On the future openness of the MLA

I’m writing today about two unrelated events–unrelated that is except in that they both concern the MLA. The first is the election of Anne Ruggles Gere, a rhetorician, as second vice-president (which means she will rise in two years to the position of president). The second is an open letter from Eileen Joy, medievalist and founding director of Punctum Books, to the MLA on the openness of MLA Commons.

I will confess that I do not know the history of MLA well enough to know if a rhetorician has ever held the position of president or indeed if one has ever been up for election. As you may know, the curious thing about this election is that all three candidates were rhetoricians, which signals the clear intent of someone to have a scholar from my field in that position. Why? I can only guess. Certainly MLA has had an ambivalent relationship with rhetoric and composition, partly having to do with disciplinary schisms between literary studies and rhet/comp and partly having to do with issues related to adjunct labor (which are inextricably tied to the composition courses adjuncts typically teach in English). Undoubtedly there are some scholars who see themselves in both literary studies and rhetoric; there are some rhetoricians who feel very comfortable in an MLA context; there are a good number of people in my field who want to be better represented and respected by the MLA and its members; and there are also many rhetoricians who are indifferent and/or fed up with MLA and would be happy for our discipline to be completely separated from that organization. For years, rhet/comp and professional-technical writing jobs have comprised 40% of the jobs in the MLA job list. And there are rhetoric jobs in communications that wouldn’t be listed there. It’s not hard to imagine there are as many folks in these fields as there are studying American or British literature. And that doesn’t begin to count the vast number of contingent faculty teaching writing. As such, the implications of MLA (in terms of members, policies, and practices) as coming to represent rhetoric in a roughly proportional way would be significant.

Here’s an interesting way to think about this… the MLA Convention. This year’s theme is “Literature and its Publics” (my emphasis). To be fair, there’s a gesture to inclusiveness in the call suggesting that members might address “all our objects of attention: literature and other kinds of texts, as well as film, digital media, and rhetoric.” And you can search the 840 different panel sessions at the conference. You can search the panels by the 34 different subjects by which they are categorized, but you can’t find panels on rhetoric that way because rhetoric isn’t one of the categories. To be fair, there aren’t categories for film or digital media either. Linguistics is one of the few non-literature subjects and there are 18 linguistics panels. Doing a simple search reveals there are 17 panels that include the word rhetoric in either the panel title or a title of one of the presentations. 14 come up with a search for composition; some overlap with the 17 in rhetoric. Not all of these reflect the discipline, so I think it’s fair to say that less than 2% of the panels at MLA address rhetoric and composition as a field. But if we modestly imagined that if MLA (and its convention) did end up representing rhetoric in a fairly proportional way, there would be more than 200 rhetoric panels as I would guess rhetoricians easily would represent 20% of the MLA, including those faculty studying languages other than English. It would be like sticking a conference bigger than Computers and Writing or half the size of the Rhetoric Society of America’s bi-annual conference inside MLA.

So here’s my totally comical suggestion to an MLA that really wanted to incorporate rhetoric as a field (keeping in mind that I am in the indifferent category above). Find 200 rhetoricians who would agree to organize and present rhetoric panels at MLA twice over the next four years. That would give you roughly 100 such panels annually for four years. Maybe that would prime the pump for more proposals (and memberships). That’s in no way a serious suggestion and is only meant as a thought experiment to envision how weird it would be if MLA did really represent rhetoric and how very far away it is from doing so (regardless of who is president).

But I want to move on to Eileen’s letter. She writes in response to arguments coming from MLA officers and elsewhere calling for scholars to stop using Academia.edu. As I see it, the heart of her request is

If you want us to stop using Academia.edu, please use your resources to create something very much like it, such as CORE, but with NO impediments whatsoever (membership-wise, discipline-wise, etc.) as to who can either access and/or post to the site. You may feel that your purview is limited to literary and language studies only, but I challenge you to widen your ambit (and to use your formidable position and resources) to lead the way in crafting a digital repository that would provide a safe and democratic haven for a rowdily promiscuous (and anarchic) Open Knowledge Commons.

Eileen had invited folks to comment on her letter in draft form. I did. Basically I said there that while I understand the suspicion one might have with Academia.edu, their basic motive is fairly clear. They want to make money. They want to make money by providing a service to academics who feel that what they are getting from the site is worth the privacy and personal data that they are giving up. What’s MLA’s motive? On some level it wants/needs to make money too. But it has other motives related to promoting the disciplinary-professional interests of its membership. I suppose I am more skeptical of those interests and motives than I am of Academia.edu’s. When I say that, I should be clear that I am not speaking of the particular motives of the individuals who form the leadership of MLA. It’s really something far more nebulous. I suppose I am ultimately skeptical of how the interests of the disciplines the MLA actually represents would align with my own or those of my discipline as I see it.

Perhaps what will happen with MLA’s repository, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick reports, is that it will eventually tie into other similar disciplinary repositories across the humanities and beyond. I don’t know if that would satisfy Eileen’s request. Probably not, as it would still leave literary studies nonmembers without a place to share their work. However, I think it is unlikely that I would select MLA’s CORE as a place to share my own work, even if a significant portion of the MLA membership were active there. It just wouldn’t make sense since I share very little in terms of scholarly interests with them. On the other hand, I think Kathleen’s plan of a network of repositories makes sense.

In a way this kind of networked openness makes more sense to me than one that seeks to create openness by integrating rhetoric as a discipline into MLA. Of course individual rhetoricians who have specific affinities with literary studies should join MLA if they like, but in my view, on the whole, those affinities are fainter now than they have ever been. Maybe some future threat or exigency related to the humanities (such as I discussed in my last post) will transform the relations among our disciplines and form some new association that brings us together. In my imagination, such a transformation would be so sweeping as to make the suggestion of a couple hundred rhetoric panels at the MLA convention seem mild.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the subject of contingent labor, which will have to be a matter for a different time.

  • Eileen A. Joy

    Thank you for keeping this conversation going and for your help with our open letter. I’m with you on everything you say here.

  • stevendkrause

    In terms of the MLA: I haven’t been in probably 10 years (maybe more), and I don’t think I’m missing anything. I did notice that a search for “digital humanities” brought up 45 sessions, so that’s something. But I like your thought experiment, and I’ll share another: If MLA ever gets to a point where more than 20% of the presentations are about rhetoric and/or writing studies– I guess that’d be somewhere around 170 or so sessions?– then maybe I’ll think about going again. Otherwise, it’s just a conference where there’s nothing interesting to me. By the way, the same is pretty much true with NCTE, IMO: it’s almost all K-12 stuff.

    In terms of academia.edu: I am at a loss as to the fuss with all that, frankly. If you want to make your scholarship available for free, put it up on a web site that you run and pay for yourself (like this one). If that’s “too complicated” for you, well then some entity like academia.edu or the MLA can do it for you, but you can’t very well expect them to do it for you for free. I believe in open source content, but I mean free in terms of access and sharing, not necessarily free as in free beer.