Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future

Originally published in the Fall 2015 MLA Newsletter

Are you ready to go public? When we convene in Austin on 7 January, we will experience all the familiar elements that make an MLA convention an intellectually rich, sometimes overwhelming event: more panels speaking to our interests than anyone could ever attend, meetings of allied organizations, and the informal encounters that can change minds or careers. But I hope you will also join us in conversations about the presidential theme, Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future. In selecting the theme, I meant to provoke reflection on one of the most salient problems in our common discipline.

What is the public life of literature—and of film, digital media, rhetoric, and other kinds of texts?

In framing this kind of question, I want to evoke both the past offices of literature within the general culture—including its reception, its political engagements, and its translation into other media—and the conditions of the present. Some of our members believe that literature’s cultural force has diminished, whereas others, like me, think that its place in the general culture is continually under negotiation and that nostalgia for an imagined past has little value as we negotiate in our complicated moment. Some have no use for the term literature at all, seeing it as a spent institution with little relevance to a world in which everyone can produce art but few read deeply and disinterestedly.

I mean to invite conversation about the future too. When I attended my first convention in Los Angeles in 1982, there was little reason to think that our profession would be drastically different thirty-some years later, except for the concern (then as now) over a shrinking job market. Now in an era of new technologies and troubling forces in our industry, we are obliged to consider who our students will be in another ten or twenty years and how we will educate them. Who will read literary and other works as well as our analysis of them? Disciplinary custom and inertia can often mask the urgency of these questions, about which I’ve written elsewhere.1 To me, one of the values of a big tent like the MLA convention is the exchange of views across the breadth of our common discipline and the chance to see the horizon together. We’ll take stock at the Presidential Plenary on Friday morning, 8 January, featuring Bruce Holsinger, Albert Russell Ascoli, Deidre Lynch, Ato Quayson, and Marjorie Perloff, and at many more sessions throughout the convention.

From editing to translation to evaluation, MLA members enact all the roles that bring literary works to their publics. We make informed readers and teach those readers to respond in clear writing. And at every stage, we interpret. In fact, the public act of interpretation is something like a subtheme of the 2016 convention. On Friday afternoon we will hear the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín discuss how his interpretation of other writers (most recently, Elizabeth Bishop) informs his fiction, and on Saturday afternoon three interpreters from other disciplines—the historian Jo Guldi, the NEH Chairman William “Bro” Adams, and the United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer—will consider how interpretive acts contribute to public discourse, comparing history, public humanities, and law with the interpretation of literature.

The 328 sessions that engage with the convention theme (out of nearly 850) run across a wide spectrum of topics, methods, and, of course, languages, from “Reading Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Her Publics” to “The Public Jane Austen in Austin; or, How to Keep Austen Weird” to “Charlie Hebdo and Its Publics,” “‘Prison Literature’ and Its Publics,” and “Disrupting the Digital Humanities: New Radical Publics.”

The intellectual work of making literature public is inseparable from the conditions of the academic workforce, in which the tenure-track professoriat is being replaced by contingent faculty members who often lack employment security, pedagogical resources, or the occasions for intellectual renewal that make for fresh interpretation. This is the most urgent public issue we face: how to bring our tenure-track and adjunct members together with our allies in the interpretive humanities, students, parents, and the public to challenge exploitative conditions, as in the MLA’s Action for Allies project. Our sense of the value of literary and humanistic study will scarcely register without a corresponding strategy for resisting the hollowing of public education and the disinvestment from the public good. The MLA does this work every day, but the convention in Austin will be a site for assessing our approach to these challenges, as individual members and as a scholarly association.

Since these intellectual and professional matters are closely braided together, I hope the conversation in Austin will move fluidly between them. Not only is the public watching us—at least in the journalistic coverage that follows every MLA convention—but, as many of us know from experience, often the discoveries we make when we convene quickly become part of the public work of our teaching, research, and institutional service.

I look forward to seeing and hearing you in Austin.


  1. See, e.g., my blog post “The Social Role of the Critic” (, among others.

Closing the Circle

Originally published in the Summer 2015 MLA Newsletter

What should the MLA be five and ten years from now? In a time of acute change in higher education, how should the association adapt to serve its members and our profession? These are questions the officers, the Executive Council, and the staff are considering as we make plans for the near future. I would like to outline three challenges the MLA will confront over the next several years and mention briefly how we are already addressing them. There is much to be done, however, and in the coming months we will want to hear from you.

Representation. First and foremost, the MLA is a scholarly association and a membership organization that exists to promote the shared interests of all those who study language in its various manifestations. For this reason, the Executive Council considers having a broad base of members important, not for the sake of numbers but to ensure that the association represents the diverse interests of those teaching, studying, researching, and practicing the humanities. As the workforce changes, the MLA is committed to increasing participation by those who have been less represented in the past—including teachers and scholars in disciplines other than literature, community college faculty members, and of course the full-time and part-time contingent faculty members who do most of the teaching in United States (and, sometimes, Canadian) institutions. While new incentives for being an MLA member can be offered, this challenge finally comes down to people wanting to join or renew because the association promotes their values and gives them a voice.

