Author Archives: Andrés Nicolás Rabinovich

Reflections on Due Diligence: My First MLA Convention (Guest Post)

Sitting in the audience of the MLA Convention volunteer orientation, the mention of a graduate student lounge caught my attention. In the Hyatt Regency hotel, it was in du Sable, a room named after the Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the Haitian founder of Chicago. Our volunteer coordinator’s pronunciation came out DOO-sable, and the written version above the room’s door was vague–all caps with no space–DUSABLE. It may seem a small detail, but the MLA may have missed an opportunity to give members and visitors important information about the city bearing the burden of our convention.

Is it important to know the name of a host city’s founder? In the study of the language arts, we learn that whether in creative writing, literary analysis, technical research, or any other manifestation, the choices made about what to include and what to leave out send messages about the values of the decider. That none of the many non-conference subjects on the convention’s website, du Sable’s legacy isn’t mentioned anywhere is telling. It isn’t like there aren’t any opportunities. The African American history museum named for the first non-Indigenous Chicagoan is mentioned in ways to explore to Chicago–that might have been a perfect place to mention the settler’s important place in American History. Having an excursion organized by MLA in the vein of those to the Newberry Library and the American Writer’s Museum might also have been especially appropriate this year considering the rich Black history of Chicago and the current spotlight on Black representations in all of our established institutions, the academy included.

The Hyatt certainly thought it important enough to name a room after. Other rooms were named after major cities, states, and presidents. Du Sable was the only name I hadn’t seen or heard before, hence the inquiry that led to the opening information of this post. No one will accuse the MLA of not doing their research due diligence by not learning and sharing du Sable’s legacy, and that, perhaps, is the most unfortunate part of all of this. In a related oversight, a colleague mentioned during the conference that the MLA had offered no acknowledgement of the Indigenous lands that Chicago is built on–another convenient and generally unquestioned blind eye.

A tone is set when these seemingly small details go unaddressed. Graduate students at this year’s convention sitting in du Sable, not knowing or even thinking about the significance of the room’s name are taking the lead from our professional body, and most of us will probably perpetuate these values in our own professional activities. In addition to expanding knowledge bases in our respective disciplines, graduate students are also becoming acclimated to the conventions of our profession, both those written out plainly and those more subtle. These reflections may very well be the result of the high expectations I have for my own scholarship. I always want to be as thoroughly researched as I can, ensuring that I’m making assertions based in a complete understanding of the material I’m working with. Sometimes this means extra time finding small details or finding pronunciation videos on YouTube, but a few minutes searching might have afforded the MLA an opportunity to show graduate students just what due diligence can really look like and show Chicago our gratitude.

This is a guest post by Lida Colón, MA student in English at Long Island University Brooklyn.


Come to a roundtable on academic freedom: Reading The Fine Print: Understanding Academic Freedom (MLA 2019). It takes place on Saturday, January 5th at 5:15 in the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Room “Columbus KL.” 

***This session will be live-tweeted (#s608)***

Academic Freedom is an “indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education” that has been seen as a cornerstone that enables our work since 1940. It is framed as the “core mission” of the American Association of University Professors. But the elements of it that are linked to a “professional standard” are ultimately described as “tied to custom and practice.” They are separate from a legal definition, which requires an understanding of both constitutional and contract law that many of us simply do not have. What this ultimately means is that most members of the Modern Language Association work without a technical or practical understanding of what “academic freedom” really is. We labor under a belief that we are protected by a legal and professional right that makes it possible for us to fully engage in the classroom and in public forums, even if our work challenges traditional modes of thinking or raises difficult questions. But then we see a rescinded job offer—or a graduate student is removed from a classroom after being doxed. If we turn to published essays in hopes of answers we are met with titles that range from the explicit “Academic Freedom Has Limits. Where They Are Isn’t Always Clear” to the more pointed “Can the Adjunct Speak?” And in this context it seems both pressing and timely to outline and then analyze the reach and limitations of  “Academic Freedom.”

This panel takes its departure from an assumption that “Academic Freedom” does not actually extend to all the people or places that many of us imagine it does. Its real and imagined protections have also been troubled by external pressures and internal conflicts that are complex enough to merit a thirty-four page report on its “current legal landscape.” The classroom no longer seems safe even for professors with tenure, in a moment that Twitter can substantially alter an entire career. Any given exchange can be publicized widely, which makes it difficult to use the classroom as a space for intellectual exploration and genuine exchange. Finally, this is even more problematic for adjuncts and graduate student laborers, who are often asked to teach transformative but emotionally and politically complex courses in fields like ethnic studies or queer theory without allegedly requisite protections, which threatens both individuals and entire fields.

This panel seeks to address a series of related questions:

(1) What does academic freedom actually cover?  

(2) What are its paradoxes, ironies, and contradictions?  

(3) Who actually has academic freedom?  Do its protections extend to professors without tenure?  

                  What about graduate student laborers?  

(4) How can we protect ourselves (especially our most vulnerable professors)?

(5) How can we protect the University (especially its most vulnerable areas of study)?

Our hope is that while people may never develop a clear sense of what their rights and protections are, they will leave with a stronger foundation: an overview of the reach, limitations, and complexities of academic freedom, along with some sense of where to turn if their work as professors is threatened.

While professors of all ranks often don’t have anything resembling a clear sense of what academic freedom actually covers, this problem is compounded for lecturers, adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate students, who often teach without these protections or clear policies about what, exactly, we are allowed to teach in the 21st-century university.

The participants:

Jeff Hole (Associate Professor of English at the University of the Pacific) will be talking about his concept “permanent contingency”. He will look particularly at the intensification of managerialism and the continued erosion of shared governance and tenure.

Laura Goldblatt (Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia) will talk about parallels between the acceleration of contract labor for service workers and the casualization of labor and what that means for academic freedom. She will use the events at UVA on August 11th, 2017 as a way to illustrate some of the dire consequences of this particular combination.

Doug Steward (Director of the Association of Departments of English at the MLA) will look at why/how some fields or methodologies are more vulnerable to attacks on academic freedom. The very scholarly norms that appropriately enforce disciplinary rigor may also be used to punish heterodox methods that reenvision a field.

Michael Berube (Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature; Chair, University Faculty Senate Pennsylvania State University) will focus specifically on extramural-speech cases that are especially tricky because they involve students other than the students in one’s classes.

Jennifer Ruth (Professor of Film Studies at Portland State University) will address several topics, including the benefits and tensions of a unionized campus with regards to academic freedom, the difference between rolling contracts and teaching-intensive tenure with regards to academic freedom, the question of whether Faculty Senate Resolutions or other blanket statements regarding academic freedom really do anything to protect contingent faculty speech, and the issues arising with the spread of Offices of Global Diversity and Inclusion in relation to academic freedom.