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  • Tumbleweed Connections
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo (bio)

The Annual Meeting of the Modern Languages Association of America is one of the high points of the academic year. Scholars from English, comparative literature, and foreign language departments from across the United States convene after the winter holidays for four days of scholarly presentations, book exhibitions, and—for the fortunate few—job interviews. This event is both a barometer of the relative health of one of the largest branches of the humanities as well as one of the few opportunities we have to see our profession and its participants in action.

Hundreds of sessions are organized on the wide-ranging themes and issues that represent the current interests and needs of the members of the MLA. To get a sense of the range, this past fall, the first two sessions were "Fund-Raising 101: How to Raise Money for Your Programs and Events" (Session 001) and "DH Curious? Digital Humanities Tools and Technologies for Students, Emerging Scholars, Faculty Members, Librarians, and Administrators" (Session 002), and the last two sessions were devoted to "Marxism and the Future of Higher Education" (Session 746) and "Critical Race Theory and New Directions for Victorian Studies" (Session 747).

These sessions serve as a living matrix of the shape of the profession and its interests. More sessions one year as opposed to previous years serves as evidence of growing interest in a topic; fewer sessions on a topic over the years attests to diminishing interest. And starting the program this year with a session on raising money says everything about the most urgent problem facing the profession: decreasing funding.

Over the years the convention and the organization have grown considerably in size and diversity. Back in 1889, when the seventh annual convention was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sixty-two people attended to hear nineteen presentations in five sessions along with a variety of reports. All of the members of the MLA at that time were men.

To highlight this fact, Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University, gave a welcome address to the association on Thursday night, and then invited "the members of the Association and their wives" to a reception at his home on 17 Quincy Street after the formal address to the organization by its president, the poet, James Russell Lowell. The 1889 program also explicitly notes "The attendance of Ladies at the Sessions of the Convention will be expected and welcomed." The twentieth-century though would bring major changes to the demographics of the MLA, not the least of which would be the steadily increasing role and status of women in the organization and the profession.

In 1989, one-hundred years later, the MLA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession reported that about 48 percent of doctorates in English and 64 percent of doctorates in foreign languages that year were awarded to women. And of those doctorates in English, 656 were awarded to white women and 54 to women of color; of the doctorates in foreign languages, 180 were awarded to white women and 34 to women of color. Moreover, though the MLA president was male in 1989 (Victor Brombert), women held the position the year before (Barbara Herrnstein Smith, 1988) and the year after (Catherine R. Stimpson, 1990). In addition, since 1985, the three executive directors of the MLA have all been women (Phyllis Franklin, 1985-2002; Rosemary G. Feal, 2002-2017; and Paula M. Krebs, 2017-present).

Furthermore, a 1995 Survey of Humanities Doctorates conducted by the National Opinion Research Center reported that among Assistant Professors of English, approximately 16 percent were white men, 23 percent were white women, 22 percent were men of color, and 34 percent were women of color; among Assistant Professors of Foreign Languages, approximately 14 percent were white men, 26 percent were white women, 16 percent were men of color, and 31 percent were women of color. Nevertheless, at the highest rank, there were wide disparities based on gender and minority status. Full Professors of English were about 46 percent white men, 22 percent were white women, 27 percent were men of color, and 24 percent were women of color; among Full Professors of Foreign...


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