In this, we are making progress. The new intellectual structure—in which redrawn forums have replaced the old divisions and discussion groups, and the annual convention has changed accordingly—is a step forward; the council is imagining further changes to make the convention more accommodating to new and emerging groups. Now all members may nominate themselves (or any other member) to serve on committees of the association, an opportunity we hope more will take. Around half of those appointed to committees this year came from the online nomination process. The Nominating Committee is determined to keep a range of professional standpoints (including those of adjuncts, community college faculty members, and graduate students) on the Executive Council. Looking outward, we are strengthening our ties with associations such as the National Council of Teachers of English. As this past February’s National Adjunct Walkout Day began to take shape, the MLA launched a complementary initiative, Action for Allies, which provided hundreds of full-time faculty members a platform to declare their solidarity with the most exploited segment of our profession and to take action on their campuses. The work of advancing representation continues.

The MLA Convention. In-person job interviews at the convention became indispensable in the 1960s as an egalitarian reaction against the clubby customs of earlier decades. For nearly all of us, the only MLA convention we have known has been colored by the tensions of the job market. The gradual decline of in-person interviews at the convention in favor of online media means that, for the first time in generations, we have an opportunity to rethink the nature of our annual meeting. How should we envision a convention in which the apparatus of the job market is only a small part and where our intellectual connections can thrive in new ways?

Informed by a recent survey of members, the Executive Council is starting to think about this question. The possibilities include a less populous, more intellectually concentrated event; deeper attention to matters of mentoring and professionalization; and more occasions to engage with our allies in other disciplines and sectors, such as curators, librarians, and humanities PhDs in the tech industry. I suspect that how we respond creatively to this evolutionary change in the life of our fields will do much to define the MLA for the next several generations.

Closing the Circle. The MLA of recent decades has advocated for the profession by bringing people together, gathering information, and making recommendations for standards and practices. As we carry out these vital operations, we are committed to following through. We must ask: what results came from our advocacy, and what can we do next? How can you put this information to use in your department? Were the recommendations adopted, and what happens next? As the Executive Council and staff have heard me say, this is about closing the circle. This imperative has many dimensions, from developing MLA Commons into our town square to encouraging the Delegate Assembly to serve as a year-round source of advice and insight to the council as well as a site of activity on professional matters.

A few weeks ago, during a visit to Indiana University, I was asked to speak to a group of graduate students and faculty members about the work of the MLA. Their hopes for the association—as a force for improvement in a dispiriting professional climate, and as a community in which their voices will be heard—reminded me how important it is to maintain our progress on the challenges I have mentioned here, and more. Key to closing the circle will be MLA members themselves. The broad survey of the membership is already under way. As we reach out, I want to hear from more of you: what do you think the MLA should be in the next decade? I promise to use your responses to shape our action agenda.

A Welcome from MLA President Roland Greene

Dear Colleague,

Welcome to the Modern Language Association. As the MLA’s president for 2015–16, I would like to remark briefly on where we are today and where we are going in the near future.  My membership has meant a great deal in my professional life, and sharing my understanding of this association with you is an important part of my work this year.

The MLA is the largest scholarly association in the world and a major force in the humanities in North America.  Its two main activities are to sustain the intellectual and pedagogical work of its nearly 27,000 members and to advocate for better conditions for all of us (scholars, teachers, students, and more), in our profession and the broader humanities.  While these aims may seem different from each other, they are really about helping you carry out all of your roles: as you seek a job, or write an article for publication, or prepare to teach an unfamiliar work, or speak to your dean about teaching loads or class sizes, the MLA has developed resources to support you.

We publish books and journals, produce the indispensable MLA International Bibliography, conduct research into working conditions in our industry, promulgate guidelines on a wide range of professional matters, and bring the community together once a year at the annual convention.  We also intervene when members confront challenging professional conditions that have implications for the rest of the profession—say, when academic freedom is violated or teaching conditions are compromised.  With a staff of about one hundred, the MLA aims to stay ahead of events in nearly every aspect of the humanities, and your support will keep it there.

Even the most seasoned members must refresh their view of the association from time to time.  I urge you to explore both the MLA Web site and MLA Commons: the former is a gateway to our publications, the Job Information List and related professional guides, the impressive collection of materials on our advocacy for the workforce, and the dozens of committees through which members’ perspectives shape the association, while the latter is an innovative platform where members exchange ideas with one another.

What’s ahead?  This is a time of unusual challenges in higher education, but the MLA’s elected officers, Executive Council, and staff remain encouraged that we can continue to make a difference in your professional experience every day.  We’re undertaking a survey of the members to explore how to serve you better.  The governance of the MLA is continually expanding to include a wider range of members on our various committees, and I encourage you to nominate yourself or others.  We’re exploring different ways of putting the information we compile about the profession into your hands, helping you improve conditions in your workplace.  We are working to expand our outreach to potential members in community colleges, K–12 schools, overseas institutions, and libraries.  With partner institutions such as the University of California Humanities Research Institute, we’ll be finding new ways of staying connected to the entire population of PhDs in language and literature, not only those who found work in our profession.  And the convention continues to evolve as we respond to advice from members on how to meet your needs.

