Campus Free Speech

Yearly Gathering of English Profs Is Light on Shakespeare, Heavy on Environmental Justice

Everything you wanted to know about 'the exclusion of vegans of color from food movement narratives.'


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The Modern Language Association held its annual convention recently—but judging by the list of speakers and session topics, you would think the meeting had more to do with leftwing activism than literature.

The MLA "is a leading advocate for the study and teaching of languages and literatures," according to its website. Its convention provides a forum for teachers and researchers to discuss new scholarly work in the field.

But, as George Mason University historian Philip Magness points out, the MLA program lineup suggests that studying literature is now a distinctly secondary goal of the convention. The primary goal is social justice activism:

A few examples are illustrative of the content of these panels. One entire panel explored strategies for using Composition 101 – usually a mandatory skills course that all freshmen must take – to promote environmentalist political activism. Another session with practically no discernible connection to English or literature purports to "examine the aesthetic mediations and political challenges of production chains and commodity flows and of mobility and work" using Marxian analysis. A third, featuring four English professors, purports to offer commentary on multiple environmental science topics ranging from climate change to oil spill cleanups to pollination studies. There are also panels touting Naomi Klein's political tracts on inequality, panels on the connection between internet surveillance and globalization, panels purporting to investigate the history of slavery and capitalism, panels on confronting animal extinction, and even a panel on something called "New New Materialisms" with paper topics that shed no more light on their obscurantist content than the session title.

It's possible that some of these presentations have scholarly relevance, though their stated topics appear to veer far outside of the professional competencies of a holder of a PhD in English or another MLA discipline.

Magness did some rough tallying and found that there had been 22 sessions that included a presentation on environmental justice, 15 featuring a presentation about globalization, and 39 that tackled post-colonialism.

"Some of this is standard fare, especially in Critical Theory-infected disciplines," writes Magness, "but I was also curious how it stacked up against what most people think of as the scholarly domain of English professors, which is to say the standards of the literary canon."

For comparison:

13 sessions mentioning William Shakespeare

5 sessions mentioning Charles Dickens

1 session mentioning Mark Twain

2 sessions mentioning William Faulkner

2 sessions mentioning Ernest Hemingway

3 sessions mentioning Jane Austen

4 sessions mentioning Samuel Beckett

4 sessions mentioning James Joyce

4 sessions mentioning Virginia Woolf

1 sessions mentioning Leo Tolstoy

1 session mentioning Toni Morrison

3 sessions mentioning Edgar Allen Poe

3 sessions mentioning Langston Hughes

2 sessions mentioning Emily Dickinson

1 session mentioning Ralph Ellison

1 session mentioning Walt Whitman

2 sessions mentioning George Eliot

2 sessions mentioning one of the Bronte sisters

0 sessions mentioning George Orwell

"Many academics in these fields appear to be producing highly ideological research that (a) is often far afield of their scholarly competencies and (b) sometimes ventures into outright pseudoscholarly territory," Magness concludes.

I'm sure there are some valid reasons to include environmental justice on the syllabi for certain literature classes. But professors have a responsibility to approach these subjects as educators first, and advocates second. These panels blur the line between education and advocacy.

Consider this session on "Teaching Eco-Composition at the Community College." Presenters would essentially require students, not just to read works of literature relating to environmental justice, but to actually embrace the tenets of environmental justice. Presenter Courtney Ryan of the University at Albany-SUNY explains that her course "culminates in a highly personal research project, which asks students to apply their newfound environmental knowledge to their own experiences, investigating an environmental injustice in their own hometowns. In the past, students have written about chemical waste plants, fast-food chains, and pesticides to which they or people they know have been exposed. Through the project, students not only gain invaluable research skills but also engage with environmental issues in a personal, direct, and meaningful manner."

Ryan's students read A. Breeze Harper, an academic "who argues that vegans of color have been excluded from food movement narratives." Ryan brags that students' personal views "evolve" over the course of the semester.

If students wanted to learn about the food justice movement and whether it has or hasn't excluded vegans of color, presumably they would take a course on the history of obscure social justice movements, taught by a disapassionate observer of such things. In literature and composition classes, students should be learning how to interpret texts, how to do close readings, how to write persuasive essays, etc. But the MLA-version of literature appears to accept as a given that the purpose of a course is to brainwash students into supporting some left-wing view.