Keeping the Humanities in the Public Arena: An Interview with Rosemary G. Feal

Rosemary G. Feal
Rosemary G. Feal

Mondern Language Association (MLA) logo

Ernesto Priego: You are the executive director of the Modern Language Association. Can you tell us what this means in the day to day, and could you also tell us about the journey that got you where you are now?

Rosemary G. Feal: The day to day work at the Modern Language Association (MLA) reflects our mission (to promote teaching and scholarship in the fields of English and languages other than English). I spend a lot of time on the association’s publications, governance, and projects. I travel to conferences and campuses to discuss the work the MLA does in the context of higher education. Some days find me signing contracts, reviewing bids from vendors, analyzing the budget, and performing other administrative duties that any not-for-profit executive does. My favorite part of the job is working directly with the MLA membership here at our office, at the annual convention, and on the road.

The road to becoming MLA executive director was more like a leap. I had been chair of the Modern Languages and Literatures department at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and I had participated in many MLA committees and projects over the course of my career. The Executive Council saw my potential to grow into the position. I feel gratitude every day that they chose me over ten years ago to do this work.

EP: Which would you say are some of the greatest challenges the MLA as a professional association is currently facing, and which are the opportunities or current projects or strategies that you are finding the most exciting?

RGF: Like most scholarly societies, the MLA is experiencing a shift in the demographics of our membership. As colleges and universities in the United States continue the overuse of faculty members in contingent positions, we see a rise in the percentage of our members in this category. The MLA devotes considerable attention to this issue (see, for example, the MLA Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit). It’s important that we get the message out to parents, students, administrators, and the public at large that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.

The other major shift has been toward digital publications and open access. Over the past decade, the association has migrated many of our publications to a digital format, and we have created a new platform for  scholarly exchange: MLA Commons. We have an active Twitter presence for the annual convention. Most of our projects aim to help our members in their academic and professional pursuits, so it’s important to meet members where they are and assist them in getting where they need to go. That why we’ve also created instruments to help departments evaluate scholarship in new media.

MLA Commons logo

EP: 4Humanities is concerned with advocating for the humanities. This can mean several things, but I guess one of them is discussing ways in which we can explain to those outside our immediate professional circles why the humanities matter. How do you see the role of the MLA in advocating for the humanities (not only in the case of contingent faculty as you have mentioned)?

RGF: The MLA believes the best advocates for the humanities are our own members, and we give them ways to do that work on their campuses and in the larger world. We have given media training to hundreds of members, who then can approach interviews with confidence that their messages will be heard. The MLA also does advocacy work in Washington, D.C., and we invite members to join us for the national Humanities Advocacy Day.

Members also participate year-round in writing to their representatives on legislative matters connected to the humanities, such as the Fulbright-Hayes program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and programs within the Department of Education that support language and literacy study. The MLA president and I routinely publish articles in the higher education press as well as in places such as the New York Times to help the larger public to understand the importance of study and research in the humanities.

National Humanities Alliance logo

EP: A term which is gaining currency is the ‘public humanities’. What are the challenges and opportunities that such a term poses for a scholarly association such as the MLA? How important is public (in this case meaning individuals and communities that are not MLA members) engagement for the association?

RGF: In a way, the humanities have always been intended for the public; it’s only in recent times that we’ve become used to viewing the humanities as particular to campus life, to elite cultural venues, and so on. Some of the great novels we teach and study today were published in serial form and read by a large public. Theater in Cervantes’s Spain drew in crowds; it wasn’t a spectacle for the lettered classes.

A key aspect of the MLA’s mission is to keep the humanities in the public arena. We do this in a number of ways. The MLA’s signature book series, Approaches to Teaching World Literature, features over 100 volumes. These works help teachers and students understand literary texts, and they point readers to scholarly resources. I imagine that many users of these volumes are MLA members, but just as many most likely are not.

The MLA respects scholars’ specialized work and disciplinary- specific vocabulary. At the same time, it’s important for humanities scholars to be able explain our work to a larger public, not only for the purpose of securing external funding, but also to claim our place alongside the sciences. No matter how complex scientific discoveries may be, the public at large generally shows interest in reports about that kind of research.

