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On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Time, Nation, and the MLA Report on Doctoral Study (May 30, 2014)

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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.

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Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English and Middle Scots literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

3 thoughts on “Time, Nation, and the MLA Report on Doctoral Study (May 30, 2014)

  1. I can see how one might have a literary studies discipline that wasn’t so rigidly defined by periodization. Ted Underwood’s book does a good job of looking at this, I think. But I wonder what a literary studies major that wasn’t primarily historical in its organization would look like. Maybe something like anthropology? Where a student might have some regional focus as part of the major but there’s no hope of historical “coverage.” Or philosophy where one might have a couple survey like history courses but most of the courses are thematic? I wonder what this does in pragmatic terms to the way English departments argue for literary hires, when one can no longer insist that a Victorianist or indeed anyone in the 19th century is necessary (of course, as you point out, we could argue that the entire discipline is in the 19th century).

    I think literary studies has a larger issue in this report. When MLA insists that doctoral education isn’t expressly for the purpose of training future professors, it raises questions about the curriculum and the dissertation process. E.g. if I am preparing to work for an NGO, a research foundation, or a museum, what is the chance that my literary-historical dissertation project is really worth the effort in terms of building qualifications for that job? Possible, but not likely. If MLA departments really wanted to make that claim, they would have to have a far broader and non-literary curriculum. We end in the same place, I believe, if those departments move toward the thematic orientation you describe as the study of literature becomes part of a larger interdisciplinary puzzle. If the goal of ecocritism, for example, is to address ecological concerns, then at some point the question of literary studies role in that larger project is raised, e.g. in relation to the study of every non-literary form of cultural production. That isn’t to say that I don’t think either of these moves would be productive directions for MLA departments to take. I just think either move results in their being fewer tenured MLA members in 15 years. Whether that’s good or bad depends on one’s perspective. Probably bad for our graduate students, except according to MLA, they aren’t in our program to get jobs like ours, right?

    • Thanks for this, Alex– so much to think through, here. It does indeed seem troubling, but also in some ways heartening that the Report, as you point out, states that training for future professorial positions should not be the exclusive (or perhaps even the primary) goal. I do think that this comes both from external considerations (realism about a tighter job market generally and a sense that we need to prepare more students for more and different kinds of jobs, to increase their prospects for meaningful employment– and I do think that secondary-education, publishing, academic administration, and other areas contain jobs that are completely legitimate pursuits for Ph.D.s) and internal ones (we need to get out of the habit of thinking only in terms of replacement, endlessly reproducing the same nineteenth-century infrastructure with just a few feel-good innovations added here and there).
      I do think that we need to hold onto literature and literary history as a primary part of our mission (as a literary scholar, I am probably not surprising you in maintaining this). I do believe it is what distinguishes us from, say, anthropology or communications–and we should never give one inch to those who would say the humanities are not vital and that literary study is not a key part of that mission (both for the reasons cited about making life worth living and due to the cultural capital element that marks literary study as a mark of prestige; I should also add that I think literary art the highest art-form– and thus that it requires massive numbers of personnel. A society that doesn’t want to spend money studying Chaucer, Shakespeare, Woolf, Garcia-Marquez, and Silko is bankrupt, indeed.).
      My main suggestion on this point would be that more departments seek to heal the divide between literary studies and rhetoric-composition (and I would also add media studies into that mix), in order to carve out more disciplinary territory. I have never understood why English departments would want to run away from the one kind of course– Writing– that readily recommends itself to general instruction, since it can justify significant hiring and help us recruit form the broadest base of students. As you know, I also think one way to heal that divide is to allow more literary forms of writing instruction, so that the distinctions among those who teach writing and those who do not become lesser, not greater. I think that in the same way theory has become– very happily–integral to the English department mission, allowing us to channel interdisciplinary work into political and philosophical modes of argumentation, so should composition and rhetoric become integrated into our discipline. We would become larger and more powerful as a university department.
      Finally, I think we should also put the blame on hiring squarely where it belongs– on the failure of institutions that seem to be able to find money for sports programs and massive administrative expansions not to hire adequate numbers of tenured and tenure-track faculty. Teacher-student ratio should be a key metric (and it should be linked very significantly to tenured/tenure-track faculty)–and such an investment in, dare I say, human capital, would reap incredible benefits in expediting student graduation time, student learning outcomes (to adopt admin-speak), and job preparation, and would increase both our rankings and our respectability. Invocations of crisis by both public and private voices have not convinced me that the massive amounts of money channeled into universities does not have much more room for faculty hiring and faculty expenses.

      • Well, you and I are probably not going to agree on the relative value of literary study. But this isn’t about value in ethical or aesthetic terms. When you make that assertion about what society wants or doesn’t want to spend money studying, I think that we are already largely there. We have the NEH, some state agencies, and some private foundations, but the total money that is there for studying the humanities is very small. I think we can all agree on that. And it is equally clear that states have dramatically reduced their direct funding of public higher education over the last 30 years. Even NSF funding isn’t what it was in the golden age of higher education (which was before you and I were born). We know that what determines our funding is enrollment. I think that is where the rubber will hit the road in determining the value of literary study or any discipline. Certainly universities will seek to keep humanities departments afloat despite low enrollments. In part because they value them intrinsically and in part because their reputations would be damaged if they just started shutting them down. The question is at what size?

        Ultimately the answer will be driven by enrollment in the major and in graduate programs, and I think we can look at other arts and humanities departments as a guide. As a field we might think to reduce doctoral enrollment but that’s hard if we can’t increase enrollment elsewhere. I think it is reasonable to imagine that by 2025 we will see English departments smaller overall than they are now and more diverse in terms of specialization. So maybe 20% smaller and 40% fewer literary studies faculty on a national scale? We’ve already seen a 40% drop in job ads, so that’s hardly a radical prediction. Basically it means creating a strategic plan that targets increasing enrollment and a hiring plan that is tied to that objective.

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