New Chief of the Modern Language Association Sees Signs of Hope

June 08, 2017

Bridgewater State College
Paula Krebs, incoming head of the MLA, says the increase in the number of humanities majors in community colleges suggests a public understanding of the value of such degrees.

Paula M. Krebs, the newly appointed executive director of the Modern Language Association, is well-acquainted with the gloom and doom attached to the fields that her organization represents. But she sees some positive signs for the humanities as she prepares to guide the MLA in expanding its membership, making the case for more tenure-track jobs, championing the importance of language study, and strengthening efforts to be more inclusive of adjunct faculty members.

Ms. Krebs, who is replacing Rosemary G. Feal, will leave behind her job as dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University and take on her new role on August 1. She talked to The Chronicle about some of the hot-button issues facing her organization.

The decline in humanities majors: I actually don't think things are as grim as you paint them. The recent humanities indicators report on community-college programs is really a positive sign for us. The increase in the number of humanities majors in community colleges indicates that there is a public understanding of the value of degrees in humanities. Community-college students, who are very concerned about their futures, don't see a contradiction in being concerned about their future and majoring in the humanities. We need to build on that in four-year institutions.

Federal funding in the cross hairs: Yes, there's a federal threat to the National Endowment for the Humanities, but there's a real commitment to the humanities at the state level —­ a bipartisan commitment — to funding the NEH. In some ways, where we do our best work is at the grass-roots level. I see this as an opportunity to help build more public support for the humanities that will eventually result in more public support for the liberal arts in higher education.

The lack of tenure-track jobs: We've had an emphasis on increasing institutional commitment to living-wage jobs in the humanities. We're not in a position to create those jobs, but we have to use our influence culturally and nationally, within higher education and beyond higher education, to make clear that full-time, tenure-track jobs are essential to educating the citizens of tomorrow. There are limits on what we can do as an organization, but we have to push against those limits all the time. We have to try to work with other associations, other advocates in the humanities, the public accrediting bodies ­— as many actors in the field as we can.

The importance of a humanities education: An organization like the MLA can work to promote the value of a humanities education with an eye toward encouraging individual institutions and the system of higher education in general to understand how tenure lines are essential to student success. Humanities education demands the same kind of attention for the sake of culture and society and the community as STEM education or business education.

Amplifying adjunct voices in the MLA: One thing that we're doing now and will continue to work to expand is to include the voices of those faculty in the organization. There's nothing like actually working with contingent faculty members to understand what the organization does and doesn't understand about contingent-faculty employment. These are faculty members who don't find it easy to get to our conventions. There has to be a different kind of support for those members, different provisions for their representation. We're working to expand the membership to include more of those voices so it can be clear that the association represents everybody in language and literature and writing fields, not just tenure-track and tenured faculty. It's clearly the priority of the elected membership and it's clearly reflected in the strategic planning that's going on.

How she’ll approach her job: I know most of the staff because I worked as a volunteer for many years. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the staff. My job now, in my head, is to make that transition to staff from volunteer. The biggest shift for me will be working with groups outside the association — learning how to work with the other higher-education associations, for instance. I do a fair amount of advocacy for the humanities already, but that's mostly behind the keyboard; I do a lot of writing. I'm really interested in the face-to-face work of advocacy. I'm very excited about that.

Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at audrey.june@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.