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From the Editor

Learning from the Inside

Reprinted from the Winter 2011 MLA Newsletter

At the core of the MLA’s mission is serving members in their professional roles, which they carry out to a large extent on campuses. Many members of the MLA staff also have extensive experience in colleges and universities, mostly in the classroom. I am one of them: now in my tenth year on leave from my position as professor of Spanish at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, I have identified as an academic since I taught my first language course in 1977. The sense of belonging to a community is remarkably familiar to me as I find myself writing this column in an office on the third floor of Churchill House, home to Five Colleges, Inc., and a stone’s throw from Amherst College.

I come to the Pioneer Valley as a visitor, an American Council on Education (ACE) fellow, eager to learn as much as I can about these five unique institutions and the consortium that fosters cooperation among them. The ACE Fellows Program provides professional development opportunities for higher education leaders, and the fellowship experience will enrich my work as MLA executive director in a number of ways.

To make connections between trends on campus and projects of the association, we on the MLA staff are at an advantage when we know as much as possible about how colleges and universities work. Some questions I want to pursue include, What principles determine resource allocation? What drives academic staffing decisions? How do issues such as student preparation and persistence relate to curriculum and campus life? How are institutions responding to the pressures they face? Along the way, I expect to gain an in-depth understanding of college budgeting, development, and admissions.

In addition to working with college presidents and senior administrators on their campuses, I am also learning how the Five Colleges consortium functions. It has been said that cooperation is an unnatural act. Yet our success in academic environments depends on our ability to make collaborations happen. Five Colleges, Inc., has a long history of creating structures for institutional cooperation in everything from academic courses and programming to the bus service that connects the five campuses.

Two of the areas on which I am focusing during my fellowship are the Five Colleges Center for World Languages and the digital humanities. The MLA has been investing resources and staff time into promoting language learning in an age of diminished resources and into creating a scholarly communication program in which the digital humanities play a large role. This kind of cross-fertilization in my professional development has the potential to strengthen my work at the MLA. As I become more proficient in the languages of institutional cooperation and in the realities of campus life today, I will bring back to the MLA new insights on how the association can best serve its mission and its members.

Not surprisingly, many of the deans, provosts, and presidents of the Five Colleges come from academic disciplines in the humanities. The presidents of Smith College and Amherst College and the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are distinguished scholars of English and German, and the president of Mount Holyoke College is a philosopher. I’ve seen this trend nationwide, and MLA members should be proud that our profession can launch its members into leadership positions involving not only critical thinking, persuasive written and oral argumentation, and research- and evidence-based decision making but also financial, budgetary, and other numerical-based metrics and analyses.

College and university presidents in the United States face a tough road ahead as the gap between the nation’s richest and poorest grows, jobs remain scarce, and government funding shrinks. It is becoming increasingly difficult to convince the American public that cultivating the life of the mind is an important social value and that higher learning does not need to link directly to a demonstrable utilitarian outcome. It gives me confidence to see higher education leaders uphold the value of poetry in an age of consumerism. I admire leaders who emphasize that the process, and not just the product, of intellectual inquiry is at the heart of higher education’s mission. Above all, I respect those leaders who know that deep student learning requires meaningful connections and collaborations with members of the faculty.

Being on campus after so many years away brings me closer to the students who are at the heart of the educational enterprise, something from which I am usually removed in my current position at the MLA. Sitting at lunch today with a group of undergraduates from one of the Five Colleges, listening to them talk about their class preparations and their social lives, I reflected on the diversity of students’ experiences in institutions of higher education today. I am grateful to the leaders who fight to make it possible for these institutions to serve their students and to those on whose shoulders the learning experience ultimately rests—teacher-scholars in the disciplines. As my ACE fellow experience unfolds, I intend to discover more ways in which acts of cooperation can become natural, and I expect my new learning to benefit the association in its relations within the academic community.

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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
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