A Couple of Days at the MLA

Every December English professors and aspiring academics make a pilgrimage to the Modern Language Association convention (affectionately known as the MLA). Once again, I found myself among those professors. This year we all gathered in San Francisco to meet with one another and reflect on our work as professionals, present our scholarship and talk about teaching, plan future projects, or to look for a job or interview prospective candidates for a job. Last year, on sabbatical in India, I actually missed the MLA convention-a first since I was a graduate student, and the first convention I have not been at the MLA convention on a hiring committee since 1999.

San Francisco was MLA’s 124th annual convention, and thousands of us English and Modern Language people filled the Hilton, Marriott and Fairmont hotels. Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association currently has 30,000 members from over 100 countries. There are 134 divisions and discussion groups for specialized scholarly and teaching interests; 45 membership committees overseeing association activities and publications, close to 300 members elected to govern the association through its Executive Council, Delegate Assembly, and other governance committees; over 600 members serve on the executive committees of the 86 divisions and 48 discussion groups that represent the scholarly and teaching interests of various constituencies within the profession; and over 2,000 members give papers and readings each year at the convention. It’s a crazy scene. If you are interested in a glimpse of what happens in these sessions you can check out the program for the 2008 convention at http://www.mla.org/conv_listings.

So what takes someone like me away from family and snowy New England fields between Christmas and the new year? Well, a few years ago I took on responsibility for organizing and chairing the annual session on the small college English department sponsored by the Association for Departments of English (ADE). This year I focused the session around teaching in the small college department. When I was thinking about the topic for the session last winter in Pune, India, Gerry Graff assured me that my session would fit well with his 2008 MLA presidential forum, “The Way We Teach Now.” (Happily, the small college session was listed alongside the featured presidential forum on teaching in a brochure produced for the convention.)  My idea emerged from an abiding interest in complicating the commonplace story of the profession organized around the research institution at the center with all other academic institutions on the periphery. I’ve published essays on the shortcomings of this perspective and have more recently been reading and thinking about the historical contributions of faculty who work in small college departments. These departments have essentially functioned as microclimates in the profession-fostering some of the most significant changes in English studies. My question was how does the small college department continue to generate its own conditions for innovative pedagogy, curriculum development, and the possibility of integrating the professional activities of reading, writing and teaching? More than forty people showed up for the 8:30 AM session, a good turnout indeed. Here is how I introduced the speakers:

During its fifteen years of life this session has focused on the differences between the graduate school and the small college department. Those of us involved in these ADE sponsored sessions have sought to make visible the working conditions in institutions beyond the research university. We have also used this occasion to complain about the organizing fiction of the graduate school at the center of the profession. At the 2005 convention in Washington D.C., however, I organized a roundtable that brought together graduate studies directors and small-college department faculty. For me, this conversation presented a significant turn toward talking together about our profession, as well as our shared commitments to teaching, reading and writing.

So when Gerry Graff invited members to consider showcasing “the best thinking by our members about teaching and its relationships with scholarship and writing” (“Letter”) I happily projected into his words my conviction that most of the best thinking about these relationships comes from members who teach, read and write outside the research institution. However our professional discourse continues to be shaped by persons speaking from the perspective of the doctorate-granting institution to those of us who have learned to organize our intellectual lives around teaching. As Dana Ringuette articulates the problem in his recent response to the “MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” research professors have clearly not thought much about “what it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of research, writing, and scholarly exchange” (“We Need to Talk” Profession 2008 190). Faculty at research institutions are quite naturally on the margins of this conversation; and, as Ringuette suggests, we have much to learn from one another as we consider how our intellectual work might be organized around teaching.

As an associate editor for the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, I have the privilege of working closely with faculty whose writing documents the centrality of teaching to the work of scholars and professionals across the field of English studies. In fact the three speakers this morning are contributors to a forthcoming special issue of Pedagogy focused the small college department. The introduction I am drafting for the dedicated issue, tentatively titled “Centers and Peripheries,” is organized around a question I would like to use to help frame our conversation this morning: How might what happens in the small college department affect what happens in the research university?


Our three speakers make visible the working conditions and institutional dynamics that affect teaching in the small college department: in this case, a private and selective institution, Macalester College, a Comprehensive Catholic institution, Marywood University, and a Public Liberal arts college, the University of North Carolina Asheville. We will first hear from Stuart Y. McDougal, is DeWitt Wallace Professor of English Emeritus at Macalester College. Professor McDougal was the chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, when he was recruited by Macalester College to create a new English department. While at Michigan, he held appointments in English, Comparative literature and film studies, published widely in the fields of modern literature and film, and served as President of the American Comparative Literature Association.  The title of his presentation is Promoting and Managing Change in a Small College English Department.” Our second speaker, William Conlogue, is associate professor of English at Marywood University, Professor Conlogue teaches introductory and advanced writing, an introduction to world literature, and a variety of American literature courses. In addition to several articles on American literature and the profession, he has published a book, Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture, and has served two terms as chairperson of the Marywood English department. The title of his presentation is “Institutional Structures and the Small English Department.” Our third speaker this morning is Margaret Downes, from the department of English at University of North Carolina Asheville, a founding member of COPLAC (the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges). Professor Downes currently serves as Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, and has served as interim Associate Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, chair of the Department of Literature & Language, and director of UNCA’s Humanities Program. She recently served as President of AGLS-the Association for General & Liberal Studies-and currently directs that organization’s international activities. The title of her presentation is “Enough! or Too much”: The Blakean Paradox of the COPLAC English Department.”

But I didn’t just fly to my native state of California to introduce this session, or even to take two lovely, long early morning runs over Nob Hill and down to the waterfront out toward the Golden Gate Park.  For I had been asked to speak as part of a special session arranged by the MLA Publications Committee, “The Profession and the Liberal Arts: A Discussion of the MLA’s Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life.” This recently published book included my essay “Reading, Writing and Teaching in Context” and the session offered participants to discuss the range of working conditions for faculty beyond the research institution.

The convention also had me attending a workshop for department chairs as a representative of Keene State College. I also met with three aspiring members of the profession as part of my yearly contributions to the annual MLA job counseling service. These meetings are always gratifying as I feel that my experiences are useful for graduate students considering the job market or new PhDs asking for feedback on their job letter or cv. What else? Well, surely a memorable bowl of Thai soup, sushi, and brief visits with friends and colleagues. And I sat in on a few other sessions-from the great to the not so great. I ran into my friend and graduate school advisor Leroy Searle, as well as one of my former Bread Loaf students, Brian, who recognized me in the chaos of the Hilton lobby.

All in all, a productive few days, though unfortunately neither the time nor the money to visit my brother in LA or friends in the Eastern Sierra. Next year the convention convenes in Philadelphia. And then, early in 2011 in New Orleans, the convention will take place in early January as the MLA moves from its current dates between Christmas and new years.

One thought on “A Couple of Days at the MLA

  1. Bill Stroup

    There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the ADE list about conference travel, and certainly much soul-searching in ASLE about the costs of travel and the meaning of bringing scholars physically together occasionally. Your next to last paragraph, to me, is a good example of why this is so valuable and rejuvenating. Many departments are pointing to cost issues even in terms of hiring committees at the MLA, but I think you make a strong case here for its centrality to the profession, not just because it’s a habit, but it gives a physical reality to that which can seem too abstract. Thanks for blogging.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *