MLA: Brave new words

December 15, 2000

Tim Cornwell finds out how Lynne Cheney and her 'political potboiler' fit into MLA history

The rightwing's favourite cultural hawk is back. Under president Ronald Reagan, Lynne Cheney carried the cold war into the cultural arena as boss of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Just three years ago, she led a rightwing tongue-lashing of American professors for failing to teach Shakespeare, a charge that was not borne out by the facts. Now, barring any more legal upheavals and Democratic manoeuvring, she is poised to return to prominence and real power as America's second lady, wife of Dick Cheney, George W. Bush's number two.

Lynne Cheney's unpopularity with the literary left is evident in the glee with which they have seized on her mishaps, not least having a daughter who has publicly embraced the lesbian lifestyle that the Republican right denounces. It was the Modern Language Association's former president, Elaine Showalter, who highlighted the lesbian overtones in a frontier novel that Cheney penned in 1981. The irreverently liberal webzine recently hailed the paperback reissue of her 1988 political potboiler, The Body Politic . In it, Cheney describes a fictional vice-president who dies blissfully at 59 in "carnal arrest". Her real husband, who recently suffered the latest of several minor heart attacks, is the same age.

The MLA meets in Washington DC this year. About 8,000 scholars will converge there, wedged as usual in the gap between Christmas and new year, just as the almost certain Republican return to the White House goes into full gear. A decade ago, the organisation was a favourite target for Cheney, when the term "politically correct" was coined. MLA members still shudder at the memory of "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" and similar titles lifted from conference programmes to feed the charge that scholars were not just revising the canon but defiling it.

The MLA has led a relatively sheltered life under eight years of Clinton centrism. Will conservatives, with their decidedly unintellectual president, return to their attacks on the cossetted ivory tower? Well, yes, there is still some grist for the mill: see session 598, out of about 850 this year, provocatively titled "Queering the Body Politic III: Elections". Or try session 315: "Sex, Pornography, Marriage". But mostly, the contributions this year seem a little more conventional.

Journalists, of course, still get itchy trigger fingers when they encounter this gathering of scholars, so unjournalistic and wordy in their literary approaches, landing like busy bees on one American city after another, vastly larger than any British literary association. Last year, the Chicago Tribune memorably hailed the "word nerds" thronging downtown hotels to explore "some of the most abstruse subjects in all of human history".

V. S. Naipaul recently had a good go at the humanities in England and the US. He complained that his alma mater , Oxford University, had set aside all the difficult bits of an arts degree, such as Latin, and that jargon and abstraction were a cover for vacuous thinking, creating a club for clowns. Stephen Greenblatt, the celebrated Harvard University scholar and MLA president-in-waiting for 2002, counters that Naipaul is a few years behind the curve.

"It's very easy to mouth off about these things, always easy to think it was better in the earlier generation," Greenblatt says, noting that he included Naipaul in the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature . "I'm wary of this tendency." Already, he says, "the mood is shifting from abstraction to a grainier, textual engagement".

Whatever the future holds, it is clear that the US election will continue to weigh heavily over the convention. Participants include Stanford rhetorician Andrea Lunsford who, with her students, has dissected the speechifying in the White House race. She says logos lost to pathos in the election. Al Gore loaded on the logic but failed by weight of intellect to crush Mr Regular - George W. Bush.

"The most disturbing thing to me, as a person who studies rhetoric, is that the arguments that move people in this country are appeals to pathos," Lunsford says. "Bush presented himself as a guy who you could sit down and drink a Coke with, watch a football game and shoot the breeze with. Gore presented himself as someone with information. Clearly, Americans are not persuaded by logical appeals."

Clearly. Presidential politics in the MLA, by comparison, are positively genteel. Three years in advance, three nominees are chosen. Each writes a short statement, ballots are sent to the MLA's 30,000 members to choose their leader, and a winner is duly declared. But no one is actually told how many votes are cast for them or anyone else.

Lunsford was in the running for the 2000 MLA presidency, along with the University of Toronto's Linda Hutcheon, and the University of Wisconsin's Nellie McKay. The three women are old friends. This year they will take speaking parts in the presidential address of the winner - Hutcheon - and join a presidential forum on "Creative Collaboration: Alternatives to the Adversarial Academy". The focus is collaboration, says Hutcheon, as opposed to "the romantic model of solo scholars".

Collaboration is Lunsford's passion - she co-authored a book on the subject in 1990. At the MLA, she plans to help launch a website, Collaborate!, that invites surfers not just to visit the site, but to help build it. Databases growing on the internet, be they medieval, classical or even Chinese texts, will defy lonely attempts to conquer their meaning, she says. "The kind of research that needs to be done in the humanities can't be done by some solitary person sitting in the library trying to write the last great work on 'x'."

Leadership, Hutcheon concedes, does have its perks, notably a "year-round visit across the continent" to speak to departments and undergraduates, and dinners to discuss her own work - which runs from opera to comparative literary history - and the profession. She also helped plan the MLA journal's millennium issue, which comes out this month. It includes addresses by presidents past, including the German studies scholar who presided awkwardly in 1941 and the 1969 speech launched with a quote from Bob Dylan.

There is one issue that continues to dog the MLA, and that could play into the hands of conservative critics. New figures from the organisation show that just one-third of university staff in English and foreign-language departments are full-time tenure track professors. Less than half of academic courses and just a quarter of introductory undergraduate courses are taught by tenured professors. Two-thirds of undergraduate courses at prestigious PhD-granting institutions, the top 10 per cent of US colleges, are actually taught by non-tenured faculty.

The data were compiled and published under pressure from MLA members who bear the bulk of the teaching work: graduate teaching assistants, part-timers and some full-time non-tenured staff. They have complained bitterly for years of being underpaid workhorses, as universities cut back on humanities budgets and fail to maintain tenured posts. The figures seem to confirm that impression. "These statistics show us a snapshot right now, and it looks as if senior people teach a lot of senior courses," Hutcheon says. "They certainly don't teach junior courses."

Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois, is an academic labour activist whom graduate students voted on to the MLA executive council. He says the findings are shameful. Public pressure could soon mount when figures from individual university departments of English are published, showing the disparity in the salaries of top tenured professors against what lowly part-time teaching staff in the same college are paid per course, he said. "This is a volatile and dangerous piece of information. It appears that tenured faculty has abandoned undergraduate education."

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