In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago. This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.
Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now). So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).
I guess the best place to start is with my life and career. For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter. Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution. In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June. So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.
None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation. Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures. Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair. Try doing that same activity today. You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid. This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances. An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.
Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors). We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then. The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.
As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition. These can be dealt with at the departmental level. One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors. We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars. In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).
While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation. Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it. Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test. Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.
Has the MLA done the same? Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?
Yes and No.
Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.
What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism. The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body. Neutrality was a farce in 2011. It remains so today.
If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over. We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.” Let’s start doing something about it.
This morning a post showed up on the C-19 Listserv for nineteenth-century Americanists that linked to a Daily Mail article on the efforts of two technicians to colorize Civil War era photographs.
You can read the article and see samples of their work here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2446391/Amazing-Civil-War-photographs-created-colorist-bring-eras-heroes-characters-life-color-time.html
I have to admit that seeing these well-known photos in color was fascinating. Especially interesting was the ability to see the color of the landscape (indicating season) and also the tint of the uniforms. We talk so much about the “blue” and “grey” and yet most of the imagery we have of them is black and white.
But I am also wary of the notion of improving history through technological advances rather than simply using it to store documents in an alternate format for preservation purposes. This is something that could potentially be a lot more damaging to the archive than Ted Turner’s ill-fated effort years ago to colorize classic cinema.
Postscript: A Civil War scholar responding to the C-19 listserv post a few minutes ago reminded me in his comments that photographs were hand colored in the 19th century. So again the technology is not the issue here. It’s the motive. Why color these photographs?
Have any scholars commented on the theoretical implications of color in historical documents? What is the real psychological difference between a document in color vs. one in black and white?
I know when I teach film in my literature courses, black and white films tend to be perceived by some students as boring and other as more authoritative (cinema rather than film). I call it the “black and white” effect. I wonder if this is true of print documents and photos?
Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:
Our examination in class of the Digital Humanities has shown the difference between visions of what this movement might mean to the Discipline of English. The makers of digital tools, the old guard of Humanities Computing, still provide a compelling case for the need to actually create something in order to consider yourself a Digital Humanist. Users of existing digital tools show how reading and scholarship are rapidly shifting due to technological advances. And Critics, well, they are struggling to catch up. What would a critical theory of the Digital Humanities look like and is it needed?
Although there are many objections to the Digital Humanities as a field of study, I think one major point of contention is the rapidity with which digital projects come and go. To the less technically inclined this seems a waste of scarce resources of both time and money. Why go to such great lengths to create literary algorithms and electronic collections if you are going to move on swiftly to the next new thing?
So far the only answer that Digital Humanities makers have had to offer to potential users and critics alike is: experimentation is the point. Try it out. See what happens. This is a very different vision of humanities scholarship where articles can sometimes take years before the exit the editorial cue and see publication in a print journal. If this vision of English scholarship is to shift, then a more compelling case needs to be made for why that is the case. A new tenure dossier model would be a good start. A way to get senior faculty more involved in these projects. As for non-tenured faculty such as myself, perhaps a performance bonus system would be in order. Just saying……
Originally posted on uic240sharedworkspace:
On Monday I attended with several of my students from English 240 the Project Biocultures talk by Ato Quayson, Professor of English at the University of Toronto and founding Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies.
Professor Quayson began by describing his approach to Disability Studies, much of which came from his book Aesthetic Nervousness. The moderator for the talk, Leonard Davis, rightly noted that Quayson’s approach to disability was broad but in a theoretically enabling way. This observation was born out in the second portion of the talk where Quayson applied his theoretical approach to disability to Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938).
Professor Quayson contended that any coherent theory of disability had to acknowledge not simply its presence in literature and culture but also the “effect” of that disability in a given society. Aesthetic nervousness, as Quayson described it, was where representational practices at a particular cultural space and time stumble on disability as something that does not fit within the field of reference. A disabled figure may thus be present in the narrative but their very presence causes us to question the logic of the fictional universe they inhabit.