I found out recently that next academic year I’ll be chair of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities. We had our last Skype meeting of the year the other day, and talked about the things we usually talk about, which amount to different ways we’re trying to help the MLA help people working in modern language departments. In addition to reminding me how weird Skype (technically, Zoom) meetings can be, like when you knock your chair against your desk and the mic picks it up and all of the sudden it’s your backlit head filling everybody’s screen as if you had a point to make when you might only be thinking about lunch, say, the meeting also led me to think about associations like the MLA.
That meeting also leads me to want to hear from you, Imagined Reader, about what you think the committee should be focusing on. We get inquiries throughout the year from people reporting on specific situations (e.g., hiring practices, departmental governance), and we try to tackle larger issues concerning academic freedom and the rights and responsibilities of people working in higher education, ultimately to see if there’s anything the MLA can do to help.
Academic freedom has been an urgent issue lately (urgent AF, you might say, but unlike me would then think better of it). There’s a good interview with political scientist Jeffrey Sachs up on the Chronicle on the subject, particularly on the way certain kinds of incidents involving speech on campus can get blown out of proportion and on whose interests are served when that happens. And CAFPRR will keep talking about this, and sponsoring panels and roundtables at the MLA convention about how to think about and deal with these situations. But I’d like to invite suggestions of other related and unrelated topics. As Sachs points out, the speech of non-tenured instructors, both intramural and extramural, is afforded less or not protection at many institutions, so the question of academic freedom becomes also a question about the effects of the casualization of academic labor. What other questions do you want us to address? Please comment here or send me or anybody on the committee an email if you’ve got ideas.
Associations are getting bad press lately, as in the recent Chronicle piece on the American Historical Association, most of it unfair (as these two responses argue). But I’m proud to be again taking part in the joint Association of Departments of English / Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Summer Seminar in Pittsburgh this year. This will be my tenth of these, my CV tells me. When I became Director of Graduate Studies in 2010, my chair sent me, and it was incredibly helpful, especially the Pre-Seminar Workshop for Directors of Graduate Study. I ended up going to the seminar and the workshop the first three years of my tenure as DGS and co-moderating the DGS workshop for the next three years; after a year in which I co-moderated a discussion on bullying on campus and of campus, I became Director of Undergraduate Studies last year and co-moderated a workshop, “Responding to the Decline in English Majors and Enrollments,” which I’ll be doing again this summer.
I can’t recommend these things highly enough. I’ve met people through the workshops and seminars who I’ve been able to rely on, who have helped me in my career and who I’ve been able to help in return, who have made my work easier and better in more ways than I can probably even remember. I can’t help but remember that it’s the ADE and the MLA that have made it possible.
When I came up through graduate school, things similar to those being said about the AHA were being said about the MLA: for some critics, it was uninterested in confronting the employment crisis, or too slow to do so. While I never think it’s out of bounds to criticize a professional organization, which are big ships and slow to turn, my experience with ADE (and in the work I’ve done as part of MLA and MMLA) has shown me that these associations are what their roots say they are, the joining together of companions. They’re not unions, and can’t force upper administration to stop balancing budgets on the backs of instructional labor, but they can help people share knowledge about how to do the best they can under sometimes very difficult circumstances and how to work to help those who circumstances effect most. And if they need to change course, their members have joined together to form them and, if necessary, can redirect them.