New Path for MLA Leader

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, says she's stepping down next summer, at the end of her current term. She's leaving behind an organization that's much more representative of its members.

February 25, 2016
Rosemary Feal

The Modern Language Association looked a lot different in 2002, when Rosemary Feal became its executive director -- the first from Spanish or any foreign language. The association’s council, or governing board, for example, was made up largely of tenured faculty members from elite institutions. Today, the association’s council is much more diverse and languages other than English are even more central to the MLA's mission. That’s the legacy Feal said she’ll leave behind next year, when she steps down as executive director after three five-year terms.

“The face of the MLA and the way MLA does its work has shifted from representing a small wedge of the pie to the entire circle, and now that’s expected,” Feal said in an interview Wednesday, the day she announced her departure. The move, effective mid-2017, isn’t a retirement, and Feal intends to act on some of opportunities she’s had to turn down due to her work at the MLA, such as visiting professorships.

At Feal’s urging, and by vote of the MLA members, the association’s governing Executive Council now regularly includes more representation from community and teaching-intensive colleges, along with non-tenure-track faculty, graduate students and publishers. Association leaders are more diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender. The association has changed the dates and daily schedules of its massive annual meeting to January from late December to make it more accessible to those with families or other conflicts.

In terms of foreign languages, the MLA has developed a language consultancy service that dispatches scholars to institutions wishing to develop what Feal called 21st-century programs, as opposed to more traditional ones. These experts help departments restructure their curricular offerings and academic staffing to better serve the needs of today’s students, Feal said. MLA’s 2007 report “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” remains influential in such efforts.

MLA’s annual reports on the state of the academic job market in all subfields inform ongoing conversations about the changing workforce -- something Feal’s also taken strides to address, even if the news in the reports about the availability of tenure-track jobs has not been good. She helped MLA launch Connected Academics, a national project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help prepare Ph.D. candidates for a variety of academic and nonacademic careers. It’s an experience Feal said is one of her most professionally “gratifying” in recent memory. “I’m hearing these participants in these seminars say, ‘They’re really opening up my eyes to the possibilities of using the research and administrative skills I’m getting in my graduate program in a wider sense, and I feel optimistic for the first time.’”

The association’s also delved into reforming graduate education, suggesting in a widely read 2014 report that humanities programs reduce time to degree, encourage new dissertation formats and put a greater emphasis on teaching preparation. Additionally, it’s published guidelines for evaluating work in the digital humanities and digital media.

The majority of language and literature Ph.D.s that MLA has been able to track do still get tenure-track jobs, Feal said. But for the significant minority that don’t, she added, MLA wants to help prepare them for other kinds of careers, while also “vigorously advocating improving working conditions and academic freedom for all faculty.”

Under Feal, the association has met with congressional staffers about higher education’s shift to a predominantly non-tenure-track hiring model, participated in national Campus Equity Week advocacy, and taken part in National Adjunct Walkout Day, for example.

That hasn’t been enough for some critics, who say the humanities’ largest scholarly association should be doing more to address the shift away from full-time, tenure-track faculty jobs. Feal has sometimes been the direct target of such complaints. Addressing some of those critiques, she said, “One challenge for all scholarly associations, which is certainly magnified for us, is what can you do change the larger forces in higher education and the economy in general?” Much has been written about the “neoliberal university,” but questions remain as to how much an organization can stem the tide of its effects on all aspects of the educational experience, she said.

Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, served as president of the MLA during Feal’s tenure as executive director. He defended Feal’s record on non-tenure-track faculty, pointing out that she also created the association’s Committee on Contingent Labor.

“From where I sit, the complaints about MLA and adjuncts were made by people who think the MLA basically is the academic job market and can improve the working conditions of [non-tenure-track] faculty by negotiating better contracts for them or by penalizing institutions somehow,” Bérubé said. “I wish it could, myself. But, alas, it is not a guild, and has no way of enforcing its basic wage recommendations for faculty.”

He commended Feal’s efforts to diversify the leadership of the MLA, and also said she transformed the association’s publishing arm, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of its revenue. Saying he couldn’t overstate the importance of Feal’s efforts to establish the Office of Scholarly Communication, Bérubé added that it “brought the MLA into the digital 21st century.”

Feal’s also worked closely with leaders from other disciplinary organizations on common issues facing the humanities. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said Feal has been a leader among the associations that constitute the American Council of Learned Societies. “I and my colleagues have learned much from her, and she is always willing to engage in conversations about the most important issues facing humanities disciplines,” he said.

To AHA in particular, he added, Feal’s collaboration in broadening the career horizons of humanities Ph.D.s has been helpful. “We consult with one another frequently and I always walk away from the conversation with new thoughts,” he said. (AHA's parallel career initiative is Career Diversity for Historians.)

Feal’s faced additional challenges at the helm of the unwieldy, 25,000-member MLA, including an at times bitter, ultimately unsuccessful internal fight over an anti-Israel resolution. But she said she’ll still miss her members and hopes she’ll find a way to continue working with them, she said.

“MLA members are among some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever been privileged to work with -- members of all backgrounds in all sorts of positions -- and their commitment to their students and passion for their professions has really been amazing,” Feal said.


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