Notes on my MLA 2015

I had a briefer MLA this year – really limited to just attending panels on Saturday, with my Sunday morning oriented towards a business meeting (the executive committee for the Nonfiction Prose division). I have had a tradition of posting notes from MLA over the past couple of years to this blog (see last year’s notes here, and 2013 here), and I’ll continue that tradition. As has been my policy when blogging about people’s research, I try and err on the side of protecting the authors’ arguments and unpublished research in progress. I'm not including my own panel in these notes, though I did post the text of my talk yesterday here

I'll dwell more on the career-oriented panel than on the others since that is a problem the entire humanities academic community is currently dealing with, and it's something my own department has been thinking about. 

1. Careers for Humanists: What Can Graduate Programs Do? #s515

I went to a panel on a topic similar to this last year and found it profitable. David Laurence, the panel organizer, has been one of the main forces behind the recent data-drivenn MLA studies looking at hiring rates and the kinds of work Ph.Ds. in literature have been getting over the past 10 years.

In his opening comments for this panel, Laurence mentioned that there’s a new study coming out that will look at the employment in 2013-14 of 2214 Modern Language PhDs who received degrees between 1996 and 2011. MLA talked to 2500 people for this study, and it looks like it will be something we will be talking about later this year. The results of that study will be published later this coming spring.

I was interested in the presentation on this panel by Ellen Mackay of Indiana University (where she is the Director of Graduate Studies in the English department). Indiana has reduced the average time to degree with a stricter timetable for exams and dissertation proposals. They have also reorganized the graduate curriculum around “skill rather than subject” and introduced a number of practicum courses to help students develop “skills and practices necessary for professional success.” They have a c course called “How to Write for a Scholarly Journal,” which has been very effective in helping graduate students publish their work. They also have a practicum on “Multilingual Composition.”

I was very interested in the presentation by Brian Reed, from the University of Washington (where he has been the DGS and is now the chair of the English department). Prof. Reed has clearly been quite determined to restructure the University of Washington’s Ph.D. program to respond to the hiring issues.

Reed mentioned that one response for graduate programs is to potentially coast and do nothing despite currently dire circumstances. “Programs turn away hundreds of qualified applicants every year; our universities ‘need’ graduate student labor; a certain number of students necessary to sustain a seminar-based graduate program.”

But there are many reasons not to do nothing, starting with the following study, which was released last year. My own department at Lehigh looked closely at the report and it's factored into our discussions about how we might reform our own program in the future:

2014 Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in MLL

Reed also mentioned this:

MLA Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit

Reed suggested that departments might want to drop the word “dissertation” altogether – instead move towards the term “capstone project.” There are many ways of demonstrating mastery of knowledge, including digital projects, public outreach project that might not be best manifested as a book-length projects, and ethnographic study of pedagogical methods.

Many faculty resist any suggested changes. When you have discussions about these topics among English department faculty, the first response of many faculty is to double down: make the program more rigorous, more milestones, more assessment, more professionalization! (Anecdotally: yep.)

Since faculty are least threatened by the model of “and this, too” (i.e., add to what we have, but don’t take away what we’ve already been doing), that can be a good way to institute changes. But endlessly adding to requirements and workloads without taking anything away can be a burden for graduate students – to bring in all of the new professionalization tasks we are encouraging without taking anything out can overburden our students.

He also mentioned a one-week seminar he had attended at the University of Victoria, the DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute). For Reed DH has been a big part of the shift in focus in how he envisions the training of future graduate students; it seems like he's made it a point to increase his own DH knowledge and expertise along those lines. (This is something I've thought of for myself but not in the past had the time and energy to do. Maybe I'll consider attending DHSI myself this coming summer...)

Reed also mentioned various ways he has tried to adapt his assignments in graduate courses he teaches to skill acquisition. He mentioned one particular graduate student who had done a project in Modernism: Little Review Reviews. He also mentioned his student Rachel Arteaga, who was on the equivalent to this panel at last year's MLA (see my notes from MLA 2014)

Two final points from Brian Reed’s presentation:

First, if you are going to encourage a full spectrum of employment options for humanities Ph.Ds you need to tell them from the beginning.

Second, listen to your students. They have read the reports and have their own reasons for entering and persisting in graduate programs.

In the Q&A, there were several people who are involved with departments that are restructuring their Ph.D. programs. Katherine Temple from Georgetown was there, and asked a question (Georgetown’s English department made waves last year when it introduced a new Ph.D. program – heavily oriented to Alt-Ac employment). George Justice, Dean of Humanities from ASU, also asked a question (Dean Justice had been the moderator of an MLA Commons forum called "The Future of the Humanities Ph.D.: here).

2. The Global Novel. #s421
I recently read Sarah Brouillette’s excellent book, Literature and the Creative Economy (full disclosure: I've reviewed it for a journal), and was curious to see her talk about ideas related to that work; the talk did not disappoint. Brouillette mentioned texts that are by now pretty common reference points in conversations about the global novel – Emily Apter’s Against World Literature, and the N+1 article “World Lite” (which I responded to here).

