Advocate for Languages

Executive director of the MLA discusses mentors, career paths, learning from disappointments and the challenges facing higher education.

August 29, 2011

Rosemary Geisdorfer Feal is executive director of the Modern Language Association of America. While she served as MLA ED, the association has produced landmark studies on the promotion and tenure system, and reforms in foreign language education, while also pushing for better treatment of adjuncts. Prior to becoming the ED in July, 2002, Feal was chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She holds a Ph.D. in Spanish language and Latin American literatures from Buffalo. She was recently chosen as an ACE Fellow for the 2011-12 year.

I first met Rosemary on Twitter where she is an active mentor and promoter of MLA members. Over the past few months, we have had numerous conversations on the role of women in the academy. We are both strong advocates for contingent faculty and we share a passion for public engagement and community involvement. Our conversation was inspiring, eye-opening, and filled with laughter.

Mary Churchill: Readers are always interested to discover how leaders have made it into their current positions. Can you tell us a little about your story and what you think have been the keys to your success? Who is your role model and what inspires you?

Rosemary Feal: A few years ago, I gave a presentation at the MLA Annual Convention on a session called "Strategies for Success" about my failures. I wrote up a negative C.V., and I listed those things I had attempted but didn't get, like admission to law school, or the assistant professorship for which I was a finalist but received no offer. My point was that every life is composed of the "what could have beens" as well as the "what ares." I am driven and ambitious but also extremely satisfied with what actually happens. I think my gratitude and amazement at my career accomplishments stem in part from, if Susan B. Anthony will forgive me, knowing that failure IS possible. It's how we each understand success that really matters, and I don't define it in terms of career accomplishments alone, that's for sure.

We should focus on what we do that gives us a sense of accomplishment and feel good about our contributions. People need to say "that’s enough." They need to do what's necessary to be happy.

I was really fortunate to learn, in seventh grade, that I had a gift for learning languages. I was also lucky to have found my love for literature and writing at an early age, so by the time I reached college, my vocation was pretty much sealed. I was worried that the scholar's life might be too insular for me, but I knew I loved teaching. I got lucky again, because my first tenure-track job was at an institution that truly valued both teaching and research, and as a result I had a very rich life at the University of Rochester. I took on many administrative responsibilities during my years there, including a whole range of MLA activities. It was a great privilege to serve on committees where I got to know Phyllis Franklin, who preceded me as executive director of the MLA. She was a major influence on me and supported me in my career, for which I am grateful. Encouraging mentors can take you down roads that you might never have imagined.

I like to think that the MLA Executive Council saw in me the leader I could become and not just the enthusiastic 40-something woman being interviewed. I imagine that the combination of skills I had developed, experience with the MLA I had gained, and devotion I felt for the association came through to the search committee. The job represented a huge leap for me; it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I couldn't pass up.

MC: How would you describe your leadership style? What makes you unique?

RF: My own leadership style starts with the premise that everything I do should be in the best interests of the association I serve. This understanding allows me to make tough decisions, to uphold stringent standards, and to sleep with one eye open, so to speak, always focused on the MLA. I was thrilled when an MLA president described me as "bold." Research, consultation, collaboration, planning, and so on are requisite in an environment like the MLA, yet at some point, you have to be bold if you want to move forward.

MC: I am thrilled to hear you say that you have been rewarded for your boldness. Too often, women and younger folks in the academy hear the message that they need to be under the radar. What bold moves have you made and what lessons can we learn from these moves?

RF: The first element in boldness is to not let your fears drive you. I approach issues with questions such as -- "What can we do here that hasn’t been done before? Where can we go with this?" -- these are the questions that drive me. Working from a position of openness allows me to be bold, but I am not a maverick. My decisions are always made after I’ve done the research and I’ve thoroughly discussed the issues with colleagues. I am also not afraid to make very tough decisions and to say that something used to work in the past but we’re not going to do it anymore.

And the MLA has a long history of changing as the needs of its members change. Look at how much academic staffing has devolved over the decades, to the point where at most institutions, more classes are taught by teachers off the tenure track than on. The MLA Executive Council has been working hard to address these urgent issues from a disciplinary perspective and in collaboration with other associations. I am very passionate about the things I believe in and I will talk about them in bold terms. The lack of well-paying tenure-track jobs is one of those issues I feel compelled to speak out about.

MC: Many of our readers are Ph.D. students, recent Ph.D.s, and junior faculty members. They want to know how senior leaders go about identifying future leaders. What do you look for when hiring and promoting people into leadership positions?

