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Something about something

So here are some of the things we’ve been doing over at the Modern Language Association lately.

I know, there’s an enticing teaser.  But I’m blogging about this for two reasons.  One, these are examples of how the MLA addresses public issues that involve matters of concern to the profession.  Two, most members of the MLA have no idea that their disciplinary association does these things as a matter of course.  As a result, people tend to think that the way to get the MLA to Say Something About Something is to propose a “resolution” to be debated at the Delegate Assembly meeting at the annual convention.  A list of the resolutions passed in the last ten years is here.  As you can see, the MLA supports and/or condemns a wide range of stuff!  Although in reality, the rate of member participation in these votes is extremely low. Last year’s resolution, for example, drew the support of about 2.5 percent of the membership, while 1.5 percent voted against it. 

Over the years, we’ve tried to reform the resolutions process, with little success.  For example, when I was first elected to the Executive Council in 2002, the MLA had instituted a new rule for proposed resolutions—namely, that when factual matters were at issue, the resolution should provide evidence for its claims.  Well, that drew some outraged responses! Evidence for claims—surely this would have a chilling effect on the speech of resolution proposers.  And sure enough, it didn’t even work: one resolution that year condemned a specific institution for something or other, and even though the Delegate Assembly didn’t have the means to determine whether the institution had in fact done that thing (despite the proposers’ repeated attempts to provide evidence for their claims), they voted for it anyway.  It was later rejected by the Executive Council for being erroneous.  (The EC has to reject resolutions that are erroneous, libelous, or tortious.)

Especially assiduous readers of this blog will recall that in early 2006, I posted two exceptionally tedious, Internets-breaking essays on the MLA “emergency resolution” process, which was thrown into crisis by the strikebreaking at NYU that year.  In the years since then, it seems that many MLA members have realized that the association isn’t very good at issuing condemnations of individual institutions.  Oh, sure, we get it right once in a while, as we did with the epic condemnation of Yale’s response to its graduate student strike of 1995-96.  But more often, we wind up debating (and passing) deeply flawed resolutions that wind up (a) getting us sued, (b) being withdrawn by their own proposers after being approved (yes, this really happened—it was totally amateur hour), or (c) being determined to be erroneous, tortious, or libelous.  That’s probably because the MLA doesn’t have an investigative arm, the way the AAUP has Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure; and it’s also because many MLA members don’t realize that the AAUP doesn’t censure institutions until it conducts a thorough investigation.  (The AAUP’s post-Katrina report is a model of how these things should be done.)

Even resolutions that don’t name institutions can be problematic—like this year’s, which (if it passes, which it surely will) puts the MLA on record as advocating that everyone who teaches at a college or university in the United States should be eligible for tenure.  It’s very well-meaning, and not very well thought out.  (Postdocs should not be eligible for tenure; neither should the kind of short-term, part-time appointments that involve famous writers, artists, journalists, or political figures.  And I could go on.) It also conflicts directly with a much more substantial MLA statement, namely, the MLA Issue Brief on the Academic Workforce (.pdf), as well as the MLA statement on the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty, which I helped to draft in 2003.  But so it goes.  And sure enough, some people are going to think that “everyone should be eligible for tenure” is the official position of the MLA.

(Speaking of which: those statements in the previous two links, together with a whole entire mess of useful information and guidelines, are now part of the MLA Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit.  The overall percentage of MLA members who know that their association has an Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, complete with comprehensive data, recommendations for institutions, and salary recommendations, is kind of depressing.  So if you’re a member of the MLA, or if you know someone who is, would you mind spreading the news, perhaps by sending this post or the Advocacy Kit to people via the new “electronical” mail?  Thanks!)

Finally, as I’ve argued before, the resolutions process just isn’t a good way to respond to fast-breaking developments in the academic world.  That’s why I keep telling MLA members that if they want their association to Say Something About Something in a reasonably timely fashion, they should request that it be put on the agenda of the Executive Council.  It’s as simple as that.

So, then, here are some of the things the Executive Council has done lately.

Following a discussion in our February meeting, we wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acknowledging the State Department’s decision to reverse the Bush Administration’s refusal to allow scholars Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib into the United States, and more broadly urging the State Department “to cease the practice of denying entry visas to academics and scholars on ideological grounds.”

