Survival is not an academic skill

Yesterday I wrote that I intend to devote my second half of life (OK, let’s be real, we’re talking about  more like my last third of life at this point) to parenting and trying to change our global social systems to be sustainable and non-exploitative.  That intention rolled around in my head overnight, and I began to wonder how my role as a college teacher fits into this scenario.

Can I use my vocation as a teacher of comparative literature, media studies & gender studies/human rights to change the world?

As if in response to my unvoiced question, the inimitable professor Stanley Fish published an op-ed on the NY Times website last night, in which he used the occasion of the upcoming Modern Language Association annual convention to reflect on the state of the higher-ed humanities profession.

I’ve participated in many an MLA convention in my 25 years or so of professional involvement in the field of comparative literature, but this year I am not attending because my panel proposal, entitled “Strategies of Resistance: Women’s Writing and Social Activism in Iran, South Africa and the United States,” was not accepted.

Professor Fish’s analysis of the 2012 conference Program gave me a good insight into why my proposal, which I thought was comprised of excellent papers by well-qualified scholars, was rejected.

“Absent or sparsely represented,” he says, “are the topics that in previous years dominated the meeting and identified the avant garde — multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory, theory in general.”  My panel would have fit nicely into at least three or four of these categories.

The new hot topics at the convention this year, says Prof. Fish, can be lumped under the umbrella term “digital humanities,” which covers “new and fast-moving developments across a range of topics: the organization and administration of libraries, the rethinking of peer review, the study of social networks, the expansion of digital archives, the refining of search engines, the production of scholarly editions, the restructuring of undergraduate instruction, the transformation of scholarly publishing, the re-conception of the doctoral dissertation, the teaching of foreign languages, the proliferation of online journals, the redefinition of what it means to be a text, the changing face of tenure — in short, everything.”

Everything?

The problem with this brave new direction in literary studies is that even while it reaches out to the world through digital portals, it seems to have lost all interest in the real world beyond its own narrow and insular ivory halls.  Other than “the changing face of tenure,” which is certainly a meaningful labor issue for the small percentage of Americans who are college/university professors, there is no indication that the young literary Turks all fired up about the digital humanities care at all about material conditions for people, animals or the environment.  Politics becomes cyber-politics; people become avatars; electricity simply flows, and food appears like magic in supermarkets or restaurant dishes.

Let me be clear: I am no Luddite when it comes to digital technologies.  I’m writing a blog, after all, and I regularly teach a class in digital media studies, which changes radically every time I offer it because I try to keep up with the rapidly transforming media landscape.

But to me, digital technology is a vehicle, not an end in itself.  I want to involve myself in digital media and the digital humanities to further my material, political goals of remaking the world.  Otherwise it’s just so much more mental masturbation.  We don’t have time for that now, if indeed we ever did.

And here’s where I come back around to my starting question of whether my role as a teacher will be useful to my larger political goals of transitioning to a safer, kinder, happier human and inter-species landscape.

It depends what I teach, doesn’t it?

For years now I have been teaching a series of classes on “women writing resistance” in various areas of the world–Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the U.S.  The political writings of strong women who have successfully resisted both private and public oppression have taught me and my students so much about what it takes to stand up for one’s principles and put one’s visions of positive social change into action.  We’ve also learned a lot about the price activists often pay.

In the years ahead, I want to continue to use my vocation as a teacher to explore literature that is not afraid to speak truth to power.  I want to seek out visionary texts that look ahead fearlessly into the future and light the way for those who are following more slowly and cautiously down the path.  I want to amplify the voices of authors who advocate for those who do not have the same privileged access to the literary stage.  I want to become one of those authors myself.

I should not be surprised that this direction is of little interest to the crowd inside the insular tower represented by the MLA.  What was it that Audre Lorde said at another academic conference, long ago?

Survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with others identified as outside the established structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

Yes, Audre.  I’m with you.

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5 Comments

  1. I’ve watched the MLA Convention Program Cte in action for ten years now, and I can say without a doubt that the cte never refuses to accept sessions on the basis of topic. In a similar vein, they don’t automatically accept sessions that have well-known or expet speakers. They use a rubric and score each session. The scoring guidelines are published at http://Www.mla.org under Convention, as are sample sessions, and an article on what makes a special session accepted.

    The assumption that a session was rejected because of topic or ideology is parallel to students’ assumptions when their papers do not receive the highest grades: it must have been bias.

    If you’d like to know what the Program Cte said about the proposal, please write to me. Thank you for submitting a proposal: I hope you are not deterred in future.

    PS, the Prog Cte rejectd quite a number of sessions with “digital” in them!

    Rosemary G. Feal
    Executive Director, MLA

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  December 27, 2011

      Thank you for your response, Dr. Feal. I did not intend my post to come across as “sour grapes”; as a conference director myself, I understand that not everyone can get accepted all the time, for many varying reasons. It was just interesting to read Stanley Fish’s interpretation of the 2012 Conference Program, and see how my interests do/do not fit current trends in the profession. I do intend to submit another proposal to next year’s MLA conference in Boston; perhaps we may have the pleasure of meeting there.

      Reply
  2. Rosemary Feal

     /  December 27, 2011

    I hope to see you, too! I didn’t think it was sour grapes. People often assume, though, that it was the topic that made the proposal not make it.

    I think some weird spellcheck function made “accept” into “accepts” twice in y comment. My post should be rejected on the basis of that!

    Reply
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