Many in my profession—more precisely, literary scholars working or training in English (or other literary language) departments—are currently responding with both nervousness and excitement about the Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Although I, as a medievalist, was slightly disoriented by the inclusion of “Modern” in the title (wait, does that include me?), I was soon set at ease that, yes, I am still within the purview of this association (it is, after all, the central professional organization in my field, the Modern Language Association, with the “modern” here clearly meaning post-Classical).
But perhaps my immediate recourse to questions of literary historical time is already exposing my need to jettison, or at least qualify, my usual way of approaching literary issues. It is striking how much of the life of literary scholars in the Modern Language Association of America’s institutional territory is conditioned by temporal categories: we refer, for example, to colleagues as “eighteenth-century” people or as “medievalists” (perhaps with a qualification of “early” or “late”), and if we refer to one as an Americanist, we would usually qualify that with a temporal marker like “antebellum” or “post-War,” assuming fully that our interlocutors would understand to which wars we are currently referring. Scholarly self-identification by a literary style, such as Romanticist or Modernist, usually clearly indicates a specialized time-frame (often qualified by a geographical marker). And even when scholars have become largely unmoored from time and are primarily identified by their attachment to a theoretical methodology, we are often still drawn to temporal origins that help us anchor ourselves in professional expectations (as in, would you believe that ecocritic is actually a medievalist, or that that psychoanalyst trained as a medievalist?).
(Of course, I already notice how my in-built bias as a literary critic—namely, to judge according to time and, as I shall soon explain, simultaneously to geographic region—has colored my introduction: I have already ignored a sizable portion of the field. Scholars working in rhetoric and composition often do not self-identify by temporal period—though I wonder if this is because the default mode of these specialties is usually, due to focus on writing and speech, essentially contemporary…)
While the report is complex, and surely is already doing excellent work in informing the ongoing work of improving graduate education, I was immediately drawn to suggestions of building a fundamentally interdisciplinary discipline that is not governed by time—and by the nationalisms that have colonized temporal slots in Western literary academies. Much of the report has to do with speeding up professional development, while better preparing students for the job market, with relevant suggestions including, among other concerns, increased attention to technology, a re-tooling of the dissertation requirement, and more professional development. The latter element intrigued me the most, since it suggests discomfort with course requirements that would offer some semblance of the “coverage” of what Professor Russell A. Berman of Stanford, who chaired the relevant MLA committee, calls the “national literary-historical paradigm” to which many scholars (if not students) remain “commit[ed]” (and here I must thank Julie Orlemanski for drawing my attention to the Colleen Flaherty’s Inside Higher Ed analysis and, specifically, its analytical foregrounding of literary-historical paradigms as colliding with revisionary desires to cultivate more inter-disciplinarity, technology, and general professional development). The MLA Report seems to me to represent a major salvo against periodization as the primary organizing principle in the discipline—and this trend seems to be gathering in strength, as more and more scholars become associated with methodologies (such as ecocriticism or disability studies or digital humanities) rather than period. Referring to inspiration from the crisis of “contraction in the academic job market,” the MLA report states that it is not in any way seeking “a retreat designed to preserve a traditional paradigm,” but rather that it is working towards “transforming the paradigm by broadening professional horizons in the interest of preserving accessibility to a humanities Ph.D.” (p.11).
It seems to me that it would not be a bad development if literary period—which always, in my view, is a distinctly modern concept that fuses both time and nation—became a, rather than the primary category for literary study. While the most obvious problem with professional self-identification by time and place is that it can Balkanize the discipline, allowing scholars to always invoke the logic of specialization as a safety word for avoiding uncomfortable (or simply unfamiliar) subjects or conversations, even as it can overemphasize certain subjects that simply happen to be currently circulating within an epochal specialty, there also seems to be a more substantive problem with prioritizing periodization. The silent fusion of place and time can be quite nefarious. Every time we refer to (with however much qualification) sixteenth-century Britain or France as “early modern,” while referring, say, to eighteenth-century India or Pakistan as still “medieval” (and here I tip my hat to my colleague Walter Hakala, who pointed out this latter use of the term medieval to me), we institutionally consolidate Western privilege (many, of course, have written on such politics of time; Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other or Gayatri Spivak’s In Other Worlds come to mind as key relevant studies).
As someone who is professionally interested, perhaps above all else, in nationalism and the way it shapes discursive realms, I am certainly not arguing against studying the heretofore always nationally inflected fields of literary history. Far from it. However, I do think that the trends that we see towards interdisciplinarity are both significant and salutary. Advances in technology do seem to have produced a sea-change, of late, and it does not seem out of order to suggest that our largely nineteenth-century generated literary historical paradigms be adjusted, particularly out of deference to current and future generations of scholars. I also very much think that the issue of better training graduate students should be linked with discussions of how we hire—and also with a commitment to get to the true root of the problem, which is that we are not hiring enough tenure-track faculty to serve the undergraduates at the heart of our institutions. I like the idea of more hires being made according to methodology rather than by period—cluster hires in broad methodological fields, run by trans-period committees who will simply have to trust each other that the desire for the best and most exciting scholarship will take precedence in hiring decisions, rather than perceived temporal or geographical needs (and I think the very process of choosing such valued fields would itself be valuable training for graduate students. Moreover, moving away from period and nation as the primary categories through which we shape the field would help us revise many of those very same national and temporal categories, forcing scholars who do specialize in those areas to make clear why such specializations are still vital for the field. From my perspective, I think that this MLA Report is already doing excellent work in inspiring re-imagination of the organizing principles of our profession.