I posted to FB yesterday about the MLA’s proposed ‘redistricting,’ to be found at An Open Discussion of MLA Group Structure, observing that the tactical nature of my relationship to MLA made it impossible for me to comment there. Partly because the discussion was picked up in a number of other places, and partly because it’s hard for me to snark without putting at least equal effort into more constructive ends, I’ll say a few words here, and post it for MLA folk to see.
The title for this post came to me as I thinking about the viability of MLA as an “umbrella organization,” which of course sent me to song lyrics about umbrellas. While we might indeed say that it’s raining now more than ever, I eventually settled on a classic, from ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’ by the Police:
Do I have to tell the story
Of a thousand rainy days since we first met
It’s a big enough umbrella
But it’s always me that ends up getting wet
I always liked that song. Anyway, the TLDR here is that the proposed change to group structure for MLA has not gone as far as it might to “reflect changes in curricula and scholarly commitments among our members.” Despite a disproportionate number of jobs, some 90+ PhD programs, and dozens of journals, rhetoric and composition (not to mention a range of other areas both coordinate and subordinate) remains buried at the lower levels of the redesigned groups, a sub-speciality among many (smaller) others, without any acknowledgment of its own conceptual breadth. It is tucked there under “Language Studies,” a category that could easily cover the entire rest of the groups, alongside several categories of linguistics work.
The problem is something of a chicken-egg situation: does MLA valuation of R/C reflect its membership? Or does the tactical membership of R/C folk (many of whom, like myself, only member up when we absolutely must) produce or result in that valuation? Perhaps a little of both. We can say for certain, though, that this map sorely underestimates the “scholarly commitments” represented annually in the job list. Over the past decade, according to the MLA reports on the job list, some 50% of the available positions every year come in Rhetoric and Composition, Business and Technical Writing, and Creative Writing. R/C floats at around 30%, give or take. And the number of panels relevant to those fields at MLA probably runs at about 1-2%. As a consequence, as someone in R/C, MLA is where I must go to interview but little else. We might also cite the percentage of MLA books about R/C, or the number of articles appearing in PMLA on R/C topics, etc.
For some of us, I suspect that this doesn’t matter much. And really, for the most part, it has little effect on my day-to-day life. For our last search, we bypassed MLA altogether, moving from Skype interviews to campus visits–it will not shock me if that soon becomes the norm. I’ve been interested in and grateful for the MLA’s embrace of digital humanities lately, but we’re rapidly reaching the end of the “captive audience” era for MLA. Once R/C job applicants and faculty no longer have to attend for job-related functions, MLA will slide off a lot of people’s radar. As someone in a freestanding writing program, that doesn’t really affect me. But I do understand the frustration of those who are effectively required to attend a conference, at great personal expense, that is willing to charge them money without making any sort of effort to represent their scholarly commitments. It’s a big enough umbrella.
If MLA still has those umbrella aspirations, then when stuff like this comes up, they need to range a bit. It’s hard not to look at the members of that committee that “redesigned” the groups and see the continued neglect of R/C as anything other than self-fulfilling prophecy. Here are the where’s and when’s: Cornell ’91, Yale ’90, Yale ’74, Yale ’84, Brown ’75, Stanford ’75, Columbia ’09, and Yale ’80. I’m sure that the task was daunting, and the work thankless, but really, most of us could have predicted what a “map” drawn by this committee was going to look like. And in putting that kind of committee together, MLA should not be surprised at the many, many of us who don’t see ourselves on it.