Profession in the World

In 2013 the MLA Executive Council approved making Profession an entirely electronic publication: 2014 papers would be published on a rolling basis on a new MLA Commons site and collected annually in an e-book. Both formats would be free to all. The change reflects the association’s ongoing commitment to making as much of the MLA’s scholarly content as possible free, but without jeopardizing the MLA’s ability to provide services to members. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the MLA’s director of scholarly communication, has written, shifts in the knowledge environment—the precarious professional position of many scholars, strains on library budgets, and the evolution of the Internet as a means of disseminating scholarship—“require us to consider the possibility that the locus of a society’s value in the process of knowledge creation may be moving from providing closed access to certain research products to instead facilitating the broadest possible distribution of the work done by its members.” By shifting to a new model for distribution of Profession, we hope to attract a wide readership—including members and nonmembers, scholars in the United States and Canada and those in other countries, and those with access to academic libraries and those without.The essays published in Profession in 2014 similarly reflect a commitment to engaging with the world beyond the walls of academia. The first pieces published on the site grew out of a panel at the 2014 convention in Chicago, where Diane Ravitch and two former MLA presidents, Gerald Graff and Catharine R. Stimpson, spoke about how the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) might shape primary and secondary education and, by extension, students’ preparation for college. Will the standards make explicit for struggling students the often mysterious expectations for college readiness, as Graff hopes, or simply impose another metric that puts these students at a disadvantage, as Ravitch fears? And, Stimpson wonders, does this move toward government involvement in K–12 curricula foreshadow a similar movement at the college level? It may be too soon to know, but as Ravitch writes, “[a]s an organization of teachers and scholars devoted to the study of language and literature, the MLA should be deeply involved in the debate about the Common Core State Standards.” We are, and we will continue to be. Leading the effort is the MLA’s newly launched Working Group on K–16 Alliances, chaired by the 2014–15 MLA president, Margaret Ferguson. Forging connections with primary and secondary teachers, the group’s projects will focus on writing studies, the teaching of languages other than English, and the possible revision and ongoing implementation of the CCSS. I hope you will follow the group’s work as well as the ongoing national conversation about the CCSS.Marianne Hirsch’s presidential theme for the 2014 convention, Vulnerable Times, was especially fruitful, generating more than two hundred sessions. As Hirsch writes in her introduction to the Presidential Forum pieces, the theme “addresses vulnerabilities of life, of the planet, and of our professional disciplines now and throughout history.” Examining events from recent and less recent history—and from across the globe—the forum participants (Ariella Azoulay, Judith Butler, David L. Eng, Rob Nixon, and Diana Taylor) reexamine the notion of vulnerability to assert the possibility for forms of resistance that can stem from it. In doing so, the authors underscore the power of telling stories, of reimagining “dominant narratives of power and powerlessness, perpetration and victimhood . . . from the perspectives of the vulnerable” (Hirsch).

The issue also includes presentations from three sessions linked to the Presidential Forum. Introduced by Susan Rubin Suleiman, the cluster “Trauma, Memory, Vulnerability” looks at how vulnerability can shed light on trauma and memory studies in a global context. It features essays by Andreas Huyssen, Ananya Jahanara Kabir, María José Contreras Lorenzini, and Michael Rothberg. In the cluster on the politics of language in vulnerable times, Suresh Canagarajah; Mary Louise Pratt; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; and Guadalupe Valdés, Luis Poza, and Maneka Deanna Brooks consider the vulnerability of languages—and of language itself—in an era of globalization. Finally, in essays from a session on public humanities, Matti Bunzl, James Chandler, Julie Ellison, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Jean Howard, and Laura Wexler ask what the term public humanities means and consider how scholars can create a public face for the humanities in vulnerable times.

As the contributors to the session on public humanities remind us, the 2014 convention was the first to follow the publication of The Heart of the Matter, a report by an American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission, and of three reports from Harvard University’s Arts and Humanities Division. All the reports, which make the case for the importance of humanities study, also outlined the challenges facing humanities fields and sparked commentary about the value of an education that focuses on the humanities. Facing a rhetoric of crisis—whether warranted or not—those who teach languages and literatures inevitably must ask how we make a better case for what we and our students do. Do we use our skills as scholars to focus on more public texts, such as photographs in the news or historical events? present our work in accessible ways in public venues? For the authors in Profession, the answer is yes. But in addition, as Jean Howard notes, one of the ways many MLA members participate most meaningfully in the public humanities is in the classroom, by introducing texts, films, essays, poetry, performances, and language to the students who will be tomorrow’s public.

The idea of the classroom as a foundation for public humanities is evident too in the final essay, Per Urlaub’s “A New Brecht for LA: Public Scholarship through Technology in Project-Based Graduate Education,” which examines a graduate course in German at the University of Texas, Austin, in the context of efforts to reform doctoral studies. The course, which required students to do public outreach for a local theater, allowed PhD candidates to develop skills that will serve them in a variety of careers, whether inside the academy or beyond.

As I look to the ever-changing publication called Profession, I realize that it will increasingly need to speak to MLA members engaged in many professions and to serve the public humanities in different contexts and evolving ways. Profession in the world is yours to share with colleagues, and we hope it will stimulate new ideas. We look forward to hearing what you’d like to see in the Profession of the future.

Work Cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Statement on Public Access to Federally Funded Research.” From the Office of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association. MLA Commons. MLA, 15 May 2015. Web. 18 May 2015. <>.

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