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Friday, June 11, 2010

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 Michael on 06/11 at 09:28 AM
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