Where Have You Gone, Paul Simon? A Nation Turns to Languages Once More

Originally published in the Winter 2015 MLA Newsletter

This past summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) announced the formation of the Commission on Language Learning, “a national effort to examine the current state of U.S. language education, to project what the nation’s education needs will be in the future, and to offer recommendations for ways to meet those needs” (American Academy). I represent the MLA on the commission, whose members include directors and presidents of associations dedicated to language education and to the humanities. This commission follows up on the work of the AAAS Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, authors of The Heart of the Matter in 2013.

The Commission on Language Learning is the result of a bipartisan request by eight members of Congress from both chambers, who asked the AAAS to examine these questions: “What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?” and “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans?” That the need for language study should inspire bipartisan agreement is cause for hope.

This is not, however, the first time that a national commission has been formed to address the issue of language competence in the United States. The 1979 report of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Study, Strength through Wisdom, offers a trenchant critique of attitudes and inaction. The report notes that “Americans’ scandalous incompetence in foreign languages” explains “our dangerously inadequate understanding of world affairs” (7). The sixty recommendations in the report mostly remained as desiderata, with one major exception. In 1980, Title VI legislation was incorporated into the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title VI programs began to focus on the value of international studies within the context of higher education rather than solely as support for government, military, and security needs.

Another significant outcome of the President’s Commission was the work of Senator Paul Simon, who served on the President’s Commission when he was in the House of Representatives and went on to publish The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis in 1980. Extending the work done in Strength through Wisdom, Simon points to the strong link between language competence and international relations, business, education, and other vital areas of national interest and identifies a resistance in the United States to the study of languages and world affairs, passionately arguing for an end to “the language crisis.”

Of course, we still face a crisis in language study, and conversations about it are ongoing. In my thirteen years as executive director of the MLA, I’ve been invited to many conferences and summits on the issue (see list below). I hear new research and I present data from the MLA language enrollment surveys and other association projects. Yet the research produced at these conferences points to the same basic conclusion that Simon reached thirty-five years ago: native English speakers are voluntarily tongue-challenged, primarily because language education is not accorded priority in the public school system.

At the local level, we see advances in curricular offerings in languages, increasing opportunities to study outside English-speaking countries, and technological facilitation of language acquisition and practice. We could also look to K–12 education, where exciting developments in dual immersion programs are taking place. The MLA, in fact, has established a working group to explore how higher education can cooperate with and learn from the many progressive initiatives taking place across the country at the local level.

But the sad truth is that far too few students are studying languages. At the national level, language study faces more obstacles than ever: the push for STEM careers coming from the White House and the general reduction of humanities offerings on college campuses discourages it. Further, as long as No Child Left Behind and its aftermath are driving the agenda in the Department of Education—and the appointment of John B. King, Jr., to replace Arne Duncan portends this—then language study won’t be prioritized at any level of the educational system.

So I ask myself, what will the new Commission on Language Learning recommend that hasn’t already been recommended? How can the commission possibly exert influence when a long line of heavily influential public figures has not? I look forward to consulting with our membership as I represent the association in this endeavor. And I imagine a day in which United States educational policy embraces Mary Louise Pratt’s dictum: “Monolingualism is a handicap. No child should be left behind” (8).

Works Cited

American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “American Academy of Arts and Sciences to Conduct First National Study on Foreign Language Learning in More Than Thirty Years.” Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 30 July 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <https://www.amacad.org/content/news/pressReleases.aspx?pr=10239>.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Building a New Public Idea about Language.” ADFL Bulletin 34.3 (2003): 5–9. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. DOI: 10.1632/adfl.34.3.5.

President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. Strength through Wisdom. Washington: US Dept. of Health, Educ., and Welfare, 1979. Print.

Simon, Paul. The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. New York: Continuum, 1980. Print.

Meetings on Language Study That Have Included the MLA

“The State of Language: K–12 Teacher and Higher Education Faculty Capacity.” Internationalization of US Education in the Twenty-First Century: The Future of International and Foreign Language Studies: A Research Conference on National Needs and Policy Implication. Coll. of William and Mary. 12 Apr. 2014.

Beyond Preaching to the Choir: Realizing the Vision of a Multilingual Nation. National Foreign Language Center Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Symposium. Washington, DC. 12 May 2011.

Foreign Language Summit. Central Intelligence Agency. University of Maryland, Hyattsville. 8 Dec. 2010.

Committee for Economic Development and the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress Forum and Luncheon. New York Univ., New York. 16 May 2006.

United States University Presidents Summit and Educational Stakeholders on National Security Language Initiative. United States Dept. of State. Washington, DC. 5 Jan. 2006.

“Higher Education and Languages: An Overview of Resources, Progress, and Potential.” National Language Conference Center for Advanced Study of Language. University of Maryland, College Park. 30 June 2004.

Fast-Forward Forty Years: Launching the New Convention

Originally published in the Fall 2015 MLA Newsletter

“Keep Austin Weird,” countless bumper stickers on cars in the city admonish. As I’m sure some MLA members know, “weird” derives from Old English “wyrd,” which denotes “fate” or “destiny.” So in the spirit of Austin’s unique character and the MLA’s efforts to support the future of the profession, it is fitting that this year’s convention is on course to be a year of firsts.

It’s the first time we are meeting in Austin, the state capital and home of one of the country’s most distinguished public universities. It’s also the first convention in more than forty years that will feature a new intellectual structure: the newly created forums. And it’s an exciting moment. The previous, and rather rigid, structure of divisions and discussion groups has been transformed into a network of forums that will evolve over time as members’ interests shift. The 2016 convention program shows such originality that it’s apparent how enthusiastic people are for this change. To get a sense of how the new forums came about and what work they will do starting in 2016, I recommend you (re)read 2014 president Margaret Ferguson’s Commons article.

