An Introduction to the New Forum Structure

Dear MLA Members,

It is our pleasure to announce that the Executive Council has approved a proposal for a new division and discussion group structure starting with the 2016 convention. As cochairs of the working group that developed the proposal over three years, with broad-based consultation among individual members, numerous MLA committees, and the Delegate Assembly, we are delighted to introduce the new structure and to invite you to become involved in implementing it. We know you will have lots of questions, and you will find answers to many of them here.

This extensive review was the first in forty years. It aimed to respond thoughtfully to intellectual changes that have occurred since 1974, which have affected the kinds of work done in long-established MLA fields while also contributing to the formation of new fields.

Several priorities guided the multifaceted review process:

  • a commitment to the deep study of language, literature, and their histories
  • the protection of small fields, including the study of less commonly taught languages
  • the attempt to minimize hierarchies and exclusions among fields, large and small
  • the aim to lessen the divide between English and foreign languages in the MLA
  • the desire to add new fields in emergent areas

As you review the new structure, you will find much continuity as well as a number of significant changes.

  • For the sake of democratization and simplification, the distinction between discussion groups and divisions has been eliminated in favor of the single category forums.
  • The forums are grouped under nine rubrics, which are meant to enhance the legibility of the new structure while allowing intellectual exchanges within and across categories. Forums are arranged alphabetically within these nine rubrics:
    • Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
    • Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies
    • Genre Studies
    • Media Studies
    • Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies
    • Language Studies and Linguistics
    • Theory and Method
    • Transdisciplinary Connections
    • Higher Education and the Profession
  • Forums will be reviewed every five years and will thus have regular opportunities to study their histories and their plans for the future.
  • Each forum will have a group site on MLA Commons for year-round communication.
  • Many new forums have been preapproved by the council and can hold sessions as early as 2016.
  • Members may propose additional new forums starting with the 2018 convention.
  • A new kind of convention session, the three-year seminar, is geared to specialized topics that call for sustained attention beyond that which is offered by the special session format. They will be introduced for the 2018 convention.

As we introduce this new structure, we are keenly aware of the many negotiations and imperfect compromises that produced it. The discussions in which we have engaged with many of you during these last three years have been both invigorating and humbling. We are grateful for the time and thought you put into your comments. We learned from them all, and they led us to think hard and in new ways about how to negotiate among many differing ideas and stakes in the future of the MLA.

Beginning this process, we knew that we could not actually complete it, if completion meant devising a structure that would stand unaltered for decades. We hoped to provoke a conversation among members about the shapes and priorities of our fields. This conversation has certainly occurred, and it has produced a structure that includes, as a constitutive element, a process of regular review.

With this letter, we happily announce that one phase of the conversation has concluded, and we look forward to the new phases that will occur at MLA conventions, in MLA committee meetings, and on MLA Commons. Our thanks go to the working group (Srinivas Aravamudan, David Bartholomae, Brent Edwards, Carla Freccero, Mary Louise Pratt, Richard So, and Patricia Yaeger); to members of the Executive Council, who gave us much advice; and to all MLA members who commented on the various drafts circulated over the past year. We also thank Rosemary G. Feal, who encouraged us at every step of the way, and the many MLA staff members who contributed to the revision process and who will now be working with the membership on implementation. We can’t wait to see how members use the new structure to expand their interests at the convention and on MLA Commons.

Sincerely,

Margaret Ferguson, President
Marianne Hirsch, Immediate Past President

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12 Comments

Profile photo of Alison Booth Alison Booth

I commend the people who have put the time into a reconsideration of an old structure. It will be good, provocative and interesting, to make members actively create forums, and so forth. The new ones seem well-meaning. I actually feel my own vested interests are well served, since I advocate and practice “Victorian research” that reaches into 20th c. I’m on record as disputing periodization, but I’m talking here about practical divisions of activity. Absolutely, I agree that the world’s configurations should be reflected in MLA. But something odd has happened in the following LLC’s that are copied below: Romanticism overlaps historically with late 18thc (a respected, important field that isn’t super large), so retaining that split seems very generous, but Romanticism isn’t synonymous with early 19th c.. Modernist studies (which has a lot of journals and conferences and adherents) occupies much of late 19th C. and early 20thC. In sheer numbers and activity, and in quite different approaches and debates, Victorian studies and Modernist studies don’t seem like forums to lump together. Nor do Modernist studies, which are now very international, need to be folded into a further century of activity in all English-speaking world. I just question the chosen mix of chronological, national, linguistic, and aesthetic-movement demarcations, without regard to the sociology or sheer quantity of existing work/member participation.
LLC Late-18th-Century English
LLC English Romantic
LLC Victorian and Early-20th-Century English
LLC 20th- and 21st-Century English and Anglophone

Profile photo of Susan M. Kalter Susan M. Kalter

Love the list of new forums I got in SIX different emails, plus the full list here. However, I do not agree with the idea of being able to choose only 5 forums. Please rethink that decision, given that the new structure expands the possibilities but should not shut down old affiliations or disallow overlap. The latter seems vastly against the spirit of the new structure. The proposed solution (being able to interact with those one does not choose as “primary” is inadequate and I believe it may force some email traffic decisions that one should not have to make.

Profile photo of Margaret W. Ferguson Margaret W. Ferguson

Dear Susan (if I may), I understand your uneasiness about the limit, but you don’t have to make your choice of 5 “primary” forums till 2016, and you can join as many forum-groups on the Commons as you like. We’re asking members to limit themselves to supporting only five of the new forums at this stage of gaining 35 signatures because if there weren’t such a limit, we’d have trouble predicting any correlation between the new forums and actual attendance at the convention sessions such forums will be guaranteed starting in 2016. Here’s the explanation given in the FAQ’s:
Is there a limit to the number of forums I can belong to?

Starting with the 2016 membership year, you will be asked to choose no more than five primary forum affiliations. You may, however, join as many forum groups on MLA Commons as you wish and participate in these forums’ discussions.
Does the number of new forum petitions I sign limit the number of other forums I can have as primary affiliations?

No; although you may sign only five petitions for new forums, petitioning for a new forum does not count as a primary affiliation. If that forum is later approved by the Program Committee, you will be able to choose it as a primary affiliation, and it will count toward your five allotted primary forum affiliations.

Profile photo of Melek Ortabasi Melek Ortabasi

Hello everyone,

As the Chair of the Division of East Asian Literatures after 1900, I’d like to appeal to the general membership for their support of additional prospective forums in Asian Literatures. There are five proposed, and those with an interest in these various linguistic traditions should sign the petitions:

LLC Japanese to 1900
LLC Japanese since 1900
LLC Pre-14th-Century Chinese
LLC Ming and Qing Chinese
LLC Modern and Contemporary Chinese

We are working hard to bring more linguistic diversity to the MLA, and these prospective forums are certainly a step in the right direction. Please help us make sure they become formally established!

Thank you for your support!
Melek Ortabasi
Associate Professor
World Literature Program
Simon Fraser University

Profile photo of Rivka Swenson Rivka Swenson

“For the sake of democratization and simplification, the distinction between discussion groups and divisions has been eliminated in favor of the single category forums.”

That’s great.

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