Our size as an organization can sometimes seem to be a disadvantage—for instance, when the convention looks daunting to newcomers, or when we consult thoroughly on a hot issue.  But our size is also our strength.  We need everyone in the profession to stand with us as we work daily on your behalf, in ways seen and unseen.  Please join or renew, urge your colleagues and graduate students to become members, and make your voice heard. As a start on a new (or enriched) membership experience, I look forward to hearing from you at and seeing you at the 2016 convention in Austin.


Roland Greene

Telling Our Story

Originally published in the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter

The theme of the 2016 convention in Austin will be Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future. I’d like to anticipate that event with a year of renewed attention to the publics we face as scholars of literature, language, and writing and to the MLA’s particular public, its members. In this first column of my presidency, I reflect on how the MLA braids two identities, as a scholarly association and an advocacy organization, in support of our members’ professional lives.

One of the most enjoyable things about the Vancouver convention for me was the spontaneous conversations I had with members. At one reception, I spoke for half an hour with two instructors from Central Washington University, Lila Harper and Ruthi Erdman, about how they see their membership in the MLA. Their enjoyment of the convention was manifest, and both spoke eloquently about what they have gained. Lila later wrote to me:

I have been a member for thirty years, having joined as a graduate student. Joining back then required that I go to the library, obtain a PMLA to find the address, and write a letter asking to join. I had been told it was my professional organization, so I figured I had better join up. No one else in my family had ever tried doing doctoral work, so I was attempting to figure out the culture. Although I have been non-tenure-track for twenty-five years and have never been interviewed for a tenure-line job, I still believe it is my professional organization.

As I have struggled to find a place for myself in an institutional world that saw me as marginal or possibly threatening, I looked to the MLA to remind me that I belong to a profession with an ethical code, that there was more to my work than the everyday conditions of departmental life, more than answering the continuingly disconnected demands of my employer’s bureaucracy. I need the MLA to remind me that my intellectual goals do not end with servicing the increasing classroom sizes and poorly prepared students and that the continuation of scholarship matters.

If it had not been for the MLA, I would have burned out long ago. Teachers need something for themselves, an intellectual engagement that continues beyond the latest group of students, one that will carry you through yet another set of budget cutbacks, software upgrades, and administrative turnovers. The MLA keeps me connected. It reminds me that there is a world of ideas and conversations out there and that, no matter my status at work, I can still contribute to that world.

Few can express better than Lila what it means to belong to a scholarly association, especially to one the size and scope of ours. In an intellectual sense, our association sustains the intangible bonds of knowledge that keep not only us as scholars and teachers but our disparate fields in conversation.

In the academy of today, however, intellectual connection is not everything we expect of the MLA. It’s an organization that exists to serve the needs of its members by offering advocacy and information as well as intellectual exchange—and it must maintain both threads of this identity together.

Some of this advocacy has been consistent over the decades: the MLA is the humanities organization that leads all the rest in carrying out research on the workforce in higher education, forging partnerships with other humanities associations and foundations, and lobbying for our interests in Washington. However much one may enjoy the warm embrace of a small conference or the easy legibility of a field-specific journal (and I do), the organizations that give us these things don’t have the size or the budget to do the quotidian, often invisible work of the MLA.

In this era of tumult in higher education, the officers, Executive Council, and staff are always asking how the MLA as an advocacy organization can better reflect the profession and serve a wider range of members in ways that recognize the institutional realities they face every day. We’re making the MLA more representative of the profession by reaching out to faculty members across the spectrum of institutions and employment as well as to our partners in K–12 education, our allies in other sectors such as libraries and foundations, and our counterparts abroad. There’s more we can do to put the information we gather directly into members’ hands and to speak explicitly to the needs of members across very different professional conditions.

Our challenge is to make the MLA’s work visible in ways that touch the everyday experiences of our members, potential members, and allies. We know how to interpret others’ stories, but can we tell our own story as the largest scholarly organization in the world? Despite our size, can we become nimbler, more open to new voices, and more about conversations than pronouncements? Posing and answering these questions is my first initiative as president. I intend to report on it throughout 2015 on MLA Commons, and I invite your comments here.

An Invitation to Contribute to Graduate Education Reform Site

In releasing the Report of the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature six months ago, the task force and the MLA Executive Council sought to provoke a discussion about the problems addressed by the report and about new models for doctoral study. While we believed that the report marked an important step forward in the conception of doctoral education in literature, language, and rhetoric in the United States and that it reflects a deep engagement with many constituencies, we also recognized that conditions at different kinds of institutions, campuses, and departments vary enormously. We have been gratified to learn that many departments have taken up the challenge of reexamining their programs in the light of the report.