The other big change in the annual convention is the marked increase in sessions devoted to professional issues and development. The MLA’s Connected Academics project (https://connect.commons.mla.org), generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is organizing workshops and presentations focusing on careers for humanists that will permit attendees to interact with those who have found satisfying work beyond the classroom (including sessions 233, 306, and 364). Other sessions related to the project include “Articulating the Value of the Humanities to the Larger World” and “Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur.”

Other professional issues to be covered include mentoring: session 58 offers small-group mentoring on the job search, focusing on different institutional types. In addition, representatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State Department, the Defense Language Institute, and others will speak with attendees about grant funding and career possibilities. Those interested in academic freedom for contingent faculty members will want to attend session 41, which is devoted to learning about how due process rights can be established. Session 518 will consider the future of tenure.

The Austin convention offers plenty of opportunities to explore new pedagogies in areas such as animal studies (24), oral proficiency in the language curriculum (25), graduate student writing (170), comics (222), service learning (253), second language acquisition (289), digital scholarship (411), public humanities (461), large-scale online teaching (506), and language teacher education (680). Administrators (chairs, writing directors, language program coordinators), editors, translators, and archivists will find a wide range of sessions designed to support their work.

I often compare the MLA convention to an ocean liner: it hosts thousands of people, offers a variety of activities, and allows people to stay in small cabins or gather on expansive decks. Yet such a large ship doesn’t tack like a sailboat, and new directions must be charted well in advance of the ship’s turn. I hope you’ll join us in Austin for the great turn—a new intellectual structure and an invigorated focus on our profession. The nearly 850 sessions and events at the 2016 convention promise to maintain the tradition of the humanities in its best sense: as curiosity-driven innovation.

#Ferguson2MLA: Had to Be There

Originally published in the Summer 2015 MLA Newsletter

If you were at the MLA convention in Vancouver on 9 January, you participated in one of the most transformative uses of energy and space imaginable. I’ve attended annual meetings for nearly four decades, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m talking about the Ferguson to MLA (#Ferguson2MLA) action, planned by a small group of members and carried out by hundreds. The organizers let me know about their plan, and my colleagues in the convention office worked with the Vancouver Convention Centre staff to make sure the event went smoothly.

Several members of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color of the United States and Canada took an organizing role before, during, and after the 9 January action. Members of the committee and their invited guests have been using MLA Commons to reflect on the experience, and I want their words to be read as widely as possible by all MLA members. So I turn my column over to Koritha Mitchell, Amber Riaz, and Pranav Jani.


Motivated by the belief that #BlackLivesMatter, a diverse group of scholar-activists began organizing a solidarity action that would take place during the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver. Since August, I had turned down every radio show invitation that had come my way. Though I had been using Facebook and Twitter to speak out, I realized that my stepping back from speaking at #Ferguson2MLA was only the most recent example of my silencing myself. I needed to face the truth: My country has long been sending me a clear message about how little it values me and mine, and that message was having its intended effect. Realizing my pattern of self-censorship, I reached out to the organizers and asked to be reinstated as a planned speaker.

Because the purpose of violence is to mark who belongs and who does not, violence is best understood as know-your-place aggression. The goal is to tell certain people that they should not feel secure in claiming space, even if they have done all the things that the nation claims to respect, such as work hard and achieve according to accepted rules and standards. Studying violence my entire adult life, there’s no question in my mind: the success of marginalized groups inspires aggression as often as praise. They don’t have to be criminals or do anything wrong to be attacked; their success is more often the “offense” that will make them a target.

In this light, it matters that I began crying while marching a couple months ago in a #BlackLivesMatter event in Columbus, Ohio, as soon as the chant became Whose streets? Our streets! For me, this is a claim not of ownership but of belonging, and I was struck by how little I felt that American streets are my streets. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the energy and empowerment I gained from seeing and hearing and feeling people of all backgrounds prioritize the assertion of an our with their words and actions. Whoever we are and wherever we are, we can choose to insist, Whose space? Our space!


When I decided to speak up at the #Ferguson2MLA gathering, I was motivated by Koritha Mitchell’s assertion that we, as academics of color, belong to the academy, not only because we are exceptional—given how much harder we have had to work to “prove” ourselves—but also because we earned the right to be there by following their rules. We worked hard, and it is because we worked hard that we get to assume positions of authority. It wasn’t enough, however, to simply speak up. What was more important for me was walking up to center stage, claiming the space and then proclaiming my identity, to show that I can occupy the space because I belong in this organization as an equal, not a marginalized identity. This is what #AllBlack-LivesMatter means to me: it is a movement that seeks to lay claim to spaces that have been denied to Black bodies.

I have been told by students that I do not have the right to teach English writing to them. The fact that students felt emboldened enough to tell me (to my face) that I did not belong in my authoritative role is telling in itself. It is a symptom of state machinery that is predicated on principles of racism and violence. This violence must be rigorously questioned.

I write today as an academic who has spent most of her career working on, writing about, state-sponsored violence against “minorities” and “marginalized” people. I am writing because I wholeheartedly believe that the voices and actions of instigators of violence, and perpetrators of that violence (regardless of nationality or religion), should be drowned out by the voices of those who believe that violence is unacceptable. When the state sponsors violence, it tells a segment of its population that they don’t belong, as Mitchell has pointed out. Violence, in all its myriad forms, must end. All Black voices must be heard.

Mitchell’s reframing of the discourse as one about reclamation of space and of citizenship spoke to me at an emotional level. Having been told in numerous ways that I did not belong, I found power and energy in the collective reclamation of space. As a Pakistani Muslim mother, I choose to insist: I belong!


