Once again, I’m happy to not be at MLA

The Chronicle of Higher Education blog has a couple of posts about MLA on it tonight. The first one I read was “MLA 2008: Market Realities in San Francisco.” Apparently, the MLA has discovered both teaching and the internets. A couple of quotes:

Does the ailing economy have anything to do with a pragmatic streak evident in some of the panels this year? Maybe not, but you could say the timing is good. Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, picked “The Way We Teach Now” as the topic of his presidential forum. At the session, some of the profession’s marquee names tackled questions of how literary theory works (or doesn’t) in the classroom and how senior scholars could do a better job of helping their graduate students acclimate to “the culture of the profession, whatever that means,” as Michael Berube put it.


Richard E. Miller, a professor of English at Rutgers University, made the idea of theory in the classroom look almost quaint with a talk—make that show—on reading and writing in a 2.0 world. The Web has not only changed the way we compose, it has become the material of composition, he said, citing the work of Jonathan Harris as a prime example.

“We are living at the moment of the greatest change in human communication” the world has ever seen, he said—more important than the moment our ancestors crawled out of the muck, more revolutionary than the invention of the printing press. If you want revolution, he seemed to be saying, it’s already here.

And then there’s this: “MLA Meeting Designed for Broader Appeal.” Here’s a quote from this:

She [Rosemary G. Feal, the MLA’s executive director] said that the group wants to close a perceived chasm between different constituencies—language-and-lit professors at research universities and those at community colleges, for instance. The association hasn’t been known to lavish attention on the latter group. “Too often, community college colleagues suppose that the MLA does not provide enough of what they need to justify being members,” Ms. Feal wrote on her blog.

To help remedy that, the MLA held a workshop this year on “the central move of academic writing” for community-college members. It was well-attended, with more than 60 participants. “We really are in this together,” Ms. Feal told The Chronicle.

Now, I may be a bit cynical and even defensive as a comp/rhet-type. But this sure sounds like too little and too late to me.

Basically, composition and rhetoric as a field originated in English departments among traditional literature faculty who actually took an interest in teaching writing and that purgatory called first year composition, and nowhere is the burden of teaching more acute than in community colleges. The mark of a good appointment in literature has traditionally been one with a low teaching load consisting of upper-level undergraduate literature courses, a grad seminar, and no freshman comp. This allows for plenty of time to worry about what’s really important, whatever that might be.

Over the years, this division of labor has evolved into deeper lines between literary studies and writing studies. Rita Felski, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, refers to this as “disciplinary Balkanization,” but from my point of view, this is simply the evolution of the field. Once upon a time, speech and English were typically the same department. But eventually English and speech/communications began to take on their own disciplinary identities; and nowadays, we’ve got English departments and communications departments. I think that this is what’s happening between literary studies and writing studies. In my view, it is less about the traditional political tensions between literature and comp-rhet and more about the increasing distance between what our different fields define as scholarship, teaching, and the other practices that define academic disciplines. This is why there are more and more Writing departments and programs completely separate from Literature and/or English departments, and this is certainly a trend that is going to continue.

Anyway, I’m not buying it. It just seems a little disingenuous to me to believe the MLA is all now most interested in teaching, writing, technology, and community colleges.

One thought on “Once again, I’m happy to not be at MLA”

  1. Amen to that! I agree that while at first (70’s/80’s/90’s) there might have been more tension between the lit faculty and writing faculty, I think it’s now more about disciplinarity and how different disciplines define teaching, research, and scholarship. I do wonder to what extent the lit vs. writing tension is still prevalent in community colleges. From my own small set of personal experiences talking to community college instructors who want to pursue PhD studies, many of them are trained in literature but want to teach writing. That said, is it more about disciplinarity with community college populations or lit vs. writing?

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