To encourage further discussion of the report’s recommendations, the MLA has launched an MLA Commons site, Graduate Education Reform. On the site you’ll find the full text of the report, with space for commenting on each section; an appendix of innovative programs that exemplify the report’s recommendations; reflections on the report; and resources for students, faculty members, administrators, and others.

The Executive Council and I invite discussion about the report, as well as new ideas about reforming doctoral education in the humanities. How would your department adapt the report’s recommendations into practical measures appropriate to your institution? What additional ideas do you have about how the report of the task force might be translated into action?  To add your voice, please comment directly on any section of the report or submit by e-mail descriptions of innovative programs or reflections posted on other blogs or Web sites.

I am grateful for the thoughtful responses the council and I have already received, and I look forward to seeing this important discussion continue.

A Preview of the 2015 Presidential Theme

I’d like to say first how grateful I am to those participating in the 242 convention sessions related to my presidential theme, Negotiating Sites of Memory. I wish I could attend all the sessions, and I hope that MLA members will peruse the list of titles in the online Program.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to say a little more about this theme in three short videos. If you’re curious about what sites of memory are and why I chose Negotiating Sites of Memory as the presidential theme, I invite you to visit the MLA Web site to watch any or all of the videos. If you would like to preview the speakers and their wide-ranging topics in the Presidential Forum and its two linked sessions, you can read a brochure about the sessions.

I’m looking forward to learning new things about my theme in Vancouver in January, and I hope to meet some of you there and then.

Tense Conversations

Originally published in the Winter 2014 MLA Newsletter

A few weeks ago, my twin teenage daughters gave me a lesson in how to talk to Siri, the female ghost in my new smartphone. “Ask her a question,” said Marianne. I couldn’t think what to ask, so Christina intervened: “Tell her to make a joke.” Seeing that I still didn’t get it, Christina prompted Siri, and she responded with unnerving speed: “Past, Present, and Future met in a bar. It was tense.” In this column, the last I’ll have the privilege of writing as president of the MLA, I want to think about two views of education that often coexist in traditional and virtual classrooms but that have recently come into conflict. The views offer competing perspectives on the concept of academic freedom as it is explained by the Supreme Court in a 1967 case that overturned a McCarthy-era law prohibiting teachers from being members of “seditious” organizations. The court held that, because free discussion is essential in a democratic society, academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment[,] which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom” (“Keyishian”). I will be focusing here on college classrooms and campuses, but the two views under discussion arguably affect the conduct of education in primary and secondary schools too.

In a nation deeply concerned with homeland security, it is perhaps not surprising that a high value is placed on students feeling psychologically secure even in the learning environment of the classroom. The United States also values critical thinking over rote learning in its secular schools, a view that encourages the challenging of students’ preconceptions, which can often make students feel tense and insecure. Although these two views of education are often in tension, many teachers try to blend them and the values they encapsulate. Texts and Web sites offering advice about how to do so abound: one, from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, states that “tension in the classroom, when it does not get out of control or explode, can prompt learning”; it also states that “safety,” while not a pedagogical goal “in itself,” is a “prerequisite for the kind of classroom climate that can result in learning” (“Creating”). Few of us would disagree with either statement presented alone. But there are difficulties in conceiving of individual students’ psychic safety as a prerequisite to learning in classroom environments. The difficulties have been dramatically exposed by recent debates about student requests that faculty members provide “trigger warnings” on syllabi.

Such warnings signal that forthcoming material could be disturbing because it may trigger a memory of a traumatic experience such as sexual assault, war violence, or racism. Advocates of trigger warnings claim that students have a right to know in advance about potentially upsetting material. Students at Oberlin College, countering objections that a new trigger-warning policy created without faculty input would harm academic freedom, argued that “[i]deally, individuals who are part of an academic institution should be challenged and forced to articulate and defend their perspectives, but in order to have a fruitful discussion about these topics, as many people as possible need to feel comfortable participating” (Flaherty). Challenge, here associated with “force,” is trumped by safety, which is associated with and implicitly defined as a precondition for “challenges” to be dealt with “fruitfully.” Reality is aligned with students’ need for comfortable learning experiences and with the selective liberal arts college’s presumed desire for democratic inclusiveness. Feminists are divided about trigger warnings, as Jack Halberstam shows, and many faculty members are voicing objections. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government has demanded a trigger-warning policy, a professor of sociology who uses images of torture in her course materials said that “any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom” (Medina). And another UCSB professor argues against trigger warnings on the grounds that they give students a false sense of security, isolating disturbing events as if they could be recalled only in the course materials of humanities and other “interpretive” fields, whereas in truth “they affect and shape all of our ways of producing knowledge” (Fradenburg).