The energy of the #Ferguson2MLA action came from the conviction, among the nearly two hundred gathered there, that we would not be silent while atrocities were going on, when a movement was going on. And that we would challenge “business as usual.”

As I was inviting people in, I was asked by an African American colleague, “Why is it that all of a sudden South Asians are interested in Black people?” The comment smarted a bit. But I said, “Well, I understand why you might say that. We have anti-Black racism in our own community. We sometimes think we’re white. We sometimes swallow the ‘model minority’ myth ourselves.”

But I also said, “I’m a socialist of color. There’s nowhere else for me to be. I identify because of my racial and ethnic identity, but I can’t be reduced to that. What’s in my head matters as much as who I am. And that means, right now, saying yes, #BlackLivesMatter.”

I’m coming to you from Ohio, the state where twenty-two-year-old John Crawford was gunned down in a Walmart department store for holding a fake gun. Where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down for holding a toy gun in a public park. Ohio is alive with struggle today, with young, Black activists taking the lead.

More activity means more questions. What is solidarity? How do we build it? Solidarity is hard, but it’s a responsibility. Imagine if only Black people were outraged today, and no one else showed up to #BlackLivesMatter events? That itself would be an outrage. Solidarity is grounded in firm convictions: I have your back. I am here in alliance with you to create a space for your voice and your suffering. And my liberation is tied in with yours.

Their side wants to divide and conquer. Our side needs to unite and pull together.

We need to examine tendencies within the movement and academia that use theories of difference not just to ask critical questions about unity, which is necessary, but to make unity impossible. Because if the movement is right, if scholars are right, that this is not just about police incompetence or a few bad apples but that this is systemic and institutional, then it’s going to take all of us to defeat white supremacy and anti-Black racism.

I am so grateful to the association’s members for organizing this event, for making sure that it happened at the convention, where it was front and center, visible, and audible. The event was moving, and I was briefly overcome. In a way, you had to be there, in Vancouver, to experience #Ferguson2MLA. Yet through conversations on MLA Commons and elsewhere, MLA members are continuing the work started in Ferguson and taken to Vancouver.

Back on Track: Connecting with Former Graduate Students

Originally published in the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter

This column was written in collaboration with David Laurence, Director of Research and ADE. Discussion continues on MLA Commons in The Trend: The Blog of the MLA Office of Research.

Academic departments understand the need to track PhDs who pursue careers in tenure-track positions—indeed, jobs on the tenure track are often considered the gold standard of a department’s success. Yet today this task isn’t as easy as it once was: PhDs typically go through several years of searches before securing a tenure-track position or choosing other kinds of employment. Departments often start to lose track of former students who take contingent positions in the academy, whereas those who venture beyond the classroom may find themselves disconnected completely from the programs that launched them.

What motivation does a department have to track its students over decades of shifting career paths, some of which seem distant from the scholarly training the university offers? Doing this work allows departments to tell their own story rather than be limited by the narrative that says the only good placement is a tenure-track job. When graduates go on to a variety of careers, they demonstrate the value that their specialized degrees have for careers both inside and outside academe. Departments can take pride in diverse outcomes and attract prospective students who may feel inspired by the success of the institution. Tracking career paths also can help departments shape their mission. If, for example, a substantial number of those graduating from a program take positions in government and not-for-profit organizations, the department might ask how what it is doing produces this result. Faculty and staff members could then orient the curriculum and overall learning environment accordingly.

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA made an effort to determine the positions held in 2013–14 by a random sample of 2,590 graduates who received their PhDs from institutions in the United States or Canada between 1996 and 2011 and who have Dissertation Abstracts International records in the MLA International Bibliography. Of the 2,590 PhD recipients, we succeeded in locating 2,286. In the end, we excluded from the analysis records of 72 individuals whose degrees are in engineering or computer science (these dissertations are covered in the bibliography because they reflect work on speech recognition or similar kinds of language-related computer science and engineering projects), giving us a sample of 2,214 PhD recipients.

Overall, about half of the sample currently hold tenured or tenure-track positions or are deans, provosts, or presidents. Those who hold positions in upper administration generally hold tenure even if they are not currently active as teaching faculty members.

Employment in 2014–15 of 2,214 Modern Language PhDs Who Received Degrees between 1996 and 2011 from Institutions in the United States or Canada
Employment in 2014–15 of 2,214 Modern Language PhDs Who Received Degrees between 1996 and 2011 from Institutions in the United States or Canada

The findings are divided into three temporal groups of roughly equal size: those who received degrees between 1996 and 1999, those who received degrees between 2000 and 2004, and those who received degrees between 2005 and 2011. Looking at the three groups, we see how the percentage in non-tenure-track positions drops as people move forward in their careers. (The non-tenure-track group includes people whose tenure status we were not able to ascertain.)

The percentage of the sample we could positively identify as holding a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in 2013–14 is 46.2% for the most recent graduates. It increases to 51.1% for those who received their PhDs between 2000 and 2004 and decreases back to 46.1% for those who received their PhDs between 1996 and 1999. Much of the drop in the 1996–99 group apparently reflects movement from tenured faculty positions into senior administration or retirement.

Slightly over 20% of the people in our sample are working outside higher education altogether. If one in five PhDs in the language and literature fields has found a job outside academe, surely we must want to keep careful records of the kinds of work they are doing. What is more, in failing to track them we lose a great opportunity to connect in meaningful ways with those who work in positions seemingly unrelated to academe. Shouldn’t we wish to tap their expertise as we help new generations see the possibilities that await them? And shouldn’t we offer intellectual engagement with this group of alumni and (potential) scholarly association members?