Something similar can happen in the humanities. We make discoveries that change how we view our past, we shed light on the complexities of art and literature, and we put together puzzle pieces that produce radical new learning. When we present our work in accessible language to the public, that work gains added value as it encourages people to see the humanities as research rich.

Individuals and communities that are not currently part of the MLA matter a great deal to the association. Some of these are our natural allies; they work in areas closely related to the MLA’s mission, and we engage with them frequently. I’m thinking here of the many conferences the MLA staff and officers attend each year as we reach out to sister organizations and disciplines.

I’d like more of our allies to join the MLA. While specialized organizations have a vital role for scholars, the umbrella function of the MLA is critical as well. The kind of research, publishing, and advocacy that we do on behalf of the humanities benefits communities beyond our membership. We could do even more if members of those communities viewed themselves as invested in the MLA as well.

EP: I like how the MLA works as an umbrella organisation way beyond language and literary studies. With MLA Commons, the way the conference has embraced mobile apps and social media, the development of Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media, etc. it seems to me the MLA is pioneering and setting best practices in embracing digital scholarship and digital scholarly networking. How have you personally seen ‘the digital’ modify the MLA’s vision and mission, and how do you imagine it might embrace digital tools in the future?

RGF: It’s true: this is one of the areas in which the MLA has transformed the most in the past decade. It is an intentional shift we’ve taken because our mission is to promote scholarship and teaching, and the digital arena is a key part of today’s scholarly enterprise. Our members are leading us in these directions. Thanks to the pioneering work of these members, the MLA has been able to make progress on these issues. We still maintain most of our traditional functions, though. The MLA is highly diverse in the ways we carry out our mission, which is how it should be, given our membership. As the scholarly practices of our members evolve, so, too, will the MLA.

EP: If you had to answer “why do the humanities matter today?” what would you say?

RGF: First, the humanities matter because they are our cultural inheritance. We need to preserve, study, interpret, and teach this cultural heritage if it is to endure; I think most of us would agree on that.

Second, I think we’d all agree as well that humans crave something beyond the instrumental modes in which we operate most of the time. The humanities can provide this other dimension to life that for many people signifies deep meaning and pleasure.

Finally, in our technologically-driven age, the humanities matter more than ever, because they help us understand the many dimensions of our human advances. Think of the work in ethics and philosophy on issues such as in-vitro fertilization or cybersurveillance, to give one example. The humanities illuminate aspects of our world that would otherwise remain shrouded.

EP: Final question! In a time in which the “Why You Shouldn’t Do a Humanities PhD” kind of article is almost a well-established genre, could you share with us your views on why humanities careers are still (for lack of better expression) ‘worth’ it?

RGF: Unemployment among PhDs in miniscule if you look at the statistics. This does not mean that all PhDs will be employed full-time in college teaching (though the majority are); it means that highly educated people find work. Humanities careers take many forms, so if a potential graduate student understands this, then there are reasons to pursue an advanced degree. But some things are clear in today’s world.

Graduate students should choose programs that show the job placement outcomes for all students, that offer adequate support (funding, professional development, mentoring, and so on), and that provide PhD candidates with the multiple skills they need to be successful. Graduate students have to be much more informed on the way in. Fortunately, many institutions are stepping up.

About Ernesto Priego

Researcher at the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, City, University of London. Editor in chief of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship. Affiliated member of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

4 thoughts on “Keeping the Humanities in the Public Arena: An Interview with Rosemary G. Feal

  1. Thanks, Rosemary, for your strong endorsement of the Humanities! We need advocates like you who believe and speak up in favor of the continued value of a Ph.D. education and its future benefit to our societies and culture.

  2. Why we need the Humanities? Now more than ever we need the Humanities to live in our global world: to understand and appreciate diversity, to practice tolerance, to have a critical mind, to challenge the “true facts” with which mass media bombard us every day. You need a critical mind, even to challenge, just as an example, the shameful avalanche of A.D.H.D diagnoses that submerge our youth population (see today’s NYT-May 1, 2013). Discussing Huxley’s Brave New World with our students may help addressing similar issues. And thousand are the books, films, plays, works of art that can fullfil similar goals. Doing away with these treasures will reduce us to the life of Huxley’s World State.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *