The Modern Language Association's Dead Language Trip


There's a good report in The New York Observer on the recent MLA annual convention, held this year in NYC. The MLA is the professional organization for college and university English, literature, and foreign language departments; the annual conference held Dec. 27-30 serves up hundreds of panels and doubles as the job market clearinghouse.

The article focuses on MLA President and Harvard prof Stephen Greenblatt's brewing crusade to end the "publish or perish" model.

Says Greenblatt:

"Universities have had the perfectly reasonable expectation that to get tenure?which is after all a very big commitment and not to be taken lightly?they want to see evidence of scholarly creativity and promise. An official way of showing that is to publish a scholarly book?or two or three or 12….The question is… 'What happens if there?s a skrinking of the possibility of doing this? What happens to a person who has a Ph.D. who is five or six years into an assistant professorship and wishes to publish something and the press that would ordinarily publish something like this says ?I?m sorry we?re not doing that anymore??what is that person supposed to do?'"

This is yet one more crisis that's being overblown and oversold. Nobody has to publish three books (much less a dozen) to move from assistant to associate professor. More to the point, university presses–as well as crossover ones such as Routledge, Ivan R. Dee, and Verso and straight commercial presses–continue to demonstrate a willingness to publish work that is interesting, even when it has a very limited audience.

Perhaps more to the point, as head of the MLA–a massively powerful organization in setting departmental policies–Greenblatt should worry less about the strictures of traditional publishing and figure out ways to take advantage of the Web, which allows people to publish for next to nothing. The MLA could sponsor peer review networks in any number of fields and publish vetted texts in cyberspace–which allows for easier circulation than book form does anyway.

Something along those lines might not solve a deeper problem with a lot of contemporary academic literary and cultural criticism–it is often uninteresting, even to fellow specialists, and/or written in often unnecessary and alienating jargon–but it could solve a distribution problem.

Anything that innovative is unlikely to happen, though. Despite all the radical chic posturing, the MLA and literature departments more generally are incredibly conservative and aristocratic when it comes to new ways of disseminating thought and information. Scratch the surface of even the most Marxist lit-critter and you'll find a commodity fetishist, especially when it comes to books. And, more pressing, the status that comes with being published by certain presses.