With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA, in collaboration with partners such as the University of California Humanities Research Institute, has launched the multiyear project Connected Academics (www.mla.org/connected_academics). As part of the project, we will continue to compile data and reports on the career paths of people with doctorates in language and literature, including individual narratives of those who have found employment in diverse settings. We will also expand mentoring and networking activities at the MLA Annual Convention and at regional MLA meetings, where job seekers can meet with mentors in a variety of occupations. Doctoral students, directors of graduate studies, placement officers, and curricular reform committees need resources to understand expanded career opportunities, something the MLA, with our partners, now has the capacity to develop.

Some departments already keep good track of their PhD alumni (and not just for the purpose of fund-raising) and offer models to emulate. To those who do not, the MLA will soon be able to offer assistance in developing, maintaining, and analyzing placement data over time. So many PhD recipients have already found their way into satisfying careers outside academe. We feel a sense of excitement as we put ourselves back on track to connect with them and embark on our new project.

The Conference Interview: Do or Don’t?

Originally published in the Winter 2014 MLA Newsletter

Most readers of this column began their job searches during an age when the MLA Annual Convention served as the site for college and university job interviews. Those who were “on the market” answered position announcements in the Job Information List (JIL), sent dossiers, and waited for hiring departments to set up interviews at the convention. Changes in the academic system that began decades ago now make convention interviews far less likely.

The number of academic positions relative to the number of PhD recipients is the primary change, but the timing of the academic cycle in which departments list their jobs has also changed. David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, recently completed the annual analysis of the Job Information List (you can read a report on the 2013–14 statistics on page 7), and we can spot some interesting trends. When the JIL appeared in print only, departments hurried to place their announcements in the October edition. With the advent of weekly updates to the open-access electronic database, departments list positions throughout the fall semester and—here’s the real shift—well into the second half of the academic year. It’s not just that position listings are scarce: even with the switch to January dates for the convention, they’re also ill-timed for the MLA convention to be the primary vehicle to interview candidates.

There were good reasons to extract the job system from the behind-closed-doors “good old boy” networks that dominated until the late 1960s. The MLA responded to the needs of its members by helping to level the playing field and professionalize the job search, so much so that, for many people, the MLA convention became synonymous with the “job market.” It’s time for that to change. It’s time to encourage departments to think more expansively when it comes to identifying and interviewing candidates. Doing so might alleviate some of the intense pressure that job seekers endure, and it might provide departments with a chance to look closely at candidates whom they otherwise wouldn’t consider.

The MLA facilitates interviews at the convention because departments want the service. The common interview area, for instance, provides an opportunity for departments that do not reserve hotel suites to meet with candidates in a professional setting. Increasingly, though, departments and candidates communicate directly by phone and e-mail, no longer counting on the MLA Job Information Service to act as an information conduit. I am frequently asked how many interviews take place at the convention, and it is more and more difficult to answer this query. With candidates and departments communicating independently, the MLA is often out of the market, so to speak.

I imagine what some of you have been thinking since you started to read this column: why not do away with conference interviews altogether and shift to a technologybased remote interviewing system? Recent articles in the higher education press and on blogs have hotly debated this question. Some writers think the MLA has a vested interest in defending the current system, but that is simply wrong. The MLA operates under the assumption that the interests of both candidates and departments must be well served. At times, however, those interests conflict. Cost is a major obstacle for candidates when it comes to attending the MLA convention. Although the MLA has doubled the amount of travel grants in recent years (from $200 to $400) and although every qualified applicant has received one, the expenses involved in attending the convention can be prohibitive to the graduate student or part-time faculty member who may have one interview lined up. This is a huge burden on the candidate, and departments need to adjust their expectations. There are good ways to do so and not-so-good ways.

The approach to interviews should have as its rationale the following question: how can the interview team connect with as many candidates as possible at the least cost and inconvenience for those who apply? For many departments, a remote conferencing system may be an appropriate interview technology, and a quick perusal of recent editions of the JIL shows that “Skype interviews” are often specified. The MLA and its Association of Departments of English (ADE) and Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) not only support departments’ using technology for preliminary interviews, we’ve also devised guidelines for doing so (http://www.adfl.org/resources/resources_interview.htm). In these guidelines, we note that the Skype interview may be problematic, since the quality of the technology affects the quality of the interview experience; services such as Skype do not always provide stable connectivity. Ideally, departments and candidates would have access to campus-based conferencing technology so that remote interviews could be conducted with maximum professionalism.

In theory, remote interviews would allow departments to interact with more candidates for varying lengths of time. For example, interview teams might decide to arrange conversations with more candidates than in-person meetings could accommodate. Such a system would open a door to candidates who might otherwise be overlooked. I can even imagine technology-based interviews being conducted before the MLA convention, with more extensive second interviews at the convention for a small number of carefully selected candidates. However departments choose to interview, the candidates’ needs should be front and center. (The MLA, ADE, and ADFL policy statements on issues related to the academic job search and working conditions are available at www.mla.org/career_resources#infoandguide.)

Graduate programs have a responsibility to their students. To maintain a PhD program in these difficult times means committing the resources to support students in their nascent careers, whether in academia or beyond. Students should expect extensive assistance in preparing for the job search and in meeting the costs of attending the convention. After all, the MLA convention is much more than an event where interviews occur. It remains the largest language and literature convention in the world, and it offers nearly eight hundred sessions, professional development workshops, networking opportunities, and a host of other activities. Being on the job market is extraordinarily stressful, but there’s a whole convention out there that offers intellectual and professional engagement of a very different type.