Critics of these letters (who are usually, but not always, proposers of resolutions) often charge that these gestures go unnoticed.  But that, as you can see, is not quite true.

Then at our meeting in May, we approved a letter to Arizona governor Jan Brewer, defending ethnic studies programs as well as teachers who speak with accents: “Because citizens of the United States speak many different languages in addition to English, because every speaker of every language has an accent, and because ethnic studies is important to contemporary American education, we urge you to work toward reversing the policy decisions we cited at the beginning of this letter.”

And last but not least, the Executive Council adopted a statement drafted by the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities on the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos.

So that’s something.

On another front: last week I published a tiny item in the Times Higher Education Supplement titled “Think Outside the Book.” In it, I wrote, “In a provocative pair of newsletter columns, [MLA President Sidonie] Smith challenges the discipline to move ‘beyond the dissertation’ and to begin to imagine the new and various forms scholarly work can take.” Alas, even though the essay is online in the Intertubes, it is not THES policy to use the new “hyper” links, so my attempt to direct readers to Sid’s columns was an epic fail.  Those columns are here and here, and they’re well worth your time.  Pass them along, too, if you would be so kind.  Thanks!

Now back to my meetings.  I’ll check in again next week sometime.

Posted by on 06/11 at 09:28 AM
  1. Every time you mention Garcetti I check to see whether the appeal in Hong v. Grant has been decided.  I don’t know what’s keeping the Ninth Circuit – it’s been three years.

    In the meantime, have you seen Adams v. UNCWilmington, decided in March?  In it, a moderately shitty associate professor was passed over for promotion to full professor> He sued, claiming it was because of his newly acquired conservative Christian beliefs.  He’d written prolific assholery in a column on Townhall.com, and included copies in his file.  He claimed that by considering the on-line posts the committee had violated his First Amendment rights. The court cited Garcetti in dismissing his claim.  He’s now something of a wingnut cause celebre.

    I think the court got it right, myself.  Isn’t part of academic freedom the freedom of academics to be self-governing?  And doesn’t that mean that judges and juries shouldn’t be second-guessing faculty promotion decisions?  Suppose UNCWilmington had faced the expense and disruption of a full trial, and what the outcome might have been if the issue had been presented to a North Carolina jury.  The school would likely not have risked it - more likely they would have promoted Adams and told the committee to be more careful next time.  Would that have been a victory for academic freedom?

    But it’s an interesting question whether under the First Amendment the committee could have considered the Townhall posts if Adams hadn’t officially presented them for the committee’s review.

    The opinion is here:
    http://www.nacua.org/documents/Adams_v_UNCWilmington_order.pdf

    Posted by  on  06/11  at  06:02 PM
  2. Well thank you fine professor, as i was just about to inquire where you were along the this, then this, then there, and finally here matrix.  Edumacation in the USA is indeed in deep bleep (a paeon to Fox’s intentional use of ‘bleep’ to hint that Obama’s “ass” was something more), being attacked from every possible direction.  Gov. Timmy Paw, an actual candidate for the office of President in 2012, certainly didn’t do himself any favors by suggesting that the public higher education system is overly expensive and antiquated (and could so easily be replaced by the Intertubes--yes that was his solution).  With such friends as these, education doesn’t need the educators mucking it around too.  I hope things get better.

    Posted by  on  06/11  at  10:03 PM
  3. Well, that drew some outraged responses! Evidence for claims—surely this would have a chilling effect on the speech of resolution proposers.

    Good grief, what sort of humanities organization are you guys, to even consider such a thing?  What’s next, wearing pants in the classroom?

    That’s probably because the MLA doesn’t have an investigative arm, the way the AAUP has Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure

    Many a scholar has tossed and turned, awaiting that middle-of-the-night knock on the door summoning them before Committee A in their central Pennsylvania volcanic lair.

    Even resolutions that don’t name institutions can be problematic—like this year’s, which (if it passes, which it surely will) puts the MLA on record as advocating that everyone who teaches at a college or university in the United States should be eligible for tenure.

    Well, this could solve the problem of graduate student unions being busted: simply grant the graduate student TA’s tenure instead.

    I think the court got it right, myself.

    Wait, Mike Adams?  UNC should have made it easier on itself, and investigated his obsession with the sex lives of his students. 

