Inside the MLA

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Philadelphia, Pa.— Even sympathetic observers of the Modern Language Association (MLA) offer up vignettes about what may be the world’s largest collection of English professors that make the group look rather odd.

“Before the MLA convention, I tried to get a hold of a professor through a public relations department and said I was going to see the professor at a meeting,” Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed remembered at that very summit. “When the PR man asked ‘What meeting?,’ I said, ‘the MLA.’”

“He got very nervous because he assumed, in this case correctly, that it would involve a body part.”

Jaschik, who has covered higher education for 20 years, came to the City of Brotherly Love to offer constructive criticism of the MLA to its members. “By any measure, I think you have a bad image and in some ways an unfair image,” Jaschik said.

Before starting the web site Inside Higher Ed, Jaschik worked at The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Know the facts,” he advised the audience. “Stop saying government funding of education has gone down.”

“It isn’t true,” he told the crowd. “The mix of federal and state funding has changed.” Jaschik knows his beat.

“I looked into the case of the criminal justice professor at the University of Northern Colorado that David Horowitz brought up,” Jaschik said.

“Horowitz said the professor failed a student for refusing to write an essay saying that George Bush was a war criminal. Actually, the professor gave an assignment in which he asked students to compare the way that George Washington was regarded as a war criminal by the British with the way that George Bush was regarded as a war criminal by the Iraqis.”

“Also, the girl did not meet the length requirement.” Here is a side-by-side link to the versions of the story by Jaschik and Horowitz.

“There are a number of areas in which the public will sympathize with you,” Jaschik claimed. “Most people don’t care if anyone reads the Great Books anymore but they do care about writing.”

“Tell what is going on in your composition classes.” That may not be such a great idea.

I try to make all of the MLA panels on composition and writing. Comparatively, there aren’t many.

In two years of making the rounds at the MLA annual Jamboree, I have never seen Jaschik at one of those sessions. If Jaschik had made one of these meetings, he would doubtless have noticed, observant as he is, a fairly unanimous hostility to grammar and Standardized English on the part of not only the college professors on the dais but also as evidenced by the reactions of the audience of pedagogues.

“Some group is always coming out with some study that purports to show that nobody reads the Great Books anymore,” Jaschik said at the meeting at the Marriott. Conversely, Jaschik argues that “Shakespeare is alive and well on campus.”

But those groups—which include the National Association of Scholars, the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni—actually comb catalogues and count courses. Jaschik never made clear what information his own claim was based on, one of the rare times he did not give sources and attribution.

Jaschik also warned the crowd, which was receptive to the warning, of the dangers it faces in the newly formed Commission on the Future of Higher Education appointed by U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “Most of the stories on the Spellings Commission are on what it says about assessment but ignore the Spellings Commission [findings] on the humanities,” Jaschik concludes. “The Spellings Commission looks at college and asks, ‘How does this help you get a job?’”
“Milton does not come up.” He doesn’t make much more than a cameo appearance at the MLA either.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.