It’s time for us to reconsider how and where we interview and to look to the convention as a renewable source of intellectual energy, created by and for MLA members. Now that the new forum structure is reshaping the way we organize our fields both at the convention and on MLA Commons, we should turn our attention to the convention as a whole. Contrary to what I’ve heard being said, the MLA does not count on the convention as a major source of association revenue, unlike other scholarly associations. Our fees are among the lowest, while we provide more services than most. It’s an exciting, rich occasion for intellectual, pedagogical, and professional exchange. The convention exists to serve members, and as long as the structures that undergird it are supporting that mission, they should remain. The MLA has no interest in forcing an interview model on the profession if it no longer works. Quite the opposite: the MLA has every interest in documenting and promoting best practices, recognizing that there are many. What if departments always offered candidates the option of a remote interview and treated candidates equally whether or not they planned to attend the MLA convention? Some departments have already adopted this practice, and it sounds wise to me. I very much enjoy seeing graduate students at the convention, hearing their presentations, and meeting them informally. It would be in all of our best interests to make the convention a less tense and burdensome experience for the next generation of the humanities workforce.

Graduate Students and the MLA Convention

Originally published in the Fall 2014 MLA Newsletter

Most graduate students reading this column weren’t born when I attended my first MLA convention in the late ’70s. Short version: nervous, fascinated, out of place, thrilled, intimidated, enthralled. And New York City! Although the convention has changed a great deal in the ensuing decades, for most graduate students, one question still pops up consistently: What am I doing here?

This year the MLA convention is being held in Vancouver for the first time. The linguistically and culturally rich city promises to offer a particularly rewarding site for the convention, and I want to be sure all our members—including graduate students—are able to make the most of their time there. Having worked with the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession (CSGSP), I’m familiar with some of the ways that graduate students experience the convention. To find out more, I got in touch with several MLA members who’ve recently attended as graduate students, and here’s what I learned.

The convention offers important opportunities for scholarly development. Members reported that at sessions and in informal conversation, scholars pose serious questions and give good advice. Those who gave papers appreciated the feedback from scholars from a wide range of fields and institutions. The convention allows graduate students to hear and evaluate new scholarly work in their fields before it is published. One graduate student told me that a highlight of the convention is meeting other graduate students and identifying common research and professional interests. The comprehensive scope of the Program—which offers presentations in English and in languages other than En­glish, on film, music, popular culture, the profession, comparative studies, and dozens more topics—means attendees can go beyond their usual range of expertise and learn what’s happening in other fields, something that smaller conferences don’t usually facilitate.

But cost is a hurdle. The number one challenge to attending the convention is cost. Travel and lodging expenses can add up to a hefty sum, and this year there may be fees associated with acquiring or renewing passports and visas for non-Canadian citizens traveling to Canada. Some departments fund graduate student travel, and the MLA offers $400 travel grants to all eligible applicants. For the first time this year, the MLA offered a block of rooms at a discounted price. Also new for the 2015 convention: students seeking roommates can post on MLA Commons. One member suggested staying with friends (or friends of friends) in the area, and another proposed that members in Vancouver who have extra space offer it.

And attending the convention can feel overwhelming. Some graduate student members recall feeling isolated, lonely, lost, or overwhelmed at the convention. While these sensations tend to hit all first-time attendees, graduate students generally have a smaller on-site network than other attendees, and they may also be facing the intense stress of seeking a job.

To help graduate student attendees feel connected and make the convention a good experience, here’s a list of ten tips from seasoned attendees. If you have a tip to add, I encourage you to leave a comment on this column on MLA Commons.

  1. Familiarize yourself with the way the convention works. The CSGSP assembled a useful guide that takes you step-by-step through deadlines, items to pack, and ways to save money. More resources and tips are available in the convention blog.
  2. As soon as you’ve decided you will attend the convention, begin to network. How? Use MLA Commons to get connected. Join the 2015 MLA Convention group and participate in discussions in other groups as well. Make plans to go out for dinner with a group. Find a roommate.
  3. Check the convention area of the MLA Web site. You’ll find announcements on excursions, cultural events, and other relevant convention information. The cities we visit provide a rich range of cultural resources that can help you recharge.
  4. Once the Program comes out, plan, plan, plan. Mark all sessions you may wish to attend. The MLA offers a mobile version of the Program, and you can create a personalized schedule and share it with others. If someone is presenting on a topic close to your research interests, you might drop a line and say you’re looking forward to the session and to meeting him or her. Many session organizers use MLA Commons to discuss the material presented, make social arrangements, and so on.
  5. Find at least one other person—another student, a faculty member from your current or past institution—who will commit to joining you at the Presidential Address or the Awards Ceremony and the receptions that follow them. You won’t feel alone, and you will also meet new people. Congratulate the president on her address. Converse with award winners about the topics of their books.
  6. The CSGSP sponsors at least two sessions. Be sure to attend those sessions and talk to the participants. You might also want to connect with members of the CSGSP on MLA Commons before the convention. They enjoy hearing from graduate students, and they want to be part of your on-site network. Read the CSGSP blog for information and resources especially for graduate students. Also check out sessions on nonteaching careers, contingent labor issues, and graduate studies.
  7. Before, during, and after the convention, Twitter offers a way to connect with other attendees (and other interested people). Many graduate students have created a virtual community through Twitter, one that yields interactions, connections, and maybe dinner. Or at least coffee.
  8. You’ll find members of the CSGSP and fellow graduate students in the graduate student lounge in the Vancouver Convention Centre (201, level 2, West Building), a great place to hang out, network, debrief, and eat some (free) munchies. Be prepared to exchange contact information.
  9. Spend time at the exhibit hall. Not only do you get to see what’s being published in fields of interest, you can also chat with acquisitions editors about your work. If you find yourself in the exhibit hall between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m., chances are you’ll come across a booth party. Indulge!
  10. If you are on the job market, take advantage of the preconvention workshops for job seekers, the demonstration interviews, and job counseling with an experienced professor (sign up at the Job Information Center, in the Fairmont Waterfront).