    Also, I am not an attorney (someone needs to come up with a simpler expression for that), but how much did this decision actually hinge upon Garcetti v. Ceballos?  Adams submitted the columns himself, then accused the committee of actually considering them?  It seems possible to dismiss the First Amendment argument without dismissing his First Amendment rights.  Also, professors get denied promotion all the time, and I’m guessing that he didn’t exactly have a rigorous research program.  The alternative explanation would require that pre-GvC, a fundamentalist Christian in a public-sector job had never been denied a promotion, since perpetual angry victimhood is part of the shtick.

    Posted by  on  06/11  at  11:43 PM
  4. Way out of my element here, since my most notable academic achievement was dissing Stanford to drop abortively into a fourth-rate state U. in Texas.

    This is a tortuous way to absorb words like tortious, but still turfa incognita to treasure.

    Sorry about the perennially redundant self-deprecation schtick, MB. Keep rocking that far-out lingo!

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  02:54 AM
  5. Have I seen Adams v. UNC-Wilmington, Bloix?  Is Jonathan Toews the second-youngest captain to win the Cup?

    It’s nice to have the wingnuts on board the Garcetti bandwagon, now that they’ve realized that the seeekrit purpose of that decision was to persecute conservative Christian professors.  But Adams was, unfortunately, a terrible decision.  As mds suggests, there are all kinds of legitimate ways to turn down the promotion of a guy whose claim to scholarly excellence is that he’s the clown prince of Clownhall.com.  Adams was caught in a huge Garcetti-sized net that didn’t need to be used here.

    Posted by Michael  on  06/12  at  08:49 AM
  6. Thing I liked the most on this blog? “Keep rocking that far-out lingo! “ comment. So keep!

    Posted by Michael R Roberts  on  06/14  at  11:39 AM
  7. Gadzooks, but nothing sucks the growth factor out of a thread quite like a post mentioning Garcetti v. Ceballos.  Pretend it’s a discussion of those North American sports teams, people.

    Posted by  on  06/14  at  12:54 PM
  8. Pretend it’s a discussion of those North American sports teams, people.
    Nah, or not until i ask a couple organizational questions. 

    When you (Michael) take over the scepter of the kingly reign of MLS, would you like to lead the association away from the self-putative discipline resolution realm, or would you seek ways to enhance and strengthen the process?  From where i sit (upon my cushiness), i sense that your frustration comes when less than 5% of the membership really care about this or that institution’s grievous errors.  Furthering your frustration would be the protracted hiring of lawyers to assess the liability from passing this or that resolution.  Is there any hope for success in the process?

    As for NA sports, not so much.  But i was: dazzled by Messi’s magic, befuddled by the English goalie crawling after the loose ball, cheered aloud for the handball calling penalty kick that let Ghana take the match, and certainly worried that Germany looks undefeatable.  Italy looked soft, Netherlands bewildered, and wait for Brazil.

    Posted by  on  06/14  at  07:29 PM
  9. Er, I actually meant treat the subjects of this post with the same enthusiasm as a sports discussion, not pretend it’s actually a sports post.

    Meanwhile, yes, what will God-king Bérubé be able to do to tackle this MLA disfunction?  Offer a choice of cake or death at committee meetings?

    Posted by  on  06/15  at  11:37 AM
  10. Since lingo has crept into the discussion, I’ll tell this story: I once had OORSTTU on my opening rack in a Scrabble game, and excitedly plunked down TORTUOS and hit the clock, realizing too late that I was short one U. So my opponent challenged and I lost my turn. My opponent apparently had a bingo on his own rack, but it contained a U, so he didn’t play it, not wanting to give me a spot to play TORTUOUS. He played something with an I in it instead, though, so I was able to triumphantly play TORTIOUS. And it was a word he didn’t know, so he challenged it, giving me an extra turn.

    Posted by  on  06/17  at  01:42 PM
  11. Ah, so on your first turn you were erroneous, and on your second you were tortious.  I hope that some form of libel was involved on the third turn....

    Posted by Michael  on  06/17  at  07:44 PM
  12. You know, now that I’ve started working at a public, the Children of Garcetti really terrify me.  Excellent to have something to worry about other than the tenure clock.  Enjoy your vacation!

    Posted by  on  07/13  at  11:12 AM
  13. I am feeling good to see your blog. Here I have found some of the information,which is very important man. Just awesome. best of luck.

    Posted by smith roberts  on  01/26  at  08:30 AM

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