RF: Remembering my own path to being chosen to lead the MLA, I would say experience is overrated. What I mean is, if a person has the ability to learn what's necessary and has the integrity and vision to assume leadership, then I'm likely to support him or her even if some key experience is missing. Other traits I look for: a deep understanding of how to work collectively and collaboratively. We academics receive so much training in individual pursuits -- one teacher in the classroom, one researcher at the computer -- and many of us don't learn how to present ideas concisely to a group, to seek help from others, to adapt what we're doing so that it works well within a larger enterprise, and so on. We don't even get practical training in how to run meetings well or to facilitate group discussions. I have a knack for these things, but I also hone the skills necessary to do them well. I expect to see this potential in those I hire and promote.

Those who know me can tell that I have fun on the job. I love meeting members and interacting with them at the annual convention. Maintaining a sense of humor is vital for me, and I look for it in others, too. One of the reasons I love working for the MLA is that my serious, responsible self and my fun-loving exuberant self can coexist for the most part.

MC: Mentoring and networking are crucial components of promotion and career mobility. Do you have specific recommendations for women who struggle with making the right connections and leveraging those connections?

RF: I am a natural at finding people to mentor me and with whom to network. It's a fairly straightforward formula. Ask nicely. Offer something back. So, for example, members often ask me how to get more involved in the MLA. I make specific suggestions.

People often follow up and become active, and then they might come back and offer something ("I’ve been thinking about how X idea might work for the MLA"). They connect up to new people through their ideas and interests. Basic advice: Talk to people at conferences, get in touch with people from whom you want to learn. Find out what others are doing, and offer your help and ideas.

MC: Can you give me some concrete examples of ways that folks can get more involved with their professional associations. I think our readers will be very interested in this path to leadership not just in the MLA but in the other associations as well.

RF: Serving on committees gets you on the radar screen. I start by asking members about their interests and try to connect them with an appropriate committee. I recommend that they get in touch with members of the current committee and propose a paper or session for the annual convention. I tell them to self-nominate for the committee and to let me know so it’s on my radar.

The best advice I can give is to forge ahead. When you get feedback on an idea or a proposal, revise and resend. Don’t stop. A good mentor will also connect you to others, helping you develop parallel relationships. It’s all about working the relationships. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You are forging relationships and there are constructive ways and destructive ways to get involved.

I think we too often conceptualize mentorship as "what can this person give ME," when it's really an exchange. Women will find that most women in leadership positions are happy to help when the "ask" is appropriate.

The same principles that apply in crafting a formal inquiry should be the principles that guide your initial approach in an ask. Your communication should be brief, intelligent, focused, and should offer something. It is about building and giving.

MC: You were recently chosen as an ACE (American Council on Education) Fellow for the 2011-12 year. Can you tell us a bit about what you hope to gain from your year as an ACE Fellow? [For readers unfamiliar with ACE, Fellows are chosen for a prestigious leadership development program aimed at senior administrators in higher education.]

RF: I would like to gain a greater knowledge of how higher education processes work, which will help me align the MLA's disciplinary research and analysis more closely with campus realities. To work with college and university presidents and their executive teams is an incredible opportunity. One of my goals is to explore if a career as a university leader would be a good fit for me.

MC: What do you see as the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity facing those of us in the education sector in the next 10-15 years?

RF: What do we want the future of education to look like? Are we willing to fight for it? It's going to take a whole lot of activism and political will on the part of many if we hope to have a higher educational system that works well for enough people. It's an extraordinarily challenging time for those who aspire to a career in higher education, and it's also a tough time to be a student in terms of affordability and future job prospects.

We have more people than ever in the higher education system in the United States, but as nation we're not preparing these students to take advantage of what higher education can offer. There are many challenges -- and many opportunities -- at this moment in our history. Institutions need to figure out what they do best, focus more narrowly and creatively on doing it better, and marshal the resources to support their mission. If we give up on having the great majority of classes taught by tenure-track faculty members and move into a "content delivery" model, we will relinquish the traditional -- and extraordinarily successful -- model of higher education in this country.

I hope that in the future, higher education would provide access for all students who seek it. I want higher education to be a place where gifted scholars and teachers can earn a living and have options.

If you don’t already follow Rosemary on Twitter, you can find her at @rgfeal. If you are not on Twitter, you can find her in the editor’s column of the MLA Newsletter.


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