Fighting the feelbad factor: amid gloom, talk of resilience

The trials of the liberal arts preoccupied the MLA conference. Matthew Reisz writes from Los Angeles

January 13, 2011

The tough realities faced by the "academy in hard times" were discussed by thousands of humanities scholars who gathered in California for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America.

The conference in Los Angeles, held on 6-9 January, saw delegates debate such issues as "the actions we must take if we expect the academy to emerge in recognizable shape" from the current crisis.

Although US higher education had endured difficult periods before, said Michael Berube, Paterno Family professor in literature at Pennsylvania State University, today's problems were "structural", as reflected in pay reductions, programme cuts, staff furloughs and a withdrawal of stimulus funds that has left "some universities with shortfalls of 20 to 25 per cent".

At the end of the tunnel, he said, could await something as dire as the UK's recent Comprehensive Spending Review, in which public funding for higher education was cut by 40 per cent, with the teaching grant for arts, humanities and social sciences courses axed altogether.

Reed Dasenbrock, vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hawai'i at Mnoa, said that contrary to common belief, it was teaching income from the humanities that largely subsidised the sciences in the US, at least in public universities. He also reminded his audience that despite the gloom, "the US still spends more per capita on higher education than any country in the world except Switzerland".

For Monica Jacobe, lecturer on the writing programme at Princeton University, the rhetoric of "hard times" was being employed to justify attacks on higher education that had been well under way long before the current recession.

She would be happy, she said, if, "on the other side of these supposed hard times, we returned to an academy I'm not sure ever existed - one where the profession at large values what we do in and out of the classroom, where that value is affirmed with academic freedom and tenure as the dominant paradigm, and where institutions of higher learning spend more on instruction than on utility bills".

Cora Kaplan, honorary professor of English and drama at Queen Mary, University of London, formed a panel of English academics to update America on "the strange death of the liberal university in Britain".

Derek Attridge, professor of English at the University of York, suggested that British educational policy was often justified by misleading parallels to Harvard and Yale that ignored the crucial place of public universities in the US system.

He also won widespread support for his argument that universities "seem to have forgotten that a large part of their social value depends on their critical function - their willingness to 'speak truth to power'?".

Among other sessions exploring academic freedom, governance, protest, unionisation and the need to improve conditions for non-tenure-track positions, a panel on "hacking the academy" looked at self-help techniques for coping with the stresses of these hard times.

Keep your chin up

Natalie Houston, associate professor of English at the University of Houston, delivered a warning about "the conventional scripts of academic selfhood".

She said: "When a new term starts and somebody asks 'How was your break?', it is easy to respond with 'I didn't get enough done' and receive a sympathetic response. After three conversations like that, you end up thoroughly depressed."

Academics would always be miserable if they let other people define success for them in terms of quantity of output, she added, which inevitably left them with a sense of not having done enough.

The theme was also discussed by Sidonie Smith, Martha Guernsey Colby collegiate professor of English and women's studies at the University of Michigan, in her presidential address to the conference.

She urged delegates to "engage the crisis" and "not to forget the changes won by hard work in the past".

When she was pregnant, she said, she had "planned for a delivery at the end of December because I knew I would have to return to the classroom in the second week of January...I sat in the back of faculty meetings for his first several months breastfeeding. Now men and women in tenured and tenure-track positions can take parental leave."

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