"Crisis in the Humanities" Day at MLA

Here is a letter I sent Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA.  Rosemary responded promptly but said that these programs came out of the different divisions, discussion groups, and special sessions, and reflect the wishes of the membership of MLA.  I'm sure that's so but would we could make it otherwise.  Yes we can!  At least this Old Timer thinks so.

Dear Rosemary:

The other day my Program copy came and, as an ex-President I’ve perused it carefully and want to offer some suggestions to you and the Executive Council.

When I heard that the first day of the convention would be devoted to the crisis in the humanities I was pleased.  I have an old essay by that title that is just about to be reprinted in a collection in Belgium, edited by a Portuguese scholar, and I really had wanted to participate in your programs but didn’t, due to time constraints, submit anything.  Now that I read the copy, I wish I had!  I think the Modern Language sessions sound fine and urgent but the general humanities sessions are once again proof of how and why we have alienated the larger American public and the community and faced especially harsh funding cuts vis-a-vis other academic fields.  

Session 5, for starters, refers to the THE ECONOMY OF INSTITUTIONAL SCARCITY.  Isn’t this wording biassed?  At USC, where I’m now teaching, there’s no institutional scarcity when it comes to the law school, the institute of neurobiology, the film school, and so on.  The “scarcity” is in the humanities, specifically literary studies.  History is doing quite well.  Our new provost, just appointed, Elizabeth Garrett has a double appointment in law school and political science with courtesy appointments in two other departments.  At Stanford, again, it seems to me many departments show no signs of "institutional scarcity."  Why is that and what we can do to improve our profile?

Session 5 goes on to pose the question how should we “teach literature in and about economies of scarcity”?  Why should we teach this???  Why is this the role of literature?  Perhaps it would be more cheerful for our students to learn about literature in boom times.  

Then there are all the sessions that use the word LABOR.  Sessions 12, 53, 91, 163—why in the world do we want to use the offputting phrase ACADEMIC LABOR?  Why not academic careers?  Or even jobs?  Or the profession?  Or LITERARY CRITICISM?  We all know of course why the word is used: LABOR is supposed to show how hard we work and how we’re in the same boat with union labor, working class labor, etc.  A pure myth!  To get a PhD in one of the literatures is hardly to be in the same class as those in the labor movements.  And it sounds so distasteful to the outside world.  Students want to do something interesting, they want to have exciting careers, they want to be challenged and stimulated, not do academic labor.  Why the old Marxist vocabulary in the 21st Century???  

The description of Session 91 is particularly pretentious in this regard.  All it really says is that in the digital age, university teachers and librarians need one another and can move the disciplines forward if they work together.  Why “two arenas of labor”???  

And the most offensive is #99, which puts in apposition ‘federal and military recruitment and campus” with all the other ills of academe
This reference immediately brands us as LEFT, as a profession.  No room for anyone else.   

In short, this Humanities Initiative PLAYS RIGHT INTO THE HANDS OF THE TEA PARTY AND THE REPUBLICANS!!  It assumes throughout that anyone who has a career in the humanities is ipso facto on the Left, would want to live in a Socialist rather than a Capitalist state, is opposed to military recruitment on campus, and so on.  Do we really want to present ourselves this way to an increasingly hostile outside world?  Is this the way to get more budget lines out of recalcitrant deans and provosts??  Of regents and trustees? Or will it merely confirm all the worst thoughts of those OTHERS?  

Why is there no mention in any of these roundtable descriptions of the sheer importance and pleasure of studying fiction, poetry, drama, philosophy, art history?  The transformation of life that study of literature in both breadth and depth produces?

It is hard enough to make the case for literary study in the current climate of recession and budget cuts without presenting ourselves as humorless and uninspired academic laborers, fighting "them"--those others studying sciences or social sciences or medicine or law.   Does anyone ever talk of "medical labor" or "engineering labor"?  

To read this year's Program, especially this special Initiative, is to recognize what a bubble we live in.  The first step is to understand the appeal of literature and the other arts to undergrads.  To that end let me refer you to the current Harvard Gazette and an article my granddaughter Lexie Perloff-Giles wrote about studying art history at Harvard.  It's also up at their Art History departmental website. <>

Undergrads actually love what we do. 

With all best wishes,


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