Notable also is a recent statement by the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks, who contended that “civility and free speech are two sides of the same coin” (qtd. in White). Issued during the fiftieth anniversary of the free-speech movement at Berkeley, the chancellor’s message to the academic community was immediately attacked by faculty members who thought that it echoed an opportunistic use of the ethic of civility at the University of Illinois, where Steven Salaita had his offer of a tenured position in American Indian studies revoked by Chancellor Phyllis Wise on the grounds that his statements (on social media) about the Palestine-Israel conflict were “demeaning” to alternative viewpoints.1 Dirks’s statement was criticized by several faculty groups for misunderstanding the First Amendment, which protects “uncivil” speech and unpopular opinions without any stipulation about balancing free speech with communal interests such as civility (California Scholars).

Chancellor Dirks didn’t do an about-face—unlike James Montgomery, the one trustee at the University of Illinois who changed his opinion about the Salaita case—but he did make a revision that was seen as significant by the constitutional scholar Ken White and others.2 While reiterating his hope that “commitments to civility and to freedom of speech can complement each other,” Dirks acknowledged that these commitments can and do “exist in tension”; moreover, he defined free speech in a more legally rigorous way, no longer suggesting that it was opposed to “political advocacy” (qtd. in White). The questions Chancellor Dirks and his student and faculty critics have addressed are still undecided in the academy and beyond, and the questions are affected by wider cultural and political pressures. Perhaps they could be more fruitfully debated if we were to acknowledge that the idea of the classroom or campus as a “safe harbor” may be not only imprecise but also in some circumstances radically at odds with the idea of education as a forum for the open exchange and assessment of ideas.


  1. Chancellor Wise’s statement is reproduced in Wilson. For a comprehensive discussion of the case’s many developments through 1 October 2014, see Rothberg.
  2. For Montgomery’s statement about why he changed his mind, see “UIUC Trustee.”

Works Cited

California Scholars for Academic Freedom. “Letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks re Civility and Free Speech.” California Scholars for Academic Freedom. N.p., 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. <>.

“Creating a Safe and Engaging Classroom Environment.” Learn Center. School of Graduate Studies and Extended Education, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, 2005–09. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <>.

Flaherty, Colleen. “Trigger Unhappy.” Inside Higher Ed. N.p., 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2014. <>.

Fradenburg, L. O. Aranye. “Triggers.” Why Psychoanalysis Is Good for You. N.p., 19 May 2014. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. <>.

Halberstam, Jack. “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.” Bully Bloggers. N.p., 5 July 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <>.

“Keyishian v. Board of Regents.” Education Law. N.p., 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 1 Oct. 2014. <>.

Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The New York Times. New York Times, 17 May 2014. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. <>.

Rothberg, Michael. “Reflections-in-Progress on the Salaita Case: Contradiction, Overdetermination, Mobilization.” Michael Rothberg. N.p., 1 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014. <>.

“UIUC Trustee Defends Salaita Appointment: ‘I Made a Mistake.'” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <>.

White, Ken. “Follow-Up: U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Right This Time.” Popehat, 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 1 Oct. 2014. <>.

Wilson, John K. “Chancellor Phyllis Wise Explains the Firing of Steven Salaita.” Academe Blog. N.p., 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. <>.

Negotiating Sites of Memory in Vancouver

Originally published in the Fall 2014 MLA Newsletter

In January 2015, the MLA will meet for the first time in Vancouver, named in 1886 after a British naval captain, George Vancouver, who explored the area in June 1792. Names are important in the city’s complex history as a colonized territory—and in its other, intertwined though much longer history as a place inhabited by many indigenous peoples. George Vancouver, who named over four hundred places on the Northwest Coast, was adroit at using English names to stake symbolic claims on waters and lands important to Britain’s mercantile interests. But he didn’t understand and perceived no need to learn the language of the native inhabitants of the place he would name Burrard Inlet, after an English friend. When these inhabitants, who called themselves Tsleil-Waututh, or “People of the Inlet,”1 canoed down the waterway to meet his boat, they brought several cooked fish, and Vancouver gave them some pieces of iron in return. But, as revealed in his journal entry, he misinterpreted their two collective speech acts in a way that did not bode well for subsequent efforts at communication. Both times that they paddled forward to talk, Vancouver thought they were engaging in “consultations” among themselves on matters that remained a “profound secret to us.” He found “[t]his sort of conduct” suspicious and advised that it should “ever be regarded with a watchful eye” (3: 190). He did not imagine that the natives were making ceremonial speeches of welcome to a group of strangers—as they had done for millennia according to customs that are still remembered today.

Traveling between established seasonal encampments in a rich ecological system that was a crossroads for trade, the native peoples of the Vancouver area communicated in many languages and across many borders. Were some of those languages, now classified as dialects, mutually intelligible in the precontact past? It would be tempting but reductive to explain the difficulty of answering such a question in terms of the distinction that the historian Pierre Nora draws between cultures with customary memories, which he associates with orality and embodied habits, and cultures with history, which he associates with critical reason, the capacity for nostalgia, and, above all, historiography in its root sense: the writing of history. His distinction between memory and history is challenged by the past and present language situation of Vancouver, as are two other distinctions important both to the city’s history and to my presidential theme, Negotiating Sites of Memory: the distinctions between ancient and modern and between colonial and postcolonial. There are obviously contexts in which it’s meaningful to oppose these terms as names for earlier and later periods, but the notion of a linear succession of periods in a Newtonian uniform flow of time becomes an obstacle to thought about sites with histories that have been, and continue to be, sites of contested memory and interpretation.

