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The MLA Delegate Assembly

Photo of Russell Berman For some, the MLA convention is all about the individual sessions on scholarly topics. For others, the convention is the job market: even in these tough times, departments are hiring new colleagues, and the convention is the preferred site for interviews.

But for others (the real connoisseurs?) the MLA convention is about the Delegate Assembly: the gathering of the democratically elected representatives of the more than 30,000 members of the MLA, which took place earlier today.

In recent years, the DA has developed in a positive direction by reserving time for considered discussion of urgent topics chosen in advance by the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee. This has turned out to be an effective use of the delegates' time. After all, the DA brings together some of the most dedicated members of the profession for just a few hours, once a year, a chance for us to put our heads together about major challenges to our fields.

This year, two topics were on the agenda. The first responded to a rash of program closings in the foreign language areas: close-minded administrators chose to deny students opportunities to study various languages, from French at SUNY Albany to German at USC. (To my mind, these were bad decisions: we need administrators who can envision educational opportunities creatively rather than just shut them down.)

But instead of emphasizing the negative, the DA rightly turned to the positive question: what kinds of successful strategies can language and literature departments adopt in order to thrive? Participants in the lively discussion came up with good answers and encouraging stories: how, with creativity and dedication, language programs have been able to reenergize themselves—through new curricula, new partnerships, and renewed dedication. There were, of course, reports of anti–foreign language protectionism in administrative offices. All the more reason to fight back. No defeatism!

And one way to fight back brings me to the second topic: public advocacy for the humanities. What I heard from DA members was the need to get our message out—to the wider university community, to the local press, and nationally. There is a strong case to be made for the need for students to study literature and to learn languages, and we—all members of the profession—have to see it as part of our job to make that case and to make it again.

News flash: An important development at the Delegate Assembly meeting! A proposed constitutional amendment was adopted regarding the resolution procedure. It will be sent to the membership for a vote, and I hope it will be adopted.

What's the current arrangement? Resolutions are expressions of sentiment of the MLA. Small numbers of signatures bring proposed resolutions to the Delegate Assembly where they have often produced lengthy and sometimes contentious debate.

Once passed by the Delegate Assembly, resolutions are vetted for legality by the Executive Council and then sent to the general membership (30,000 strong) for a vote. The majority wins. Here's the rub: participation can be low (think: very low) and sometimes MLA sentiment has therefore been determined on the basis of just a tiny number of voters.

There have, however, been cases in recent years where resolutions were adopted with higher participation rates (although far from a majority of membership). This is better. Presumably some resolutions get members’ attention, and others just turn them off.

So: the proposed constitutional amendment will steer us toward a stronger resolution process by stipulating that a resolution would be adopted only if it attracts more yeas than nays (of course) and the number of yeas is greater than 10% of the whole membership. A kind of quorum.

Consider the data: three resolutions in 2003 and one in 2005 all passed the 10% hurdle of support from the general membership and would qualify under the proposed amendment. 10% is definitely realistic as a target.

However, a 2008 resolution that received support from only 2.8% of the membership would not be deemed to have passed under the proposed amendment. In other words, the proposed amendment strengthens the value of resolutions by (slightly) raising the bar for their adoption.

This amendment will eventually be sent out to the membership for ratification. I hope all members will vote for this sensible reform. I will.


Russell Berman
MLA first vice president
 
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