The Modern Language Association 2011: Literature and Language Professors and Their Profession

01/28/2011 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Check out my membership!" exclaimed Shawn Doubiago, adjunct professor at University of San Francisco and Berkeley Community College. Doubiago held out her forearm, displaying her temporary tattoo with a fanciful palm tree and the words 2011 Modern Language Association Convention, Los Angeles, distributed to attendees at this year's convention. The MLA, whose membership is 30,000 strong, is eager to get the message out: language and literature are vital for the future of America.

Much has been said about the woes of the profession and the MLA, mostly in the press, which has a long tradition of arriving briefly at the convention, noting with mirth the latest professorial fashion, and skimming titles in the program for ones that sound abstruse or scandalous to the general public. But there is nothing esoteric about the challenges facing the MLA, and the 2011 Convention again focused on the economic issues: tighter budgets, fewer tenure-line jobs, program closures.

Given the lack of public understanding for humanists, as well as the paucity of funding in the field, literature and language scholars have a task cut out for them, especially because their offerings remain difficult to quantify in the same way as the work of their colleagues in the natural sciences and engineering.

The 2011 MLA convention, which took place in Los Angeles early in January, offered a chance to take some unusual portraits of professors, both videos and stills, and ask their views on the future of higher education. Many were keen to be photographed and interviewed. It was clear that beyond the 23 professors interviewed, many more voices might have been included, but with the convention's tight schedule, people couldn't make the photo shoots.

Still, with a remarkable punctuality, 20 professors showed up exactly on time and obliged the photographer with exceptional obedience, except when she told them they couldn't talk, at least not during the video. They started to laugh and become antsy. Talking in front of audiences is their job and they were eager to elaborate on the future of the profession and their own work. Most referred to the enduring crisis in the profession. They raised questions about the challenges that arise both from attitudes in Washington about the humanities and the tradition of scholarship, which has for too long prized academic research while giving short shrift to teaching. As many humanists come lately to these realizations, a clear confrontation with their world and situation becomes paramount. For links to photos and statements on their profession, see below

Both incoming MLA president Russell A. Berman, professor of German and Comparative Literature at Stanford University and MLA executive director Rosemary Feal had a lot to say about rethinking the public role of literature and language professors and the ever-weak job market.

"We have to continue to make the case for the study of foreign language and literatures," says Berman. "Despite all the talk about globalization, opinion-makers in the US remain strangely skeptical about language learning. But we know that studying a second language opens opportunities in today's economy and builds a student's overall literacy skills. We need more language learning opportunities in schools and colleges, and we need more language teachers."

Rosemary Feal agrees. "The job market has been bad for humanists, as long as I can remember, but there is always a demand for literacy and we can meet that demand, if we keep our language and literature courses going strong." Feal also had a lot to say about the MLA's use of social media, blogs and Twitter to encourage discussion about the humanities. Indeed, the MLA now has a seats reserved for social media reporters to talk about the sessions and new ways to promote public literacy.

This quest for literacy leads into new genres and media reflecting the real complexities of twenty-first century culture. Convention attendee Christopher Freeburg, assistant professor of English at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, teaches survey courses in American and African American literature, as well discovery courses for new students that incorporate different forms of media like newspapers, television shows (cartoons and sketch comedy), and contemporary fiction. For him, these aid in the most important aspects of teaching, namely "developing interpretive skills for the real world, ones that help people go out and communicate better on the job and help others understand words, texts in writing, in conversation, on the screen, big and small."

The new media environment brings new topics, a result of an ever more connected digital world. Although she was rushing off to catch a midnight flight, Radhika Gajjala, Director of the American Culture Studies Program at Bowling Green State University, brought her book Cyberselves, and discussed her MLA panel,"Transmedia Activism" organized by Anna Everett, with Anne Balsamo, Henry Jenkins and Toby Miller. Her own presentation was about "marketing empowerment" of the identity of South Asian women in online contexts and how this relates to labor and sales/profit needs of an increasingly digitalized global economy.

Indeed the new media penetrated the conference itself. The theme chosen by 2010 President Sidonie Smith, "Narrating Lives," included an opportunity for members to record short videos of their professional lives. In addition a lively backchannel of blogs and tweets accompanied the convention. This impact of the "digital humanities" is likely to continue to grow, contributing to a new scholarly culture that is a far cry from the stale caricatures staid professors.

Robert Warrior, professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, addressed the challenges of the profession and the opportunities now for teaching previously neglected forms of literature and culture. He was first subject in the series and also the toughest to photograph.