I hope these suggestions communicate clearly that whatever you are doing at the convention, your participation has enormous potential and great value—for all attendees, and for you personally. As one MLA member said to me about attending the convention, “I have always looked at it as an investment in my future.” My colleagues on staff and I look forward to seeing many of you in Vancouver.

Continuing the Conversation on the Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study

Since its release, the report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature has generated useful discussions about the challenges faced by our fields and potential strategies for responding. As we continue these discussions, it’s important to keep in mind what this report aims to do—and what it does not aim to do. The report analyzes the current situation and offers a series of recommendations that graduate programs in language and literature might consider as they seek to serve their doctoral students better. The report includes thirteen examples of programs that have already made some of the kinds of changes the task force discusses.

The task force was formed in the light of the recognition that there are far fewer tenure-track jobs than PhDs to fill them; the MLA has documented this trend, has developed guidelines for what percentage of the faculty should be tenure-track, and has also provided extensive guidance on the employment conditions of non-tenure-track, part-time, and adjunct faculty members. There’s justified anger on the part of graduate students and contingent faculty members about these conditions, and there’s certainly fear about the consequences of directing that anger toward the universities that teach students and employ adjuncts. Yet, when it comes down to it, only the institutions themselves can change their practices. That’s why tenured faculty members and administrators must show leadership on this issue.

The MLA has always recommended that departments should use multiple criteria to determine the right size for their graduate programs, contrary to those who argue that tenure-track placements should be the sole determinant of graduate admissions. I don’t think denying graduate students the opportunity to engage in advanced study of the humanities will move us forward. That’s why our report on graduate education stresses ideas for improving graduate education so that students emerge as better-prepared teachers who also have wider connections to the world beyond the classroom. This approach offers the best chance for students to study what they love and to expand their career horizons.

Some members have asked me what the MLA will offer for those who have already gone through graduate programs but have not found satisfactory employment. The resources that we develop and the programming that we support will not be limited to current graduate students. The MLA will support its members at all stages of their professional lives. Likewise, departments should give their former graduate students access to institutional assistance.

Basic change always gets pushback, and the MLA expects the report to be widely discussed, well into the autumn. Some departments have already discussed the report and planned changes as a result. Others have reached out to the MLA for help with implementing some of the recommendations, and the association hopes to support several pilot projects starting in the next academic year. By developing resources and providing direct assistance to institutions as they undertake new directions, the MLA intends to show that positive changes are indeed possible.

One final word. I, too, am angry that institutions use budgetary rationales to justify the systematic exploitation of adjuncts. It’s an unacceptable and degraded predicament that often denies members of the profession job security, a living wage, benefits, and recognition of their important contributions to student learning. The MLA’s work on this aspect of the profession has been consistent with our interventions on similar issues, such as appropriate treatment of candidates on the job market, evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion, and ensuring members’ academic freedom. Yet the time has come for the MLA to try new strategies. We owe all MLA members a renewed effort to promote change on campus and to support those who have the fewest resources. And we also owe our members a clearer statement of what we can—and cannot—do as a scholarly association.  It’s time to lay aside generalized blame of the MLA for institutions’ failure to treat their employees appropriately and lamentations of what the MLA could or should have done in the past. It’s time for us to craft a realistic new agenda, together. The Delegate Assembly has formulated recommendations, and the council has been at work to determine which ones can be implemented in the near and long term.

I invite all members, including and especially the tenure-track faculty members who want to work on this issue, to help the MLA shape its next steps. In the comment section, please add your ideas. Let’s focus on what each of us can do, and let’s look to a better future.

A Message from the Executive Council about the Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study

The Executive Council received the report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature at its meeting on 20–21 February 2014 and approved it for dissemination to the membership. The task force members have done impressive work, and we offer our deep appreciation to them: Russell A. Berman (chair), Carlos J. Alonso, Sylvie Debevec Henning, Lanisa Kitchiner, Bethany Nowviskie, Elizabeth Schwartz Crane, Sidonie Ann Smith, and Kathleen Woodward.

The council considered the practical implications of the task force’s main goals, evaluated the ten recommendations, and discussed strategies for implementation. We believe that, taken as a whole, the report marks an important step forward in the conception of doctoral education in literature, language, and rhetoric in the United States. The members of the task force engaged deeply with many constituencies to frame a set of issues that everyone in our discipline must confront.

At the same time, council members recognize that conditions among kinds of institutions, campuses, and departments vary enormously. The report in its entirety cannot be expected to reflect the reality of every institution. Some recommendations will seem utopian, especially when they require revision beyond the departmental level. We nonetheless hope that the report will stimulate and provide intellectual support for new conversations among graduate faculty members, department chairs, and administrators about such topics as degree requirements, time to degree, and funding for doctoral student research in humanities fields.

The council proposes that the executive summary of the report  be circulated and a link to the report be made available to everyone with a stake in graduate education on a given campus—not only faculty members and current and recent graduate students but also staff members, graduate school administrators, deans, and provosts. A wide-ranging discussion among these constituencies is therefore the first step toward imagining how the recommendations in the report might be implemented. In that spirit, we recommend that each department set aside time for such a discussion at the earliest opportunity.

