MLA: Widening the lens

December 20, 2002

The MLA has its annual meeting in New York next week and, in keeping with the post-9/11 mood, it is broadening its reach far beyond the traditional confines of academia, reports Jon Marcus

This year’s Modern Language Association convention has no fewer than 30 sessions on themes related to the war on terror, including the language and literature of war, disaster and remembrance.

There are also, of course, many sessions on the more bread-and-butter challenges facing humanities academics. “We’re moving through a tough time,” says Stephen Greenblatt, the association’s president and Harvard University Renaissance scholar, while at the same time stressing the need for members not to be too wrapped up in their own crises that they ignore “the world beyond the profession”.

Much of the MLA’s drive to be more outward-looking is down to Greenblatt’s presidency. In the past year, the association has undertaken several schemes, including Scholars at Risk, modelled after programmes that found positions outside Germany for Jewish scholars in the 1930s. Harvard, for instance, where Greenblatt chairs a committee on this issue, has taken in an Iranian legal scholar and an Ethiopian professor of geography working on famine-related issues.

The MLA has also set up the “Email Academy” to connect professors in second and third-world universities with counterparts in developed countries. It is part of an effort to “engage the moral passion of our membership on issues not necessarily focused on our own wellbeing but the wellbeing of people beyond our immediate orbit,” Greenblatt says.

His interest in wider events has also brought controversy. Earlier this year, his correspondence with Michael Sinnott, a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, over the Mona Baker case became public and is now the subject of a Umist inquiry.

Greenblatt objected to Baker’s firing of two Israeli researchers from an academic journal, calling it “a violation of what I understand scholarship to be in that it excludes people from a scholarly conversation on the basis of race or religion”. Sinnott, says Greenblatt, responded by comparing Zionism to Nazism, suggesting the media was controlled by Jews and equating Israel to Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. He says Sinnott’s email seemed to him “to cross a line that went beyond passionate disagreement about politics into some other kind of scenario. I think it was not actually opening a conversation. It was arguing on behalf of the idea of cutting off conversations.”

With regard to the war on terror, Greenblatt says his interest is on “the gap between the events as they are evolving and the public discourse about the events, the peculiar absence of a serious discussion or debate”. He adds: “At any moment like this, in which the stakes for the society at large go way, way up in what is said by our leaders and by the leaders of other countries, there is a kind of intensified attention, but there is something slightly paradoxical about this, because it is not as if we are awash in eloquence. This is not our Churchillian moment. What we have is something like the opposite: we have a stripped-down language of the bad guys and evil, and nothing that is articulated behind that.”

Greenblatt is keen, however, not to ignore problems closer to home. Pre-eminent among these is the decline in the number of jobs for humanities doctorates and in publishing opportunities. The MLA is encouraging university departments to reduce the number of PhDs they turn out so that there is a more realistic relationship to the number of jobs available. It is also collecting data so that it can form a “more nuanced account of what the situation is”. Greenblatt says: “We’ve tried to get departments to see that it is both rational and ethical to limit the number of PhDs they grant and to limit the size of their programmes. The association does not control this but it can do more than just deplore it.”

Fittingly, the convention will include workshops for job seekers interested in moving into careers outside the academy.

Another hot issue is the link between tenure and publishing in a climate where publishing houses and university libraries face huge cuts. The MLA has already publicised this issue widely among its members, asking tenure committees to take this situation into account when evaluating junior faculty. It also recommends that universities give more weight in tenure decisions to peer-reviewed electronic publication, or provide subsidies for small presses.

Greenblatt, one of the leaders of the New Historicist movement and a firm believer that literature should be interpreted in its historical context, has had no difficulty finding a publisher himself. No fewer than 14 publishers engaged in a week-long bidding war for his most recent book. He picked W. W. Norton, which, his agent says, made a “significant six-figure offer”.

In his writing, Greenblatt has embraced the need to address a more mainstream audience. His 2001 book, Hamlet in Purgatory, is largely about the power of the dead over the living and it opens with a personal anecdote about the death of Greenblatt’s father. He says: “Academics should think about a larger public when they write and avoid excessively hermetic and obscure vocabulary.”

But he acknowledges that many scholarly issues will be of interest to only a small audience and that the public must be convinced that this work is important.