The aboriginal peoples of Canada, Peter Kulchyski argues in Like the Sound of a Drum, had ancient modes of writing on the land and on the body as well as modes of communicating aurally across space by drum. These semiotic systems are, however, not only ancient but also modern; Kulchyski shows how they are being “reconfigured and redeployed” in ongoing negotiations among parties with competing understandings of modernity and private property (17). The parties don’t come to the table with the rough parity usually required for successful negotiations. One sign of the asymmetry is the endangered status of all of the more than thirty indigenous languages of British Columbia (“First Nations Languages Program”). The people who welcomed Vancouver to their inlet spoke a language now identified as Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, one of three closely related tongues grouped under the English term Halkomelem and also categorized, more generally, as a version of Central Coast Salish. Today, there are few speakers who describe themselves as fluent in Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, and there are none at all in the Tsleil-Waututh community (“Hul’q’umi’num'”). Yet the number of indigenous language learners in Vancouver is growing, with support from the University of British Columbia’s First Nations Languages Program and community Web sites, such as, which highlights the Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ word qwiqwel, “to make a speech.”

Making speeches, listening to them, and sometimes interrupting, translating, interpreting, and debating them are activities that MLA members regularly practice as well as reflect on. These are also the activities that I hoped my colleagues would analyze and illuminate under the rubric Negotiating Sites of Memory. As I have thought more deeply about this theme during a summer filled with relentlessly terrible news about failed negotiations and proliferating acts of violence in many parts of the world, I have had moments of despair about the theme’s conceptual and ethical complexities. As a valuable alternative to war, negotiation may in some circumstances work as “a discussion or process of treaty with another (or others) aimed at reaching an agreement about a particular issue [or] problem” (def. 2), but negotiation can in other circumstances signify “manipulation” designed to get around an obstacle (def. 4). Negotiators may be at odds among themselves, and the fruit of a long negotiation may at times involve no more than an innovative phrase acknowledging that a problem exists in the eyes of both parties. A striking example of such a modest but still significant result of a negotiation over a site of memory occurred in June when the Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to acknowledge that the modern city occupies the “unceded traditional territory” of three indigenous peoples who have small land “reserves” within the city’s borders: the Musqueam, the Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh (Austin). “Unceded territory”: it’s a thought-provoking phrase both for citizens of Vancouver and for those who visit from other countries that have appropriated the lands of indigenous peoples and see those appropriations as events belonging to the past. “Unceded territories” puts indigenous people’s claims to their lands squarely in the present while also implying that negotiations should continue in the future.

Among the more than two hundred sessions that MLA members have organized in connection with the presidential theme, many address bracing questions about the concept of negotiation and about the modern academic field of memory studies. The roundtable “Transnational Memories: Sites, Knots, and Methods,” for example, questions “sites of memory” as an “assumed framework” for a field that has been “linked from the outset to national memory cultures, institutions, and sites.” Other MLA sessions, however, dissociate sites of memory from physical monuments, museums, and forms of commemoration approved (and often funded) by modern nation-states. There will be sessions on the print form of the edition, silent films, sixteenth-century composting practices, French Renaissance menus, troubadour poems, medieval Iberia, the early modern erotic body, the human brain, and queer archives—all considered sites of memory from various theoretical perspectives. There will be discussions of geographic sites of contested memory and analyses of texts that reconstruct the memories of slaves, prisoners, and poets. Many of the sessions conceived under the rubric of the presidential theme engage with what Michael Rothberg has analyzed as “multidirectional memory” that is “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing” (3). Memory is also subject, of course, to forgetting. The ancient Greeks figured forgetfulness, Lemosyne, as the twin sister of memory, Mnemosyne, and both goddesses will be invoked at the upcoming convention. I hope you will be able to attend it. If you do and are not a Canadian citizen, please don’t forget your passport. Borders between sovereign states, even ones that have friendly relations, are serious social constructions.


  1. Written names for indigenous groups and languages have varied over time and are not standardized now; the First Peoples’ Cultural Council provides a useful guide to orthographic issues at

Works Cited

Austin, Ian. “Vancouver Sits on Unceded First Nations Land, Council Acknowledges.” The Province. The Province, 27 June 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2014.

“First Nations Languages Program.” University of British Columbia. Faculty of Arts, U of British Columbia, 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <>.

“Hul’q’umi’num’ / Halq′eméylem / hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓.” First Peoples’ Language Map of British Columbia. First Peoples’ Heritage Language and Culture Council, n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2014. <>.

Kulchyski, Peter. Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut. Manitoba: U of Manitoba P, 2005. Print.

“Negotiation.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford UP, 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2014.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009. Print.

Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific. 6 vols. London: J. Stockdale, 1801. Print.

