MLA 2008: Pedagogy Is Not a Dirty Word

December 29, 2008

San Francisco — It’s not all economic doom and gloom at the MLA meeting here. For one thing, it’s San Francisco, a far more temperate place to be in late December than Chicago, the site of last year’s convention.

There’s good news besides the relatively balmy weather. If you’re looking for a job in creative writing or Asian languages, two growth areas identified by the MLA, your prospects don’t look quite so dismal. Anything with a digital turn — a workshop on evaluating digital work for tenure and promotion, a panel on scholarly editing in the 21st century — attracts a good crowd.

And the renewed emphasis on pedagogy, spearheaded by this year’s president, Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has gone over well with attendees, who seem relieved to hear that it’s not intellectually unserious to talk about teaching. (It’s also nice to hear the lovelier word “teaching” make a comeback.)

In his presidential address last night, Mr. Graff put it in characteristically direct terms: “It’s just no longer true, I think, that we give teaching no respect.” There are signs, he said, of a “pedagogical renaissance” in literary studies. He also made plain his feelings about a problem that’s very much on people’s minds here and across academe: the increasing use of “contingent” labor, or “the so-called adjunctification of teaching.”

“Clearly we need to fight this trend in every way we can,” Mr. Graff said. That means changing the popular belief that teaching “ranks low on our list of priorities.”

He attacked what he called “courseocentrism” — professors who can’t see past their own syllabi and have no idea what their colleagues down the hall are teaching the same students. It’s time to get out of “the isolated, privatized classroom” and figure out how to connect all the nifty things we’ve added to the humanities curriculum over the past decades, he said.

“We’ve been challenged, to say the least, at connecting what we’ve added,” Mr. Graff said. “What’s learned in a course tends to stay in the course.” —Jennifer Howard