Tuesday, December 29th, 2009...6:23 pm

Blogging MLA: Day Three

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Many spontaneous reunions occur at MLA, some planned, most serendipitous. I bump into Bob and Sylvia Scholnick (College of William & Mary) on the train. Attending Bob’s session that night, I catch up with John Miller (Longwood University) whose dissertation director was Bob Scholnick. I stop to say “Hi” to Richard Dellamora outside the Loews Hotel (where I’m staying because I visited his room there a couple of years ago when we both had recently published chapters in a book and liked the setting). I catch up with former community college colleague Miles McCrimmon who chairs a panel (see below). Two longtime colleagues re-discover each other on a hotel elevator, one informing the other that she is preparing to retire. Old friends talk over breakfast, one lamenting that his post-retirement part-time position has been eliminated in cost-saving measures.


In Candide, Voltaire satirizes the pretensions of Europe aristocrats’ genealogies (including the bastard Candide’s noble but illegitimate descent) with their multiple heraldic quarterings, at one point providing a genealogy of Dr. Pangloss’s venereal disease. Higher education frequently appears as hierarchical and genealogical. If your PhD is from an Ivy League ranked institution, you studied with So-and-son. If your PhD is from a state flagship university, you studied with a student of So-and-so. If your PhD is from a lesser state university, you just studied.

Community Colleges

After making my second pass at the book publishers’ exhibits, I stopped in the far end of the exhibit hall where a food and beverage concession sustains (and robs: $3 for a bottle of tap water) scholars exhausted by words. I chatted with the cashier, a South Asian man whose son, I learned is at a Catholic high school and is now considering colleges and universities. “Why do colleges costs so much?” he asked me. “As much as $40,000 a year!” I explained that this conversation would take some time, but that only private colleges would be likely cost that much; if his son attended a public college or university it would cost much less, probably less than $40,000 for a full four years. And, I offered, if he attended a two-year community college, he would earn an associate’s degree and could transfer as a junior into a bachelor’s degree program at a university. “No, no one wants a community college student.”

The Rodney Dangerfield of higher education, community colleges offer affordable higher education, smaller class sizes, and learning support services. State supported community colleges offer transferable degrees permitting students to complete their general education requirements.

I sit in a session (“Intergenerational Teaching and Learning in Community Colleges”) sponsored by the MLA Committee on Community Colleges, a relatively new unit in professional organization top heavy with literary critics and scholars, including superstars of the cultural professoriate, a class that has, even at their most genial, not been quite sure what to do with general education of undergraduates, much less with the hoi polloi. The presider for the session is a former Virginia Community College System colleague, Miles McCrimmon (J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Richmond, Virginia). Maybe it’s the schedule (mid-afternoon, day three), but the attendance is disappointingly small (maybe about 30 people). Community college faculty are not likely to be members of the MLA; for the twenty years that I taught at a community college, I was the only MLA member in my department, and I knew only a few others at fellow Virginia community colleges. Community college English faculty members are more likely to be members of the National Council of Teachers of English (which includes language arts teachers in K-12) and the Council on College Composition and Communication.

Research and theoretical labor (like literary criticism) frequently trumps practice-based labor (like teaching composition). Teaching (the primary mission of the community college professor) is lower down the hierarchy among many of the denizens at MLA. Ask a professor here, “What are you working on these days?” (a guaranteed conversation starter at any gathering of university professors), and you will rarely hear, “Well, I’m teaching this course and that one, and this is what my students are up to.”


A viral epidemic has been a frequent preoccupation of this year’s MLA meeting: The infection of humanities publishing with science-derived journal rankings and “impact factor” bibliometrics.

In addition to two panels of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on the Structure of the Annual Convention organized the session “Journal Ranking, Reviewing, and Promotion in the Age of New Media.” Journal rankings allegedly have accuracy but their lack of accountability (who is ranking, by what criteria, and with what opportunities for appeal?) is critical, particularly when ranking systems may be used for hiring, tenure and promotion decisions.

Questions posed to this panel: What challenges, opportunities and obstacles to scholarly journals in the age of digital media? What are the effects on journals in the Americas of the new externally performed European Reference Index in Humanities (ERIH)? What benchmarking guidelines might be employed? How are factors related to identity (race, &c) and international culture affected?

The varied panelists made divergent observations. Digital divides exist between northern and southern hemispheres, East and West, but also between scholars at large universities (which can afford to subscribe to digital aggregators) and at small colleges (which cannot afford aggregated digital subscriptions). The question of accessibility dovetails with demographics and culture. In a context of diminishing resources and raised expectations, how do we define (and document) faculty productivity? How do we evaluate quality and effect in the humanities?

Protection may be as important as access: Open access may undermine scholarly journals (which cost to review, edit and publish). Controlled access is necessary in order to continue to subsidize scholarly publication. Clone Web sites (that look like a scholarly journal) may be threaten the credibility of journal. Universities’ open access repositories (“scholarly commons” increasingly required by universities) undermine the economics of scholarly journals. Perhaps the iTunes model would work: You can preview the first page or two of the article but you have to pay $.99 to download the whole article. New media shrink the distance and time of scholarly communication.

A November 2008 report by the Association of Research Libraries and the Ithaka group, “Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication,” identifies eight forms of digital scholarly communication: e-journals in electronic format only; reviews of scholarly works; preprints and working papers; encyclopedias and annotated content; data resources; blogs; discussion forums like e-mail lists; and professional and scholarly Web hubs. Peer review and revision are time consuming, whether they are for a print or a digital journal. Faculty need to be trained to evaluate digital scholarship.

In European universities a faculty member’s funding level will depend on ERIH ratings, which are established without clearly identified evaluators or criteria; it is an administrator’s dream but a scholar’s nightmare. Moreover, metrics can be manipulated. Academic editors are unpaid and see themselves as serving scholarship, so editing could be distributed via digital media, but we have been outsourcing judgments about quality often without recognizing it. Members of tenure and promotion committees, for example, may not read all of the applicant’s publications, relying instead on external reviews. We don’t train people for peer review; a declining number of people seem willing to conduct peer review, which may be the last vestige of the old boy network, noblesse oblige. Journals will no longer exist as a product, but as a process: technologies of colloquy. It would be best if academia developed (and made available for free) the best technologies for us to do value peer review, value editing and value colloquy.

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