A Reminder to Vote on the MLA Ratification Ballot

Dear MLA Members,

If you haven’t yet exercised your right to vote to approve or disapprove of the Delegate Assembly’s decisions at its January 2014 meeting, I hope you will do so this weekend. Voting ends at 12 a.m. this Monday, 2 June (EDT).  The ballot has two sections: one for ratifying the election of an honorary member (Ottmar Ette) and three honorary fellows (Maryse Condé, Amitav Ghosh, and Suzan-Lori Parks), and the other for ratifying the adoption of Resolution 2014-1. The resolution reads as follows:

Whereas Israel has denied academics of Palestinian ethnicity entry into the West Bank;

Whereas these restrictions violate international conventions on an occupying power’s obligation to protect the right to education;

Whereas the United States Department of State acknowledges on its Web site that Israel restricts the movements of American citizens of Palestinian descent;

Whereas the denials have disrupted instruction, research, and planning at Palestinian universities;

Whereas the denials have restricted the academic freedom of scholars and teachers who are United States citizens;

Be it resolved that the MLA urge the United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.

This resolution was seriously debated at the Delegate Assembly meeting in January; during March and April, many MLA members posted comments about it on the MLA Web site. Please click here to go to the ballot, where you will find additional information about the honorary member and fellows and links to background information on the resolution, including members’ opinions for and against its ratification.

In closing, let me reiterate a point that Rosemary G. Feal, the association’s executive director, made in her e-mail to members last week: “your participation in voting is important because ratification of any resolution requires a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership.”


Margaret W. Ferguson

The MLA and the Common Core State Standards Initiative: Continuing the Conversation

Originally published in the Summer 2014 MLA Newsletter

The ongoing implementation of the educational-reform plan known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is having a mixed reception. This gives MLA members an opportunity to join a conversation that has already begun in our association about what the initiative is and what it might mean for college teachers who have a serious interest in literacy instruction. Postsecondary educators in mathematics had a considerably greater influence on the CCSSI’s grade-by-grade guidelines for math instruction than did postsecondary educators in the several fields that contribute to literacy studies. It seems clear that college teachers of language, writing studies, literature, and new media studies need to communicate across our internal field boundaries—as well as across the problematic boundaries that separate college teachers of reading, writing, and speaking from their colleagues in secondary and primary schools—if we are to have a say in how the new standards are interpreted in the future. We’re now in an interlude between the release of the standards as a copyrighted Web site in 2010 and the rollout of the new standardized tests scheduled to be “fully operational” during the 2014–15 school year.

Of the forty-five states that quickly adopted the standards after they were released in 2010—encouraged to do so by deadlines for grants from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund—two have withdrawn from the initiative, several have “paused” the implementation process, and others have pending legislation to opt out. Some commentators continue to take issue with the process by which the standards were developed: through a partnership between the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in collaboration with Achieve, a bipartisan group of governors and corporate leaders—and with minimal input from teachers.1 Others have complained about the content of the CCSSI, especially about the English Language Arts (ELA) segment, which you can read at There have also been complaints about the influence that corporate interests have had on the standards and their accompanying standardized tests and about the uncommon speed with which the process moved forward, leaving little time for review or consultation with teachers in secondary and postsecondary education and no time at all for field-testing.2 Explicitly motivated by a post-Sputnik-like concern about American competitiveness in the global market, the CCSSI equates college and workplace readiness as measurable by the same metrics. Since “college readiness” is a major goal of the new standards, their implicit theories of education should matter to MLA members—and not just to those who teach anglophone curricula: the existing standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages have recently been aligned with those of the CCSSI, though what that might mean is not yet clear.3 More alignment projects are on the horizon: the Lumina Foundation envisions an educational reform that would align the CCSSI standards and outcomes measurements with those of two- and four-year colleges (“Starting”).

Last fall’s meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which I attended, included numerous panels that focused on the CCSSI; some criticized the initiative’s emphasis on argumentative writing based on textual evidence as a conservative return to New Criticism; others welcomed the detailed pedagogical guidelines as a significant improvement over the No Child Left Behind Act, which required that all US students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 but left it up to each state to decide how to measure proficiency and what to teach in order to reach that admirable but, in the event, chimerical goal. Many sessions explored ways in which the new standards might be implemented. From reading the program, going to sessions, and talking with Kent Williamson, the executive director of the NCTE, I surmise that supporters and opponents of the CCSSI are nearly equally divided (with some members probably on the fence or indifferent). The NCTE, appropriately, is taking no official position. As chair of a new MLA Executive Council subcommittee on K–16 education, I have learned much from those teachers who, for the sake of their students, are trying to make the best of the new standards while in many cases continuing to resist the emphasis on high-stakes testing and its influence on classroom practices. Many worry that the tests measuring both teacher and student performances are coming too soon for teachers to be adequately trained to succeed, and help students succeed, in reaching the democratic goal that the CCSSI articulates: a clear and accessible path to “college and career readiness for all students” (Common Core). Is that compatible with the other goal of the CCSSI: increasing the nation’s competitiveness in a global marketplace by improving US students’ currently mediocre reading, math, and science scores on tests developed by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)?