The agenda for such a conversation will vary according to local conditions, but it would ideally adapt the report’s recommendations into practical measures appropriate to the setting. What additional ideas do you have about how the report of the task force might be translated into action? The Executive Council recognizes the range of potential responses to the report and would be greatly interested in hearing from you about the institutional conversations you have; please feel free to comment here or to write the council directly (execdirector@mla.org). We hope you agree that the matters raised in the report are too important to ignore. We promise to keep working toward improving doctoral education, and we count on members on the ground to do the hardest work of all.

Expanding Career Horizons: Possibilities, Pitfalls

Originally published in the Summer 2014 MLA Newsletter

In recent years, the MLA has been exploring a new project to expand career opportunities for PhD holders, one we expect to refine and develop in the years ahead. Before I tell you more about the project, I want to acknowledge several potential objections to it. Some MLA members have told me that discussions of careers beyond the classroom are the wrong kind of conversation for us to have. This group of members believes that the MLA should concentrate on fighting for tenure-track positions on campus in language and literature fields—even though staffing decisions are particular to each institution. Some argue that the employment conditions of those already working as adjuncts deserve more of our attention. Still others note that, to the extent graduate education needs reforming, it should, if anything, focus more on preparing PhD candidates for the research expectations that they will face should they win one of the coveted tenure-track jobs.

I can see why members might feel this way, yet this project doesn’t need to be an either-or effort. The association has worked extensively on issues related to academic careers (full- and part-time), and we won’t abandon our advocacy and research role in these matters. We will continue to collect and analyze data, to argue for appropriate working conditions, and to create models for departments and institutions to follow. We will speak out and act up by naming harmful practices and calling for solutions. We will increase our support for graduate students, adjuncts, and unemployed members. And we will also provide resources so that PhD students can expand their career horizons.

When we began this collaborative project with the American Historical Association (AHA), our aim was to collect and disseminate information about long-term employment outcomes for humanists who hold the PhD and to develop structures that individuals and departments can use going forward as far as careers are concerned. Most people assume that the relative paucity of tenure-track jobs translates into long-term unemployment or underemployment for PhDs who don’t land a tenure-track position. Yet PhDs who desire full-time jobs can indeed find them—though not necessarily as professors. Data show that PhDs have had diverse employment outcomes for some time now. David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, has studied this issue. He observes that “people who enter the long and arduous path of doctoral study in the humanities do so having a postsecondary faculty career as their primary goal, and people who pursue graduate education in the humanities actually find careers in a far broader range of professional positions than postsecondary teaching, even if their first job after graduate school is a postsecondary faculty position on or off the tenure track.” The question, then, is not whether PhDs should pursue careers other than teaching, but rather how we as a field will respond to the evidence that they do.

From what PhD students report informally, the field has typically responded in ways that prove less than constructive. Students say that when they express their inclinations to explore careers other than tenure-track assistant professorships, they often receive little support from their graduate advisers, who perhaps don’t know how to help or disapprove of the choice. Advisers may also feel compelled to adhere to the existing rewards structure for job placement: Research I university placements count big, liberal arts colleges count medium, and nonacademic jobs don’t count at all. The first necessary change is attitudinal. Andrew Green, associate director at the Career Center at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that PhDs who “take jobs that they find very rewarding in business, government, or a non-profit—but are not faculty positions—typically become non-entities within their graduate programs” (qtd. in Segran). Put simply: graduate programs must recognize that a significant percentage of PhDs can and will get jobs that are not like those of their mentors. As a profession, we must support students who pursue these careers, which should be viewed not as “alternative” but as valid options in their own right.

What can scholarly associations do to make it possible for PhD candidates to broaden their career horizons? With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the AHA has embarked on a project that holds great promise for history PhDs (“AHA”), and the MLA is planning its next steps. A major report to be released soon from the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, chaired by Russell Berman, past president of the MLA, will map out the essential changes that departments can undertake as they seek to meet the needs of PhD students today and to engage in better tracking of graduates’ careers. The recommendations in this report lay the foundation for a more expansive view of what we train PhD candidates to do and what they can do with that training.

The MLA has begun offering panels and workshops at the annual convention to showcase a variety of careers, and the ADE and ADFL Summer Seminars for department chairs have also taken action on the topic. Under the title Careers for Humanists, the Vancouver convention will feature a suite of activities, including a job-search workshop for those interested in pursuing careers beyond the classroom or the campus. Attendees at the session I organized for the 2013 convention, “Leaders on the Right Track in the Academy,” told me that they felt encouraged that the distinguished PhDs on the panel had found successful jobs related to the academy, jobs that involve high-level decision making, a degree of autonomy, responsibility for overseeing major projects and supervising teams, and so on. These career paths don’t come into view in most graduate programs.

What’s next? The possibilities we are exploring include establishing campus-based projects, creating regional networks, using MLA Commons for career development, and perhaps even holding a job fair. Graduate students will lead many of the projects and develop transportable leadership skills in the process. Our data collection and analysis will also evolve as we learn more about the employment choices of PhDs in our fields. For any of our efforts to be successful, however, three things have to happen. First, graduate departments need to take an expanded approach to job preparation and career tracking. Second, graduate students and faculty members must recognize that, while the assistant professorship may be the primary career goal, a multitude of opportunities are out there, and people can find immense satisfaction when they elect to pursue them. Third, employers need to see PhDs in the humanities as potential hires. The MLA is one such employer, and the dozen plus staff members who hold the PhD can attest to the applicability of the degree to the work of the association. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Expanding Career Horizons project.

Works Cited

“AHA Receives Grants to Expand Career Tracks for History PhDs.” AHA Today. Amer. Historical Assn., 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Laurence, David. “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 1.” MLA Commons. MLA, 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Segran, Elizabeth. “What Can You Do with a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?” The Atlantic.com. Atlantic Monthly Group, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Why Was There a Session on Academic Boycotts and a “Right to Enter” Resolution at the MLA Convention?

