Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On Being a Lapsed MLA Member

I became a member of the Modern Language Association in 2014, mostly because I was on the job market, grad student memberships were cheap, the convention was in the city where I live, and I wanted free access to Interfolio. (I was already using the JIL as a non-member.)

Becoming an MLA member was sort of a deferred dream come true. There was a time in my life, probably around age 17-22, that I assumed, hoped, or wished that I would one day be an English professor. I have always loved to read, and even as my academic career took me further and further from literature (the last time I really engaged with the academic study of literature was reading almost all of Middlemarch for an aesthetics class at Humboldt State in 2006), and from English departments, I have often said that I see myself as an "English department person." My main interest in life (apart from first-order things like family) is books, and reading and writing.

But frankly, whenever I get a small glimpse of what goes on in of the humanities today (as opposed to education, applied linguistics, and TESOL, which are fields I actually work in), I feel like getting out of "English" was the right thing for me to do. I like where I am compared to where I might be if I had seriously considered literature as a career. 

Yet I can't stop thinking about wanting to engage with the MLA, even though I have decided to let my membership lapse. It's not just that I still want to believe somehow that I have a future as a tweedy, bookish professor (rather than the sometimes obnoxiously practical non-tenure-track writing teacher I am); it's that the MLA represents a lot of stuff that I really do think is important.

I got what I assume will be my last issue of PMLA in the mail yesterday. As usual, I am only interested in reading about 20% of it, and the rest doesn't feel relevant at all, but the 20% I'm interested is riveting. Over the past year I've read in the PMLA about endangered indigenous languages, the adjunctification crisis and attempts to better the working conditions of contingent faculty, forgotten work by the 20th century Chinese writer Eileen Chang, the meaning of public intellectual work, the debate about translingual writing that's been brewing between L1 and L2 writing scholars, and a bunch of other stuff that feels vital and cool to me.

When I think about jumping in to the conversation, though, I have to step back. (And not only because you have to submit things like 40 years in advance to get published in the PMLA.) I don't work in an English department.  I don't even work in the humanities at all; much as I feel sad saying this, I'm just not trained to think like a humanist. (I might have a humanist's heart, but I have a language educator's brain.) And I don't work in the United States. (The MLA, like most American professional associations, is pretty US-centric, which is perhaps understable, though I did have to wonder at the sheer absurdity that the people who ran the conference put up signs referring to "ADA Elevators" -- that's elevators per the "Americans with Disabilities Act"-- when we were literally in Canada.)

So I don't think the MLA is for me, for a number of reasons, but I'm glad it does what it does, and I mourn my lapsed membership, in a small way, the way you might mourn leaving a country, or a community, or a religion: I don't speak the language any more (if I ever did), but I know I'm missing something by not making the effort.

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