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MLA Convention Blog

The Academy in Hard Times

Photo of Michael Bérubé
The last time the MLA met in Los Angeles, the Lakers were defending their NBA championship; the country was in a deep recession; in the recent midterm election, the president’s party had just suffered significant losses in the House of Representatives; and the disciplines of the humanities were reeling from a decade of precipitous declines in student enrollment.

The year was 1982. Twenty-eight years later (and why, exactly, did the MLA wait 28 years to return to sunny LA?), things look very much the same—except that humanities majors, instead of being in precipitous decline as they were three decades ago, are more than holding their own at a healthy average of over seven percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients.

And yet the humanities—especially, but not exclusively, the modern languages—are facing some very hard times indeed. Hiring freezes, pay cuts, and furloughs have been common throughout higher education, but the program closings and layoffs have hit hardest in the humanities. This is not a function of student enrollment; it is, instead, a function of public perception. Unfortunately, that perception is shared by some university administrators, and it runs something like this: the humanities are loss leaders or boutique disciplines. The real, serious, revenue- and reputation-enhancing disciplines are to be found in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and medicine. Degrees in nineteenth-century French poetry are, as Bill Murray memorably said to Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, “an incredible waste of time.”

Combine that attitude with the brutal facts of the Great Recession, which for public universities are very likely to be augmented by the incipient loss of stimulus funds, and you have the somber setting for our opening-day series of panels on the topic The Academy in Hard Times. The MLA Program Committee has designated Thursday, 6 January, as a day of panels and workshops devoted to analyzing and responding to the multiple crises we now face. We’ll be talking about the overuse of contingent faculty members, the challenges for libraries and for university presses, the role of new media, the threats to academic freedom and faculty governance, the toxic combination of drastic program cuts and steep tuition increases, and (seriously) much, much more. Then at 7:00 p.m. we’ll be featuring a special session with a terrific lineup of speakers—Barbara Bowen, Reed Way Dasenbrock, Monica Jacobe, Christopher Newfield, Gary Rhoades, and Richard Yarborough. The panel isn’t scheduled against anything else; it’s the only session taking place at that hour. But it’s not alone; it’s the culmination of thirty sessions taking place that day. Go to as many as you can—and then join us at 7:00 in room 408A of the Convention Center. I’m moderating the panel, and I will be sure to leave plenty of time for discussion.

Michael Bérubé
MLA second vice president
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