Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

The MLA Gets Practical: Less Theory, More Profession

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For decades, the Modern Language Association has offered a smattering of sessions on academic-career issues during its annual conference — with an emphasis on “smattering.” But this year’s meeting in January underscored how much the troubled faculty job market has changed things: There were so many sessions, panels, and workshops on professional issues, you could migrate from one to another and never notice you were at a language and literature conference.

Change within scholarly organizations usually looks more like evolution than transformation. As the one of the largest professional associations in academe, the MLA gathers myriad constituencies under its wide umbrella — scholars and teachers in English, as well as numerous other languages. They all compete for attention and resources, so the MLA might be forgiven if it resembles a corporate behemoth more than a nimble start-up.

But it’s moving faster lately. Instead of waiting for the tenure-track market to get better, humanists have finally started to deal with the “new normal” in humanities hiring — even if it’s not so new anymore. Professional development now feels like the conceptual center of the MLA’s annual conference. The latest meeting in Chicago focused on the academic workplace more than ever before, and the spotlight promises to widen.

The obstacles to entering that workplace are no longer news. You would need to have hidden under a rock for at least four decades to avoid hearing about the sorry state of the tenure-track job market, which went from bad to worse in the humanities after the 2008 recession. As the national economy experienced a “jobless recovery,” the academic economy did the same. Both scholarly groups and academic departments have faced sharp criticism in recent years for being slow to respond to the crisis.

One of the signs of the MLA’s evolution on this front is the convention’s lower profile as an interview meat-market.

The conference has long been the traditional site of first-round interviews for positions in language and literature departments, but that is less and less true now. Last year, Paula Krebs, executive director of the association, even suggested that departments no longer conduct initial interviews at the convention because it’s unfair to the many graduate students who have to pay their own travel expenses to enter this crucible of stress. Using Skype or similar technology for first-round interviews is cheaper for both parties, she said, and more economically just.

The MLA has always offered sessions aimed at professional development. For years, job seekers could attend a workshop on interview skills or a handful of sponsored sessions on career issues. But now there is a boatload of them. The 2019 conference contained dozens of panels that weren’t about literature and language, but instead about the profession of studying them — and especially the troubles with that profession. Most of the panels were aimed at graduate students and recent Ph.D.s., as they seek employment traction in a changing profession.

Virtually every time slot over the course of four days had at least one professional-development panel. There were sessions on how to “Build Your Online Presence” and on “Reimagining the Dissertation” (in different formats). Other panels tackled political issues, such as “Legislative Strategies to Support Contingent Faculty Members.” Some panels were aimed at more-established academics, such as one on making the transition from faculty member to administrator.

The 2019 convention also had more hands-on workshops than a meditation retreat. Predictably, there was a CV workshop and another on résumés. But there were also workshops on topics like the role of LinkedIn in hiring and the ins and outs of journal publication. The latter attracted about 80 people, who were divided into groups of three — like in a first-year composition class — for work on handouts.

Other panels — like the Connected Academics presentation by Ph.D.s. working outside of academe — were open meetings in which the audience could go from one presenter to another, who were positioned like booths at the book exhibit.

Speaking of which, the book exhibit, too, showed the MLA’s shift in focus. Plenty of publishers included job-search handbooks on their displays. But there was also an abundance of whither-the-profession books.

The Johns Hopkins University Press, the oldest scholarly publisher in America, made Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University the centerpiece of its display. Fitzpatrick, who used to work at the MLA and is now director of digital humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University, writes about the straitened state of higher education. She “tries to find some common ground” with a public composed not just of other academics, “but also administrators, students, parents, policy makers,” and others concerned about the uncertain future of higher education.

Facing that future was the context for one of the most talked-about innovations at the conference: “The Humanities in Five,” rolled out in two sessions. Each one showcased a panel of scholars talking about their research in five-minute spiels — strictly timed — for a nonspecialist audience. The idea was to get current and future academics thinking about how to share their work with the general public in an era of rampant distrust of scholarship.

Organized under the MLA presidential rubric (which conferred an imprimatur of official significance to the sessions), one panel had a roster of mostly senior scholars. The other featured a mixture of younger and older scholars ranging from graduate students to full professors. What distinguished “Humanities in Five” was its game-show format. The second of the two panels actually was a game, with outside judges (Chicago area journalists) and a modest prize: the new MLA cookbook.

These panels drew standing-room audiences — and an interestingly mixed response. Some professors I spoke with enjoyed the lively format. But one senior scholar who has experience in journalism found the presentation disrespectful to the work that goes into scholarship. Although he found the presentations “pretty good,” he thought the format turned “serious thinking” into “the most artificial sort of TV theatricality, with its totally rehearsed gestures of spontaneity.”

A historian visiting from the American Historical Association’s annual conference (which was being held in Chicago at the same time) commended the idea yet wasn’t impressed by the results on display. The panelists were meant to display fluency with a general audience, but he found them a long way from prime time. It’s good to avoid jargon, the historian said, but you have to be able to recognize it first. Even a phrase like “Medieval Italy” is jargon, he pointed out, because it presumes familiarity with a concept that’s mostly, well, foreign to nonspecialists.

Such cogent critique speaks to the urgency of the task before us. We should all be ready to talk with the public about what we do, because that same public pays the bills that enable colleges and universities to exist. But that urgency didn’t fully translate into instruction at these new panels. The historian complained that the journalist-judges didn’t take the presentations seriously, or offer anything in the way of rigorous critique. Instead, they joked around as though they were on television. Public talk is important for humanists, but how are we going to learn to do it better if spectacle prevails over substance, even during our own academic conferences?

Indeed. The MLA deserves praise for packaging “going public” for broad consumption, but the package is still missing some ingredients before it can appear in the cookbook. Nonetheless it’s possible to fiddle with the recipe — and the MLA’s turn toward examining the academic workplace is helping the cause. 

Krebs, the MLA director, said in an email that the association’s leaders “are always asking ourselves: What can the national association’s convention offer that the gatherings of smaller subdisciplinary groups cannot?” With that in mind, they are now looking to create “more structures” that will enable earlier and more sustained mentorship of Ph.D.s. 

“The convention changes as the profession changes,” she said. And that’s how it should be.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His latest book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com. Twitter handle: @LCassuto.

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