The question of audience throws up the larger issue of why people read literature and want to write about it. Greenblatt simply says: “It keeps us in touch with the spirits of the ancestors.”

This year’s Modern Language Association convention has no fewer than 30 sessions on themes related to the war on terror, including the language and literature of war, disaster and remembrance.

There are also, of course, many sessions on the more bread-and-butter challenges facing humanities academics. “We’re moving through a tough time,” says Stephen Greenblatt, the association’s president and Harvard University Renaissance scholar, while at the same time stressing the need for members not to be too wrapped up in their own crises that they ignore “the world beyond the profession”.

Much of the MLA’s drive to be more outward-looking is down to Greenblatt’s presidency. In the past year, the association has undertaken several schemes, including Scholars at Risk, modelled after programmes that found positions outside Germany for Jewish scholars in the 1930s. Harvard, for instance, where Greenblatt chairs a committee on this issue, has taken in an Iranian legal scholar and an Ethiopian professor of geography working on famine-related issues.

The MLA has also set up the “Email Academy” to connect professors in second and third-world universities with counterparts in developed countries. It is part of an effort to “engage the moral passion of our membership on issues not necessarily focused on our own wellbeing but the wellbeing of people beyond our immediate orbit,” Greenblatt says.

His interest in wider events has also brought controversy. Earlier this year, his correspondence with Michael Sinnott, a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, over the Mona Baker case became public and is now the subject of a Umist inquiry.

Greenblatt objected to Baker’s firing of two Israeli researchers from an academic journal, calling it “a violation of what I understand scholarship to be in that it excludes people from a scholarly conversation on the basis of race or religion”. Sinnott, says Greenblatt, responded by comparing Zionism to Nazism, suggesting the media was controlled by Jews and equating Israel to Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. He says Sinnott’s email seemed to him “to cross a line that went beyond passionate disagreement about politics into some other kind of scenario. I think it was not actually opening a conversation. It was arguing on behalf of the idea of cutting off conversations.”

With regard to the war on terror, Greenblatt says his interest is on “the gap between the events as they are evolving and the public discourse about the events, the peculiar absence of a serious discussion or debate”. He adds: “At any moment like this, in which the stakes for the society at large go way, way up in what is said by our leaders and by the leaders of other countries, there is a kind of intensified attention, but there is something slightly paradoxical about this, because it is not as if we are awash in eloquence. This is not our Churchillian moment. What we have is something like the opposite: we have a stripped-down language of the bad guys and evil, and nothing that is articulated behind that.”

Greenblatt is keen, however, not to ignore problems closer to home. Pre-eminent among these is the decline in the number of jobs for humanities doctorates and in publishing opportunities. The MLA is encouraging university departments to reduce the number of PhDs they turn out so that there is a more realistic relationship to the number of jobs available. It is also collecting data so that it can form a “more nuanced account of what the situation is”. Greenblatt says: “We’ve tried to get departments to see that it is both rational and ethical to limit the number of PhDs they grant and to limit the size of their programmes. The association does not control this but it can do more than just deplore it.”

Fittingly, the convention will include workshops for job seekers interested in moving into careers outside the academy.

Another hot issue is the link between tenure and publishing in a climate where publishing houses and university libraries face huge cuts. The MLA has already publicised this issue widely among its members, asking tenure committees to take this situation into account when evaluating junior faculty. It also recommends that universities give more weight in tenure decisions to peer-reviewed electronic publication, or provide subsidies for small presses.

Greenblatt, one of the leaders of the New Historicist movement and a firm believer that literature should be interpreted in its historical context, has had no difficulty finding a publisher himself. No fewer than 14 publishers engaged in a week-long bidding war for his most recent book. He picked W. W. Norton, which, his agent says, made a “significant six-figure offer”.

In his writing, Greenblatt has embraced the need to address a more mainstream audience. His 2001 book, Hamlet in Purgatory, is largely about the power of the dead over the living and it opens with a personal anecdote about the death of Greenblatt’s father. He says: “Academics should think about a larger public when they write and avoid excessively hermetic and obscure vocabulary.”

But he acknowledges that many scholarly issues will be of interest to only a small audience and that the public must be convinced that this work is important.

The question of audience throws up the larger issue of why people read literature and want to write about it. Greenblatt simply says: “It keeps us in touch with the spirits of the ancestors.”

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