribe ten things you might change. What the group tried to do instead was come up with four categories to guide you: a coherent program of study (we must resist courseocentrism, to use Jerry Graff’s term from his presidential address), one that calls for an integrated faculty involved in the curriculum. Collaborative teamwork among faculty members is an essential ingredient of a coherent program, as is interdepartmental teaching. And finally, saying what we expect students to learn, and how we will measure that learning, is a best practice we need to implement.

What good are our fields to students who go on to careers in other areas? Imani Perry is talking about how the kinds of learning to which student are exposed in our language and literature programs prepare them for using narrative, making interpretation, and performing analysis. The ability to fit one’s ideas to a particular form is a competency that comes from good writing education, and Imani Perry sees these qualities in her law students who have had this educational background. When students enter law school, they are learning a new language; what better preparation than language study at the undergraduate level?

Michael Holquist (who chaired the Teagle Working Group) just said he’s going to speak about slow reading really fast (but not as fast as Michael Bérubé, I bet). MLA members are the custodians of language, and language is at the heart of virtually all disciplines (at least the humanistic ones). Coherent expression is the sine qua non of academic pursuits, yet many of our students come to us with low levels of literacy. Reading literature becomes an even more complex problem because literary texts contain “language at its extreme,” that is, in forms that are most challenging. We’re talking about the fundamental activity of human cognition, says Holquist, so we should do what we can to encourage careful reading not only for the skills it develops, the joys it brings, but also for the brain changes it can induce. Haskins Laboratory is studying reading and the brain through scans and other tests, and we now have the possibility for making a scientific demonstration for the importance of the work we do. Amazing. This is your brain. This is your brain on Tolstoy!

Here’s something bold: students who major in languages other than English should have a good command of English (and its literatures), but those who major in English should, in turn, have a good command of another language (and its literatures). Why? Randoph Pope gives several reasons. First, work in translation, no matter how well done, can never replace the experience of reading in the original. Second, learning another language makes us attain higher levels of literacy in our own language. Third, to be good citizens of the world, we need languages. Only one out of five colleges and universities has any kind of language requirement these days. As a professor of Spanish, I find the “lack of languages” really sad —and risky (Randolph made reference to the report, “A Nation at Risk”).

David Steiner says that the literacy diversity we’re talking about demands of us rigorous judgment and intellectual structure in the major. Our programs of study need an internally consistent narrative, and we need to think about the student navigating the seas of our courses. We also would do well to think about progression in our students’ programs. We’ve got too much fragmentation going on, and only a small minority of students take our courses in advanced language and literary studies. How can we achieve the necessary internal coherence so we can bring the best of what we do to those who so dearly need it?

The audience is asking really smart questions about what directions education in our fields should take. I’m enthusiastic about the future of the Teagle Working Group’s report. Where can you find it? We’ll publish it on the MLA Web site early in 2009; in the meantime, you can download it at the Teagle Foundation Web site.

The 29th ends for me with a reception for those who have published books, articles, and book chapters in MLA publications in 2008, along with those who serve on the editorial boards and other committees of the association. I’m getting between four and six hours sleep a night, yet I feel so energized by all that’s going on at the convention. But, as one of my fellow staff members just noted, it will soon be time to sleep—from 31 December until, oh, 2 or 3 January.

This morning I will chair a breakfast meeting of life members (those who have been in the association for forty years or for twenty years and have retired). We are eager to know how well we are serving their needs and to ask what they might be willing to do to continue supporting their professional association. Then I will join my colleagues on the Program Committee in an open session where we’ll answer questions on how panels are selected for the annual convention, what makes a special session proposal successful, and other matters related to this meeting. After that, I’ll throw everything I brought back into my suitcase (and hope it finds its way to New York at the same time I do!). I hope all of you have easy travels back home, and I thank you for making this convention the highlight of the year for me and my colleagues on the MLA staff.
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