Warrior, professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who is known for his work on the American Indian movement years of the 1970s, spoke about the challenges of introducing Native American literature to students and colleagues. As a panelist on the prestigious Presidential Forum, he showed images of the vandalism directed against an Indian-themed art installation on his campus.

Although keenly curious about the interview process and a willing photograph subject, Warrior refused to be photographed in a way that would display his three-foot long ponytail. Despite all cajoling from the press and the photographer, he wished to keep his ponytail unseen. He did however report that it had grown back from when he had last cut it to donate the hair to Locks of Love, a public non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children in the United States and Canada.

When pressed on the subject, Warrior said gently, but firmly that he was concerned the ponytail might appear as a "fetish." For an academic to worry about the visual significance of a ponytail is simply characteristic: no image or word can be taken at face value. That ponytail might suggest many things: a hairstyle of Native Americans, a hairstyle that people think Native Americans have, a hairstyle people think academics either have or don't have, and many more possibilities as well. Such a concern with multiplicity and subtlety of meaning made little sense to the photographer, who responded briskly, "you're over-thinking that ponytail."

But "over-thinking" is exactly what academics do, especially scholars of literature and language. They view such comprehensive thinking not as excessive, but rather as a vital interpretive skill, which they see as central to education and public life. Teaching students how to interpret is their mission. What they produce is new ways to look at things, be they poems, novels or pontytails. The question for professors becomes how to convince legislatures, the media, and the general public of the importance of interpretative skills. Isn't a ponytail sometimes just a ponytail?

"Our job is to make hard readings and ideas accessible to students, and give students the tools to decode them on their own, so they can go out in the world an use such skills," says Ban Wang, professor of Comparative Literature and East Asian Languages and Literatures at Stanford University.

But the MLA convention and the humanities still face skepticism. People like to laugh at professors for some reason; they think we look funny and are hard to understand. But they don't know us very well, and they should. We are laughing too, there's no reason to be sad when you teach literature." This definitive pronouncement on the state of the humanities comes from Ruth Klüger, Professor Emerita of German literature, from the University of California, Irvine, whose autobiography of her survival of the Holocaust, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered has been translated into several languages across the world. Klüger offers some explanations for public hesitation about humanities scholars. "People are either afraid of education or complex ideas or they don't understand our contribution." Why does she attend the convention? "To get new ideas, to see old friends, and listen to up-and-coming scholars."

Yet the critics are not only on the outside. Past MLA President Marjorie Perloff, Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University, who now teaches at USC, arrived at the photoshoot with laryngitis, but nevertheless came bustling in with many ideas about the source of the crisis: "some of the fault is our own--the very directions our scholarship has taken."

Perloff asked pointedly: "What ever happened to all the fabulous WRITING of the past century and before?"

Indeed there is much new and interesting writing. Perloff was excited about her new book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, which paints an enthusiastic picture of the newest kinds of writing of the digital age.

"The poetic never disappears," Perloff said: "It is just recharged in new ways."

For Ana Patricia Rodriguez, Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland, College Park, who lives in the nation's capital, literary and cultural studies can have an important social impact. Her own students in a Central American literature class organized, with the help of the Park Service, a walking tour of Central American culture in Washington DC. This tour is now offered by the Park Service itself. Her teaching has helped us understand ourselves in a more complex way.

Two of the photographic subjects, Shawn Doubiago and Lila Harper represent the growing majority of academic teachers in the United States. They are lecturers, who teach large core courses that fulfill university requirements, but remain without many of the comforts of tenure-track faculty: They work at a fraction of the pay without job security. Doubiago, a recent PhD from UC Davis teaches at two institutions. Harper has been at her university for 20 years and is now one of three representatives for adjunct professors or "contingent labor" at the MLA Delegate Assembly.

Many of the issues facing the MLA are debated publicly in the Delegate Assembly, where elected members vote on issues of professional concern. This year a spirited discussion of the Dream Act led to overwhelming support for providing undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship through higher education. The matter still must be ratified by the membership.

The chair of the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee. Professor Gaurav Desai, specializes in African literature at Tulane University in New Orleans. In the wake of Katrina, he and his family were evacuated and found a warm welcome in Austin Texas, but he is back home now. His new project addresses literary representations of cultural connections between India and Africa. For him "the MLA has meant a lot to me personally and professionally and it is an integral part of my professional identity. I joined the association over 20 years ago as a graduate student and to the best of my recollection have attended every annual conference, other than the year when my son was born. I come each year not only for all the many intellectual offerings that are on hand but because I get to see friends I have known since graduate school year after year. I know some people find the conference to be too big or too overwhelming... I even met my wife at the MLA conference many years ago, and since we are both academics who come to the conference regularly, our son is a true MLA child!"