Originally published in the Spring 2014 MLA Newsletter

As many of you know, controversy swirled at the 2014 MLA convention, before, during, and after. I’m still receiving dozens of messages from individuals with no connection to the MLA, some of which contain hate speech, others offering a more reasoned perspective. Only about two dozen members have communicated with me directly about the controversy, but hundreds participated in discussions at the convention, including the open hearings of the Delegate Assembly, the assembly meeting itself, and the session responsible for one part of the controversy.

Although approximately 7,500 convention attendees had a chance to experience more than eight hundred sessions and the Chicago meeting was successful in achieving its intellectual and social goals, one session generated inordinate attention: “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.” This special session was evaluated by the Program Committee, which accepted about sixty percent of the approximately five hundred special-session proposals it received. At the Program Committee meeting in May 2013 (long before the American Studies Association met in late November), members discussed the merits of this proposal and determined, using the committee’s guidelines, that the proposer made a cogent argument for the topic, its treatment, and the qualifications of the panelists to achieve the stated objectives. As sometimes happens, the Program Committee, which I, as executive director, chair, made suggestions for revising the session description. The committee wanted attendees to know that the “roundtable is intended to promote discussion of strategy, ethics, and academic work in larger world contexts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and that the topic was “how to respond to this boycott or how to evaluate academic boycotts more generally.” The proposer accepted these suggestions, as the description of the session in the Program reflects.

Subsequently, following its November meeting, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, an action that received considerable (and mostly negative) media attention. And that is when the phone calls and e-mail messages started coming in to the MLA. I received warnings of what would transpire if I didn’t cancel the session. I was approached by two individuals representing large outside groups that opposed the MLA session. One person asked me to use my position to call off the session or instead allow people with an “opposing view” to be added to the Program. Another asked for space at the convention so a group could stage a “counterpanel.” I denied both requests, just as I would have for any other topic.

Why? Because the MLA supports the fundamental right of its members to organize convention sessions according to the policies and procedures of the association. Convention programming is member-driven. Not all sessions can please everyone, of course. Some convention attendees will go to a panel and think “Hmm, those presentations I just heard were rather one-sided,” and then they will make their voices heard by offering a pointed comment or asking a tough question. That’s why we convene: to address issues—sometimes difficult and complicated issues—in scholarship, professional matters, and, yes, public policies that affect scholars, teachers, and students.

Of the hundreds of messages I received, almost all cast aspersions on the MLA just for holding the session that was approved by the Program Committee. One person after another declared that the panelists (and, by extension, the whole association) were motivated by hatred, bias, and a covert intention to promote an association-wide academic boycott. The letter writers invoked academic freedom, which seemed to mean that the MLA must be compelled to present what they thought attendees should hear. That’s certainly not how the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) views academic freedom. Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP and one of the most outspoken critics of the session’s content, said that the “AAUP’s position on academic events is that they do not have to incorporate opposing points of view. I agree. It is the job of those who disagree with speakers to organize their own events to promote the positions they support” (qtd. in Jaschik).

Think about it: the MLA faced a virulent attack for allowing a conversation to happen. And a conversation it was. The session moderator posed questions to the panelists that challenged their views. Audience members lined up at the microphone to state a range of opinions during the half-hour discussion period. The “countersession” (held independently of the MLA at a hotel near where the MLA session took place) went forward—and was even announced at the MLA session.

An academic conference is a meeting of peers: the structures are overseen by members, and the meeting is intended for them. Members—and only members—can organize sessions. Can nonmembers offer opinions of the work we scholars do? Of course. But should they be allowed to reengineer our convention programming to reflect their views and values? Of course not—nor are MLA members entitled to stage a panel at a conference of another professional membership association, even when they hold strong opinions on issues of vital importance.

Members gave me advice. One suggested I quietly work behind the scenes to create a countersession to the roundtable on academic boycotts. Another encouraged me to find a way to have the Program Committee ensure that sessions of an “activist” nature have a “pro-contra” character in the future. Although my job would have been a lot easier if both suggested courses of action had been undertaken this year, I refuse to interfere once the Program Committee makes decisions, unless a procedural error is made (for example, if we were to misplace a submission). I believe that our members have the right to have proposals peer-reviewed by the Program Committee without the constraint of having them set apart as “activist” and as thus requiring special measures for balance.

As for the “right to enter” resolution, there are three things to say. One: members in good standing have the right to submit resolutions (see art. 11.C.3 of the MLA constitution), to discuss them (at the convention and on the MLA Web site), and to vote on them. Two: resolution 2014-1, approved by the Delegate Assembly, concerns the right of American academics to enter the West Bank. Please read what it says. Three: the resolution cannot become a statement of the association unless it clears two more hurdles (see art. 11.C.7 of the MLA constitution), including the requirement that “resolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.” Despite the conclusions to which numerous outside groups, nonmembers, and even some members have leaped, the MLA membership has not yet ratified this resolution. If the resolution passes the Executive Council’s fiduciary review, it will be up to the MLA’s approximately 28,000 members to decide what happens next. The vote of the membership follows a month-long period in which any member may post a comment on the members’ section of the MLA Web site. This is a conversation that should happen, and I encourage you to participate in it and to vote on the resolution. Despite majority votes, neither of the two 2013 resolutions cleared the ten-percent bar. Not enough members chose to submit an electronic ballot and have their say. If my in-box is any indication, 2014 is turning out to be quite a different year.

Work Cited

Jaschik, Scott. “Should Panels Be Balanced?” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 3 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.