Hard times and narration arouse passion in US humanities scholars

The “academy in crisis” emerged as a key theme on the first day of the Modern Language Association of America conference, as thousands of humanities scholars gathered in California for the annual convention.

January 6, 2011

Despite the wealth of some sections of the US academy, and the lavish Los Angeles setting, there was a strong sense of the grave situation in which universities, and the humanities in particular, find themselves. It is marked by cuts in state funding, axed programmes and grim prospects for graduate students pursuing academic careers.

This led to a series of panels under the heading “The Academy in Hard Times”. Speakers explored the threat to specific disciplines such as German and African-American studies. They examined the possible “strange death of the liberal university in Britain”. They suggested ways to improve conditions for non-tenure track appointments and cope with or combat what has become “the new normal” in US higher education. Alongside protest and collective action, they also proposed forms of self-help to face up to inevitable failures and reduce the constant sense of stress.

Rather more cheerful was the theme of “Narrating Lives” chosen by Sidonie Smith, Martha Guernsey Colby professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. This will form a focus of 60 sessions at the conference, which is running until 9 January, covering everything from conversion narratives to confessional television.

The first day included panels on “tortured lives in East Asia”, “performances of Black cultural trauma and memory” and the autobiographical construction of the self.

Those still to come include sessions on “electronic lives”, multilingual lives, Shakespeare’s lives and the untold stories of the global sex trade.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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