What is this, “MLA?”

About a month ago, Annette and I both received a Facebook message from a grad school friend of ours asking if we were going to MLA this year. My smart-ass reply was “What is this ‘MLA?'”  As I have mentioned many times before, I have zero interest in the agenda/program for the conference, so I haven’t been in about a decade or so. It would have been nice to make the weekend trip to catch up with our old friend, but weather delays and other distractions around the house made it not happen.

Anyway, I saw two essays in Inside Higher Ed today that makes me ask want to ask my question again but with a different emphasis and purpose, as in “What is this, MLA?!?”


First, there’s “Taking Israel to Task;” here are the opening paragraphs of the IHE piece:

The Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly narrowly approved a resolution Saturday urging the U.S. State Department to express concern over what the measure calls restrictions on scholars’ ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.

The 60 to 53 vote followed hours of debate in which supporters of the measure framed their issue as a matter of human rights and academic freedom, while critics said that the association was singling out Israel based on faulty information and bias against the nation. Some critics are now charging that the process was flawed because the chair of the meeting had backed the boycott of Israel (more on this issue below).

The vote now goes forward for further review by MLA leaders, and then the membership, and so does not become official association policy just yet. But the issue set off intense debate here. The meeting of the Delegate Assembly was frequently interrupted by confusion over the rules — and delegates on both sides of the issue expressed frustration over how the meeting was run. Some parliamentary decisions were revisited, and there were numerous interruptions in the proceedings so MLA leaders could study the rules. One attendee on Twitter wrote of the Delegate Assembly that “it’s like the worst faculty mtg you ever attended, times 1 trillion.”

Ostensibly, the vote was about a specific Israeli policy with regard to how some people are or are not admitted to visit the country. Proponents said scholars were being blocked from visiting Palestinian universities, while others cited the many American and other scholars who travel to those institutions all the time.

But much of the debate went beyond that. Supporters of the resolution talked about their view of Israeli abuses of Palestinians’ rights, and cited U.S. aid to Israel as a reason to justify a focus on that country. Critics of the resolution, meanwhile, said that the MLA lacked the expertise to weigh in on these issues. Further, many critics said that the association risked its reputation by singling out Israel.

Second, there’s “The Third Rail;” here are the opening paragraphs from that piece:

With many new Ph.D. recipients in the humanities struggling to find good jobs, some for years after they earned their doctorates, reform of graduate education was a hot topic here at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Sessions discussed the need to train graduate students for non-academic careers, ideas for shrinking time to degree (which averages 9.5 years in English), the possibility of creating different tracks for doctorates for those seeking teaching careers, the need for better mentoring, the push for better data on job placement, and more.

But one session, “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education,” touched on issues much discussed by graduate students (and adjuncts), but not regularly given much attention here: whether graduate programs in literature and languages should continue to admit the same number of students. While many of those urging talk about the issue want to see programs shrink, the speakers here rejected that approach, with one even calling for programs to expand.

David Downing, professor of English and director of graduate studies in literature and criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, opened the session by saying that “the ethical situation seems simple…. How could we make our graduates more vulnerable than necessary” by admitting more than can be assured of good jobs. But Downing said that despite “smug” assurances that this was the only answer, he favors an expansion of programs.

Of course, I had heard about the Israel boycott, but I’m reluctant to weigh in too much on the specifics of the resolution because I don’t know enough (I’ve read a few things but I haven’t been studying this or the American Studies Association resolution in any detail) and because my own politics regarding Israel are complicated. On the one hand, it looks to me like the Palestinians are frequently getting a raw deal by the Israelis and Israel gets a “pass” on a lot of things because of the U.S. On the other hand, it sure seems to me like the Palestinian leadership is pretty awful and there are Palestinian groups who shoot rockets into and perpetrate terrorist attacks against Israel on a fairly regular basis, and the most extreme of these groups don’t think that Israel even has the right to exist at all. And don’t even get me started on the crazy stuff going on in Egypt, Iran, etc., etc. There’s a reason why this has been an unresolved problem for 45 or so years.

I have no idea what sort of travel restrictions Israel has in place for scholars to the West Bank, though the comments on that IHE piece and some of the things I’ve read suggest that a lot of the claims of the resolution supporters are either not true or exaggerated in some fashion. Besides, it sure seems like this is more of a critique of Israel rather than a defense of scholarly travel and academic freedom.

But like I said, I don’t want to dwell on the politics because my question isn’t really about what is or isn’t going on in Israel. My real question here is why. Why is the MLA talking about this? How is this even remotely on topic? I think this comment from someone named Doug sums this up for me: “Someday, somebody will explain to me why an academic institution purportedly devoted to the study of literature has decided it should become a political advocacy group taking the leftist line on a matter of middle eastern politics.”  I don’t want to get all Stanley Fish-like and suggest that politics should always be left out of academia, but for the MLA to have a resolution about advising the State Department on policy in Israel just doesn’t make any sense. Though I’m sure it made some MLA attendees and delegates feel smug and superior.

Of course, it looks like these kinds of far-reaching and not at all about “modern language” resolutions are par for the course for MLA. According to IHE:

But for all the debate here on the Middle East, the influence of MLA resolutions (whether on higher education or broader political issues) may be hard to demonstrate. The Delegate Assembly has voted to support repeal of the USA Patriot Act (2003), to grant tenure to adjuncts (2009) and to urge the adoption of comprehensive solutions to gun violence (2013). There have always been some MLA members who object to the association taking political stands. But on issues such as mentioned in this paragraph, most members who spoke at the Delegate Assembly agreed (and quite likely most MLA members share those views) — and thus the votes didn’t attract a lot of attention.

Saturday’s vote, in contrast, attracted MLA members who normally ignore the Delegate Assembly, and journalists from far away took notice. The vote was covered critically in the Israeli press and enthusiastically in the Iranian press.

I might be wrong about this, but as far as I know, this kind of thing doesn’t happen at the CCCCs.  I might not be looking at the right place, but it looks like the “controversial” CCCCs resolutions are more about things like plagiarism software and Native American mascots.

And while this is going on, there was a panel proposing that we need more PhD students. Karen “The Professor is In” Kelsky attended the session, as she recaps on her blog here. To quote:

This panel set out to ask “who benefits” from graduate training.  They could not have answered the question more clearly.  The tenured benefit.  It is for them.  They are the “us” that cannot contemplate or countenance a change in their cherished way of life. I get that the tenured love their world and its rituals of admissions, training, defense, and graduation. Not to mention of course the labor that allows faculty to avoid teaching various types of classes. It was a nice world at one time, when the economy supported it. But let there be no mistake.  Who benefits from these practices at this point in history?  The tenured.  At least, could you be honest about it?

By the way, according to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman, there was a session about the ongoing adjunctification of higher ed (particularly in fields like literature) that had five attendees.

So, to sum up:

  • Rather than talk about things having to do with “modern languages,” teaching, the professoriate, etc., etc., the MLA delegate assembly spent a bunch of time debating and passing a resolution urging the State Department “express concern” about scholarly travel in Israel. I’m sure someone has John Kerry’s cell phone number and will get that taken care of right away.
  • At a packed session, a group of tenured faculty argued that we need to boost the size of graduate programs so tenured faculty can keep teaching graduate classes.
  • At a nearly empty session, a few adjuncts talked about– well, we don’t know what because apparently no one was paying enough attention.

What is this, MLA?



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