I’m posting my remarks (including things I forgot to say) from tonight’s session at the Modern Language Association annual convention in memory of Doug Steward, Associate Director of MLA Programs and Director of the Association of Departments of English.
Hi, everyone, and thank you for asking me to take part in this, and thank you, Roldan, for sharing with us. It’s nice to see you all even if I wish it were for some other reason. I have a couple of words I want to share, which I will read at you, because this is MLA.
As part of my work for the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, which I chaired last year and off of which I’ve now cycled, I put together a roundtable for this year’s convention titled “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Library: Access to Research Resources and Academic Freedom.” It’s not really my field, so I initially had a hard time finding people for it, and ended up writing to the committee to see if anybody had any suggestions. Doug—who I knew, if my CV is to be believed, for more than ten years, from a long evening at the bar after the first day of the first ADE Summer Seminar I attended (and the bar part is not on my CV, just to be clear), and with whom I had the pleasure of hanging out at (and after) ten years of summer seminars (where I got to run DGS and DUS preseminar workshops largely because of Doug, though David, if you had anything to do with it, thanks), MLA conventions, and CAFPRR meetings–suggested himself. At the time, I thought of Doug’s doing this as a sign of his deep interest in our committee’s work and also as just him doing me a solid, as we used to say; looking back now on it now, I still think of it in these ways, but I also think of it as indicative of the care with which he approached the institutions, ideas, and people that mattered to him.
I could talk tonight about how that care manifested itself in many areas in which Doug and I intersected—from official things like ADE, where I noticed from my first workshop that his interest lay in helping people running departments do the best they could for their departments not to make them fancier or higher-powered but to make them work better for the people who worked and studied in them, to semi-official things like his quietly making sure a mention of my sons’ band’s album stayed in the minutes of a meeting, to non-official occasions like his inviting me out for dinner (and what turned out to be multiple pitchers of margaritas) with the friend he came out to in college, which meant a lot to me, to our commiseration about the state of the state of Missouri, him as an expat in New York City, me as a transplant from New York City—but instead I’ll just say a word or two about CAFPRR.
From conversations, emails, and meetings, I learned that Doug’s interest in academic freedom and professional rights and responsibilities lay in protecting academic freedom not so individuals could tweet abuse at public officials (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but so the right to freely fulfill their responsibilities—to study and publish and teach—could be protected for all, especially the most vulnerable. He insisted, in a piece in the ADFL Bulletin, that academic freedom was not an individual right but a corporate responsibility—the responsibility of the faculty as a body, one it couldn’t fulfill if it didn’t recognize and support the work of all members equally. In a long piece in the ADE Bulletin from 2007, he wrote movingly about the humanities and especially the study of languages as what he called “the privileged space of academic freedom’s defense and definition,” and I’d like, with your indulgence, to read a (luminous, even) bit from the end of that piece:
“In the age of genocide and terrorism the notion that nothing human could be alien to us as humanists in the world’s sole superpower could not be more relevant. This relevance is exactly what many in the humanities have wanted to engage when they have been accused of impertinent politicking in the classroom: to ask if language can be more adequate to the truth; to ask if history has been recounted truthfully; to discern the alien as human; to learn the language and culture of the other; to explore the history of the inhuman/e in the human/e; to demand an expansion of human rights; to interrogate the border rather than the human being at the border; to discover what rhetorics of language and image mobilize a border around who counts as human; to question who is patrolling the border and with what ends. These questions can only be impious.”
This is the kind of care that Doug showed in his work with our committee and in his concern for the nature of the work we were defending, and it’s something we should all try to remember in the work that we do. There’s a thing that Jewish people say to those who have lost loved ones–“may his memory be a blessing”–that I’m not usually comfortable using myself because I’m not a big blessing person, but it seems appropriate tonight. May his memory be a blessing.