Jan 10

Big Tent English. Coalition Building. Embracing Opportunities.


Remarks delivered at MLA 2023 as part of a Roundtable titled "Big Tent English: Coalition Building & Embracing Opportunities

I have spent my career at a small, tuition-driven, formerly single-gender university. My own department is small, and it will be getting smaller next year when Creative & Professional Writing split off from English and joins our School of the Arts. When I say small, I mean there are currently 7 of us—including me—and we’ll be 5. In other words, I live, metaphorically speaking, in a TINY tent that bears little resemblance to the departments that trained me or to those institutions that generally govern our profession: the flagships and Ivys and other research-intensives often held up as the standard if not the ideal—despite the fact that there are far more community colleges, regional publics, and tuition-driven privates in the United States than there are elite, prestige universities.

I want to poke a bit at the Big Tent metaphor because I’m not sure that it’s all that helpful. This is not my first or even my second encounter with such framework, and I can’t help but be reminded of other versions of the conversations, specifically those surrounding the Digital Humanities & Feminism. The metaphor is a curious one. It’s meant, I suppose, to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging, to encourage a broadening of communities and conversations, and sometimes that works. But inevitably, we are forced to grapple with a very basic question: who’s in, and who’s out (here I’m channeling Stephen Ramsay, who gave a rather infamous talk asking precisely this question at another MLA, this one in 2011)? When we talked about Big Tent DH, the questions were those of definition: that is, what is DH—do you have to code? When applied to Feminism, the Big Tent model also gave rise to questions of definition: what is Feminism: reproductive freedom? Equal pay for equal work? #MeToo? #TimesUp? 

Who’s in? Who’s out?

All of these examples, including our own here at MLA exploring Big Tent English, seem to be based on the unspoken assumption that when it comes to tents, bigger is better. . . . Is it though?

Who’s in? Who’s out?

But before we can answer that, we need to address another even more basic question: What are we doing? What is the big tent for?

Ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about, whether DH or Feminism or English or the Humanities more broadly: what are we trying to accomplish? Why are we calling people in to our tent? As much as I’d like to think that this is all for a Gatsby-esque carnival of a party, that’s never really seemed to be the goal. Instead, I’m struck by something that Kathleen Fitzpatrick said earlier in the conference, which is that it seems impossible to talk about the state of the profession without talking about crisis. While I agree that it’s hard to think of a time when the humanities haven’t been in some kind of crisis or other, the crises—plural—of the last few years have felt somehow more acute whether we are thinking about challenges not only over whether what we teach (Why major in English or the humanities more generally?), but also howwe teach (CRT, book bannings, don’t say gay), who we teach first-gen students, new majority students, traditional undergraduates, Nepo babies, or the looming enrollment cliff that keeps your administrators up at night, and who even gets to teach as our field becomes ever more adjunctified . . .

We turn to Big Tents because we have this idea that more is better. And sometimes it’s true that more IS better. That is, there can be power in numbers. There’s something that happens when we have 50 people or 100 people or 1000 or 10K that can’t happen with 7 soon to be 5. Critical mass can matter (as we saw some 15 times over the last few days in the US House of Representatives).

Is it sustainable? 

I’m not sure that it is. I’m also not convinced that it has to be. Tents after all, are meant to be temporary enclosures that can be moved around, pitched and taken down . . .

Which brings me to alignments—my keyword for this talk. Alignment is a term broadly used in various contexts: astrological, biomedical, mechanical, psychological, spiritual. In the most generic sense, it’s about the arrangements of parts to facilitate the workings of the whole. For example, when you get your car aligned, the mechanic checks to make sure that the placement and balance of the wheels are best positioned for the longevity of the vehicle. When you go to the doctor for back pain, you might find that something as simple as a sneeze (thank you middle age!) has caused your entire lower back to seize because over the course of days/weeks/months/years even, the movements of life have strengthened some things and weakened others, leading to imbalances and misalignments. Alignments are about positionality, about relationships between components to each other and to the larger system to which they belong. Sometimes these alignments are fixed and stable. Sometimes they’re more fluid. Sometimes they appear as one but are really the other. All can be useful, but only if we understand what we’re dealing with.

Who’s in? Who’s out?

When we talk about alignments in the context of #MLA23, I suspect that we’re not all imagining the same parts or perhaps not even the same whole. Some of us are trying to get jobs. Some of us are trying to get book contracts. Some of us are trying to make connections or reconnect with friends. Some of us might even want to think about authors or texts or literary frameworks. Some of us are still in graduate school. Some of us are on the verge of retiring. Some of us have job security; far too many of us do not. Some of us mentor PhD students and direct dissertations. Many of us don’t. We work across time zones and oceans and languages and even centuries. Maybe we’re thinking about building alliances with literary studies & rhetoric and composition & creative and professional writing, all of which have their own professional tents, by the way . . . but here’s the key question: to what end? Individual advancement? Increasing enrollments? Institutional security? Pedagogical inspiration? Research opportunities? All of these are worthy ambitions—but they are very different.

One of the blessings and the curses of being at a small school is that I have never had the option of staying within my department or my division or even my own institution when the time came for collaborations and coalition building. There are opportunities to be found it crossing disciplinary lines, not just within our fields but beyond them as well, whether to history or economics or philosophy or musicology or art history . . . 

Being a Dean means being a steward of institutional resources; it’s probably the most fundamental part of the job. It is also, to me at least, essential to think carefully and specifically about what those resources are; this is highly specific to individual institutions. *My* most important resources are not fiscal: that is, even before the pandemic, money is not a resource I can do much with most of the time. There’s never enough. My most valuable resource, and I suspect—I hope!—I’m not alone here, are my colleagues both faculty and staff and our students. That brings me to my last point, which I think about all the time: what would any of this look like if we thought of administration less in the corporate terms of management and money (or its lack) and instead thought of it as a version of care? For what is a steward if not a kind of shepherd? And what is a shepherd if not someone who takes care?

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has said, our institutions cannot love us. Of course they can’t; institutions are systems and alignments, but they’re alignments and systems of people. People are what matter, not in the corporate HR version of resource management, which often isn’t about people at all. But people are why we do what we do, or at least, they are why I do what I do. Yes, I like words, especially words when they are in novels and poems, but it’s not texts that bring life to the tent or might ever give rise to that party I want to attend—not even Jay Gatsby. It’s the guest list; it’s the people inside. People are what matter, and we have to take care of them.

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