03 June 2014

The MLA Task Force on Being Nice to People Leaving Academia But Otherwise Keeping Things the Same

If modern languages and literatures survive as academic disciplines, it will be because students (and the people students become when they graduate: tax-payers, tuition-payers, and folks who make decisions about allocating public resources) recognize that taking these classes in college makes a difference.

But you wouldn't know it from reading the Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.  The document has been well chewed over by now, and the indigestible truth lies strewn in tatters around us: there are far more qualified potential professors than there are jobs for them and Ph.D. students ought to be supported (not vilified) for their efforts to find work outside academia.  The bulk of the report's recommendations, though, have been slurped down like the tasty morsels of cluelessness that they are: alt-ac training?  technological know-how? watered down dissertations?  five years to degree?  Doctoral education confronts a supply-and-demand problem.  As many academic bloggers have pointed out, fantasizing about some alternative demand (that only a retooled supply of literature and language Ph.D.'s can fill) won't fix it.

At the still center of this storm of cluelessness and derision, though, sits the unavoidable fact of higher education: college students need to be taught, and the Ph.D. is usually the qualification required to teach them. Halfway down the list of recommendations is "Strengthen Teaching Preparation," presented as a way to make Ph.D.'s more viable on the academic job market, as "only those graduate students with strong preparation as teachers will succeed."  The report doesn't say how this strong preparation is to take place in a five-year doctoral program that grooms students for alt-ac careers.  Nor does the report offer any reasons for strengthening teaching beyond the banal. "Dedicated and well-prepared teachers are crucial to the strength of our society" we are told.  And apparently, somewhere out there in the world beyond the university, people care about teaching, so we should pay attention:  "The tendency to devalue teacher preparation in parts of doctoral education is at odds with the ever-growing national pursuit of effective teaching that can optimize student learning....In the United States considerable public attention is currently focused on improving education; doctoral programs that prepare scholar-teachers have an opportunity to contribute productively to this effort."

In moments like this, higher ed's preoccupation with prestige (who are we if our fate is not tied up in particular doctoral programs?) collides with the realities of what a lot of us in literature and language departments do (teach college students to speak, read, and write better, sometimes in languages they don't already know).  The MLA Task Force has answered the question,  "How should we change the study of language and literature so that we can justify maintaining the current size and number of Ph.D. programs?" The question we need to be asking, though, is "How many people should it take to teach language and literature well to the college students enrolled in all post-secondary ed, and how can we best make sure that number of people is suitably credentialed, remunerated, and supported?"

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