Bruce Robbins is for me an MLA staple – always interesting to hear. His focus in this talk was on the novelistic representation of atrocities, and his main example was a relatively unknown Tolstoy novel called Hadji Murad, which was published posthumously in 1912. The subject of this novel is the Russian conquest of Chechnya, and Tolstoy himself was a soldier who had apparently been involved with this military action. Robbins seemed to be suggesting that the representation of atrocity in much 19th century fiction was surprisingly light – the Indian Mutiny didn’t get talked about in major British fiction in the 19th century, nor did the Irish famine. Somehow the idea of extreme violence wasn’t compatible with 19th century realism? 20th century writers, especially those from the global south, have explored atrocity in a number of narratives, including lesser known works like Ishikawa Tatsuzo’s Ikite ro Heitei (1945), as well better known books like 100 Years of Solitude, Midnight’s Children, and Snow.

In her talk Aarthi Vadde mentioned some other touchstones in the debate about global novels, including Tim Parks (was she referring to "The Dull New Global Novel," in NYRB?), Jhumpa Lahiri’s comments at a recent Jaipur Literature festival (where she apparently dismissed the idea of the global novel as a marketing category), and Jim English’s “Economy of Prestige.” Vadde wanted to encourage scholars to get around the top-down economics of global literature circulation by including fan fiction – an instance of “read-write culture” (Lawrence Lessig’s phrase). Vadde’s main example was a novel by South African Sci Fi novelist Lauren Beukes called Zoo City. After an earlier novel, Beukes’ publisher had solicited fans to contribute material to the fictional world Beukes had created, and some of that material was included into the new novel.

Vadde also mentioned the Italian writing collective called the Wu Ming Foundation.

Mukama Wa Ngugi was the final speaker on this panel. (He is Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s son!) He teaches creative writing as well as literature at Cornell, and was speaking partly as a creative writer (he is the author of novels called Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi that I’m curious to check out). Ngugi mentioned Mariano Siskind’s essay The Globalization of the novel, the Novelization of the global, and much of his paper was oriented to challenging the “English metaphysical empire” – the dominance of the English language in African literature.

3. Other than Modernism. #s489

Eric Hayot’s talk was another stab at the ongoing “what is the new modernism?” conversation that one often sees occurring at the Modernist Studies Association conferences. Hayot’s comments were wide-ranging, and one of his premises is that modernism has been a dominant literary mode in literary studies since the 1930s.

He gave as an example of the New Modernist studies scholarship Peter Nichols’ Modernisms, a book that talks about Latin American Modernismo and other formations. Hayot is very interested in the way we pluralize categories to both include marginal formations and exclude them at the same time. (If they were fully assimilated to the main concept under consideration, we would just say “Modernism” not “Modernisms.”)

Hayot mentioned two familiar touchstones in the debate over modernism, Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity and Susan Stanford Friedman’s much discussed “Planetarity” essay. He seemed to be suggesting that while he doesn’t favor Susan Friedman’s approach, he sees her method and Jameson’s as ultimately leading to the same place.

Hayot also mentioned the Warwick Research Collective, which has a book on Combined and Uneven Development that speaks to some of these concerns (see the list of publications on the Warwick Research Collective web page here; some very interesting titles). He also mentioned an essay by David James and Urmila Seshagiri called "Metamodernism" published in PMLA last year that dealt with these issues.

Madhumita Lahiri has an article called “An Idiom for India” in a recent issue of Interventions that seems quite interesting (she's posted it on This talk is part of Lahiri’s new work that will be comparing South Asian and Chinese modernisms. I won’t say too much about the main arguments in Lahiri’s new work, since this appears to be work in progress, but only say that here she was comparing Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Coolie with Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy.

Joseph Slaughter’s paper was a frontal challenge to the New Modernist studies from the point of view of Postcolonial Studies. Slaughter feels that the New Modernist Studies has had a somewhat expansionist – perhaps even colonialist? – orientation to global / postcolonial texts and authors. He pointed to a pattern of “recovery” (Susan Friedman’s phrase, from “Planetarity” again) of third world modernist texts that were already well-known – specifically within postcolonial studies. He mentioned Susan Friedman’s essay on Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Jennifer Wenzel’s phrase “Petro-Magic Realism,” which was appropriated by another author in the recent Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms in a questionable way.

For Slaughter, the global turn in New Modernist studies is really an enterprise occurring within the North American academy, and it’s a kind of turf-expansion that isn’t really conceptually coherent.

I was especially intrigued when Slaughter put up an MLA job at from 1998 on a slide. The job (at U-Penn) was advertising for a specialist in British modernism who also had expertise in postcolonialism. (Interestingly, these were the exact specifications for the job I myself applied for in 2001 at Lehigh.) There's a certain incoherence in coupling British modernism together with postcolonialism -- they're very different fields. (Anecdotally again: yep.) For the most part, the folks that were hired for positions that looked like in that in the late 1990s and early 2000s ended up succeeding – if they were primarily modernists. Postcolonialists of this generation have struggled. (This hit home to me. With a bang.)

4. Genealogies of the Digital Humanities #s604

I only attended part of this panel, and only saw Mattie Burkert’s and Jessie Stommel’s papers. Mattie Burkert is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin. She is doing a digital project on The London Stage: 1660-1800. She talked about how a scholar named Ben Ross Schneider had attempted to digitize this archive and construct a database based on this material all the way back in the 1970s. That work has been lost – but we have access to the digitized version of the text through Hathi Trust and and Google Books, and Burkert is now working on her own database project based on these materials.

Jessie Stommel’s presentation was based around a timeline of DH he has been working, which can be viewed here. One of the highlights for me was his mini-rant against He has talked about his problems with Turnitin in one of his essays at Chroniclevitae: "Who Controls Your Dissertation?" I had been interacting a bit with Stommel via social media over this past year, and it was interesting to see him speak in person.