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MLA Executive Council #3: Statement on Matters of Professional Concern

Continuing with the idea of using this blog to expand, even slightly, the process of my running for MLA Executive Council, I’ve posted some materials below. The first round of information requested by MLA was a biographical statement, a sort of highly compressed CV that I tried to expand upon in my last post. The second chunk of information was this–a Statement on Matters of Professional Concern. I found this to be an odd genre, as it is basically your only space as a nominee to

  1. Situate yourself politically
  2. Give a personal history of yourself divorced from byte sized, academically parseable accomplishments
  3. Zero in on any specific accomplishments in any detail
  4. Lay out a plan for your time at the MLA Exec, if elected

That’s a lot of weight for 250 words to pull!

As you can see below, I tried to hit as many of these as possible in a coherent manner. I’ve reprinted my statement, as sent to MLA, here; afterwards I expand on the three ‘action items’ I list towards the end.

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Daniel Powell – Nominee for MLA Executive Council

Statement on Matters of Professional Concern

I am a first generation college student from the American South who attended a small, public liberal arts college on full Pell Grant funding. Also, although nominated as a student member of the Executive Council attached to a mid-sized Canadian university (U of Victoria), I am employed full time by King’s College London, an institution ranked amongst the top 20 global universities. I am keenly aware of the both the absence of diverse backgrounds in positions of influence in academia and the responsibility for action that comes with such roles.

I am earning my PhD in English, though my research investigates the humanities as discipline, professionalisation, media, and graduate program reform. I claim the identity of digital humanist, placing me in the middle of intense debates about disciplinarity, professionalisation, funding models, and the basic ways we make knowledge. These are part of larger challenges we face in addressing the socio-cultural, economic, and geographic realities of an evolving academy. The MLA has been, is and must continue to be integral to these discussions.

In my view, the MLA should:

  • Vigorously extend initiatives like the Task Force on Doctoral Study and Connected Academics;
  • Undertake activism in keeping with its stated mission to the full extent allowed under its status as a 501(c)(3) organisation;
  • Commit to being a truly multinational, multilingual organisation by aggressively supporting (at the least) Francophone, Hispanophone, and Indigenous/First Nations involvement at all levels.

For further materials related to my candidacy, please visit: djp2025.com.

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To expand on those three action items:

  • Vigorously extend initiatives like the Task Force on Doctoral Study and Connected Academics;

The Task Force on Doctoral Study was a wonderful effort by MLA to seriously begin grappling with the reality of PhDs in contemporary academia. Connected Academics is one outcome of that report, a Mellon funded effort to continue researching the topic while, at the same time, preparing current PhD candidates for the future reality of the ‘job’ market through workshops, networking events, and other activities that are basic in non-academic, non-humanities fields. To me, this is a starting point, not an end point. Much more needs to be done to address this, including facing some hard truths about PhD overproduction and the size of graduate programs, issues that the MLA (in my view) dismisses far too quickly. In particular, we can learn from companies and individuals like Cheeky Scientist, The Professor Is In, and Academic Writing & Coaching. PhDs turn to these resources because their local institutions, and the organisations in which their mentors are embedded–like MLA–often fail spectacularly at basic professionalisation. It is worth understanding more deeply how such failures happen, what MLA can do to encourage industry-wide adoption of basic standards, and provide a venue for students to find that training if local institutions are unable or unwilling to provide it.

  • Undertake activism in keeping with its stated mission to the full extent allowed under its status as a 501(c)(3) organisation;

This is a tricky point: the MLA, as a 501(c)(3) organisation, faces very strict limits on the levels and type of activism it can undertake. If the organisation steps over those lines, it faces the very real possibility of losing its non-profit, tax exempt status. The IRS lays this out fairly clearly. As a charitable organisation, the MLA faces defined limits on political & legislative activities the organisation might conduct; the organisation is almost completely and totally unable to lobby on behalf of or against any particular political candidate. Unbiased, voter education activities are, however, allowed, as long as they are even handed. These are political activities. MLA has considerably more freedom when it comes to legislative lobbying activities; according to the IRS, MLA may be involved in ‘some lobbying,’ but too much risks losing charitable status. This guide also states that

Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying.  For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

To me, this sounds like a tailor made set of activities for the organisation to engage in, a set of activities that is ever more important in light of the attacks on tenure, promotion and self governance happening in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Beyond political activism, within defined limits and likely as advised by legal counsel, MLA can do much to improve its image to members. Measures towards this might include: making organisation tax filing information easily available to members on the website; highlighting the educations efforts and lobbying efforts that MLA already engages in; provide access to the MLA budget to defuse the persistent belief that MLA is hoarding vast sums earned on the backs of adjuncts and precarious labour; provide an organisationally-sanctioned space at the national convention and affiliated events to discuss these issues.

  • Commit to being a truly multinational, multilingual organisation by aggressively supporting (at the least) Francophone, Hispanophone, and Indigenous/First Nations involvement at all levels.

As mentioned above, I have spent a number of years in Canada, a country with a clearly articulated policy of bilingualism (perhaps more observed in the letter than the spirit, but the awareness is there). Now living in Europe and being involved in a large-scale multinational group of early career scholars, I encounter numerous languages other than English on a daily basis. I will put this simply: MLA must, if it hopes to thrive and live up to its name and stated ideals, grapple with languages other than English in terms of doctoral training, conference location, languages of individual panels, and internal organisation of MLA regions. MLA is overwhelmingly Anglophone and US-based. To grow as an organisation both in terms of numbers and in spirit, that must change.

To take one example: The modern languages unquestionably include French, Spanish, and German–yet MLA has never been held in a non-US, non-Anglophone city throughout its entire history. The city of Montréal is the second-largest French speaking city in the world after Paris, holds over 4 million people in the metro area, is home to many vibrant minority communities, and is at worst a 1.5 hour flight from New York City. MLA has never been held there, and has only been held outside of the United States four times in well over a century of existence. Why not Mexico City (quite nice in winter . . . )? Why not Montréal? To truly represent the modern languages and not simply English, the MLA needs a grand gesture of this sort–a gesture that will no doubt upset a number of American members. So be it, and welcome to how the rest of the world often feels.

Finally, MLA needs a targeted approach to increase the involvement of minority groups across the spectrum. This might involve extensive discussions with regional MLA groups, mentorship at higher levels of the organisation, or attempts to increase diversity at the conference through venue choice, panel decisions, or otherwise.

Please do reach out on Twitter or via email the mood strikes. 🙂


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