The MLA invited me to contest the position of Second Vice President this year. Why not, I said, and then learned that the two other nominees were dear friends of mine– so I can go into this election, unlike most of the elections I vote in, knowing that no outcome is undesirable.
The MLA asked me for a statement of professional concerns. Hoo boy, do I ever have some! But they limited my statement to 250 words. Here’s the statement as it stood before I cut it down. There are a lot of things to fix or grouse about, both in the Association and the world it inhabits, but have a look at my shortlist.
The MLA is a hybrid of learned society and professional organization. A learned society exists to advance the interchange of ideas through meetings and publications; a professional organization exists to advance the collective practical interests of a professional group. In good times, the liveliness of discourse and the growth of the profession seem to be two aspects of a single process, and membership in the guild affords access to both; but in hard times, that bond weakens. I hear from my students, who have been facing a remarkably scanty job market for years, that they plan to join the MLA when they have a professional foothold—not, as before, in order to get one. How can we give them a better reason to join and stay?
It is no secret that the career of language and letters, the rise of which was contemporary with the founding of the MLA, is under material threat for reasons beyond our control. Budget-cutting legislatures, boards of trustees influenced by newspaper accounts of the futility of humanities degrees, administrators tempted to balance the books by hiring adjuncts rather than regular faculty, and now heavy-handed attempts by politicians to prescribe what may or may not be taught in schools and colleges make it hard to predict that a viable number of young scholars will enjoy freedom of research and secure employment a generation from now. At such a time the professional organization’s purposes must be manifested clearly.
I look forward to working with the MLA’s staff and membership in arguing for the value of humanistic knowledge. Of primary urgency is combating bans on books, subject matter, and styles of scholarship. We must join other organizations in defending colleagues and programs that defy racial and gender biases inscribed in law and society. But beyond negating the negation, we must put forth and advocate a vision of the good in matters of culture. Some years ago, in the midst of the Bush wars, I was honored to be a member of the committee that published “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” (Profession, 2007). We demonstrated the benefits of expanding and diversifying the teaching of other languages, ranging from recognizing the value of immigrant communities to lowering the antagonism of political discourse. It is time to revisit these questions, and others.
For the values to be defended are not exclusively tied to foreign language learning, but encompass all facets of reading, debate, critique, and information access. Book bans endanger the very possibility of an informed public. Conscious and persistent lying by political figures undermines the idea of deliberative democracy. Xenophobic myths flatter a public that wants to externalize blame and sees difference as a threat. Defunding cuts off the development of talent and curiosity. We need to counter these threats with such powers as we have: the knowledge of language, semantics, rhetoric, composition, translation, and our readiness to listen to every kind of speech community. I think these powers are adequate to fuel a lasting resistance to narrow-mindedness and exclusion.
E poi basta. A bon entendeur salut.