Here are two problems as I see them. First, CCSSI backers have discounted the relation between class size and students’ success as readers and writers, but other countries are certainly returning to this debated issue. Some have already refigured class size as a core element of their reforms, while also raising teachers’ salaries and building in work time for teachers to prepare lessons and comment on student writing.4 Second, although the CCSSI framers are concerned with “international benchmarks,” the initiative does not refer to the international body of research focusing on socioeconomic influences on what happens in a given classroom. While the CCSSI claims that when students, parents, and teachers work together with the new standards, “we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, career, and life,” a volume by the OECD argues that countries that have improved their children’s educational outcomes have worked to improve the children’s opportunities for education by mitigating inequities of “social background” among students’ families and by allocating extra resources to “socio-economically disadvantaged” schools (PISA 2009 Results).

Teachers of language and literature at all levels have expressed concern about the ELA standards’ distinction between “informational” and “literary” texts and about their conception of “text complexity.” These are the terms that are open to interpretation by school boards and teachers, and they are already being discussed in articles and lesson plans produced by NCTE members and disseminated on Web sites and panels. MLA members could fruitfully join this conversation, and MLA Commons already has a CCSSI discussion group ( Local partnerships between colleges and high schools, of which we need more, are one way of bringing attention to this conversation. Could MLA members initiate or join partnerships between teachers of high schools and colleges in their home environments? David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, and Paula Krebs, dean of humanities and social sciences at Bridgewater State University and a member of the Executive Council’s K–16 education subcommittee, organized a panel at last year’s NCTE convention that brought secondary school and college teachers together to discuss opportunities for and obstacles to creating such partnerships. Organizers of two MLA-sponsored sessions at next year’s convention in Vancouver are following the collaborative model to bring college and high school teachers’ perspectives to bear on the knotty CCSSI topics of “text complexity” and “college readiness.”5 In addition, the MLA’s Committee on Community Colleges is planning a session on an issue central to the Common Core: remediation. I hope that future collaborative work across institutional boundaries can focus on clarifying, for various audiences, some key terms in the initiative that have already become sites of critical inquiry for NCTE authors: literary nonfiction, for example, and lexile (a unit devised by the Metametrics company to measure both the complexity of a text and the individual student’s reading competence).

One of the troubling components of the CCSSI is the stipulation that, once adopted, the wording of the standards cannot be amended, although states are allowed to add 15% more text. Major revision seems not to be envisioned by the framers of the document. In 2010, the MLA and the NCTE were invited to comment on a draft of the literacy standards as these were formulated both for specific grades and for students graduating from high school. A joint committee urged that revisions give more attention to the aesthetic dimensions of literature, the rhetorical aspects of writing, the advantages of knowing more than one language, and the ways in which new media shape literacy practices in the twenty-first century. The authors of the standards failed to incorporate most of the committee’s suggestions. But the CCSSI, as teachers and students now encounter it on the Web, is a complex and generically hybrid text, open to interpretation and translation. Members of the MLA have been interpreting the CCSSI document since its initial rollout and have arrived at strikingly different conclusions, which were evident at the sessions on the Common Core at the 2012 and 2013 conventions.6 I hope that we can continue thinking about the Common Core State Standards; by doing so, college teachers with a commitment to literacy studies may discover new ways of communicating with—and learning from—teachers who encounter the CCSSI as a required rather than a recommended text.


  1. See Ravitch, as well as Cody (“I Was among Those”), who provides a list of the members of the original drafting group. The CCSSI Web page refutes (as a “myth”) the charge that there were few teachers involved with the drafting of the standards.
  2. See Ravitch on the issue of corporate influence. The CCSSI tests are being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Both won federal grants to develop their tests. They are reviewed at
  3. For ACTFL’s alignment of its standards (also called the Five Cs: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, communities) with the Common Core ELA standards, see
  4. See Cody, “Why”; Chua.
  5. David Steiner, dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, City University of New York, will also participate in the panel on text complexity; he has done valuable work on K–16 education.
  6. See the articles by Ravitch, Stimpson, and Graff, drawn from papers they presented at the 2014 MLA Annual Convention.

Works Cited

Chua, Paul. “Centralized-Decentralization Emerging in Singapore.” International Education News. Intl. Educ. News, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Cody, Anthony. “I Was among Those Who Reviewed the Common Core in 2009.” Education Week Teacher. Education Week Teacher, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

———. “Why Bill Gates Is Wrong on Class Size.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 5 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Graff, Gerald. “Clarifying College Readiness.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background—Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume II). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD, 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Ravitch, Diane. “Common Core Standards: Past, Present, Future.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

“Starting the Alignment Conversation.” Lumina Foundation, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

Steiner, David. “Our Dogmatic Slumbers.” Profession (2007): 141–49. Print.

Stimpson, Catharine R. “Beware, Be Wary.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.