Comments and photos

Russell A. Berman, professor and chair of German at Stanford, 2011 MLA President.

"You need to study a second language in order to
use your first language well."

King-Kok Cheung, professor of English at UCLA.

"My students' work is more important."

David Damrosch
, professor and chair of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.

"I think the draw of literature and languages is strong, because students are curious and have many of their own ideas. But that can present challenges as well. The hardest text for me to teach is the Bible."

Radhika Gajjala, professor of communications Bowling Green State University.

"Everyone is a cybersubject."

Charles Altieri, professor of English University of California, Berkeley.

"I think the fad for finding ethics everywhere in the arts has two serious limitations. It often fails to see why an independent and situation-based model of ethical judgment has to confine itself to specific principles that are practical in the sense that they help define specific choices, and it almost always ignores the complexity of determining how situations appeal simultaneously to different systems of values, so to invoke ethics is very much to oversimplify the demands on consciousness."

Falk Cammin, Humanities/ESL/ Foothill Community College.

"You get a PhD in one thing and learn something completely new on the job."

Christopher Lupke, associate professor of Chinese at Washington State

"It doesn't matter what got you interested in your subject, it matters where you're going with it, Chinese language, literature and film are an up and coming cultural force in the world."

Marie-Therese Ellis-House, assistant professor of French and Arabic University of Texas, San Antonio.

"To teach foreign language in the United States is to lay a foundation of hospitality for the edifice of more ethical globalization."

Marisa Galvez, assistant professor of French and Italian, Stanford University.

"The medieval world is more present today in contemporary culture than people think, and at the university we can show students the origins of many of their own ideas in medieval times. My students are thrilled to discover the parallels between early troubadour culture and contemporary love lyrics.

Marjorie Perloff, professor emertia USC.

"Relevant? Of course! College students often come to literature classes because they have to, but then they leave being interested at a whole new level."

Lila Harper, senior lecturer, Central Washington University.

"There's no question we have a two-tiered system of teaching, which is unjust and pretty arbitrary considering it's based on the initial position we were offered, so that although many adjuncts are just as productive--sometimes more so--than tenure-line faculty, we have no hope of advancement."

Shawn Doubiago, adjunct professor, Comparative Literature, University of San
Francisco, Berkeley Community College

"Being an adjunct has been described as being a second-class citizen, and it's true, you have no power at all, except when you realize that adjuncts provide most of education at the university. We work the hardest and teach the most. Even while we work on our research, teaching is our purpose. Teaching is about educating your community and beyond"

Elliott Visconsi associate professor of English, Notre Dame

"Freedom of speech, blasphemy, religious symbols, hate speech, the whole range of First Amendment protections-- these are all fundamentally literary matters. They make sense only when understood within the domains of culture."

Liliane Weissberg, professor of German and Comparative Literature,
University of Pennsylvania.

"Our teaching is a calling, what happens in the classroom is at once wonderful and thrilling. Our profession, especially coming to this conference is a different experience altogether. Being interviewed at the MLA is like going to a psychologist's office. Nobody wants to be seen coming or going from the suite."

David Lloyd, professor of English at USC.

"I've just finished a long project on Ireland that is connected to my teaching as well. For me, Ireland was more modern than dominant British colonial culture. It's interesting to see how many students become interested the problems of modernity and in Ireland, as its history and literature invites them to think about their cultures as well. "

Gopal Balakrishnan
, associate professor History of Consciousness, Santa Cruz.

"It is now often argued that the Humanities are in decline because they don't prepare people for surviving on the market. I think this is totally mistaken. Ever more dependent on public support, capitalism is turning into another economic system. My new work explores the onset of this transition, twenty years after the collapse of the Communism."

Robert Warrior, professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

"There is a lot of injustice in our field, just as there is in the world, but the humanities are finally beginning to recognize other cultures and literatures, which play an important part in promoting literacy in America."

Nora M. Alter, professor and chair of the Department of Film and Media Arts, Temple University.

"Film and media arts play an increasingly vital role in promoting literacy, and most of all, people are eager to study these subjects, there is a lot of potential for expansion and exploration of this field in higher education."