FOR THE LOVE OF LANGUAGE More than 8,000 teachers of modern language and literature descended on Philadelphia for the Modern Language Association of America's 120th annual convention. Attendees learned about subjects as varied as Shakespeare in China and the relation between Vladimir Nabokov and politics. MLA's president, the Brooklyn-born Robert Scholes of Brown University, presided over special programs on the future of the humanities.
At one of the conference sessions, three scholars spoke on a panel entitled "Reforming the Ph.D." A former CUNY Graduate Center professor who now teaches at Harvard, Louis Menand, spoke on "Useful Degrees" and argued, among other things, that the time to degree be shortened. A professor from the University of Louisville, P. Marc Bousquet, whose Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center centered on 19th-century elocution, gave a talk titled, "The Twenty-Year Plan." In it, he expressed the misuse of student labor by universities. Students, he said, are part of the "informal economy" that lies outside of traditional worker rights and benefits.
An English professor from Carnegie Mellon University and the editor of the Minnesota Review, Jeffrey Williams, argued for "A Ph.D. Job Corps" or Academic Works Administration. "The Ph.D. system we have is not working," he said, "It is unacceptable as a de facto labor policy because it turns out half of those trained, not to mention encumbering them with debt for the right to work."
Mr. Williams said that the average humanities graduate student completes his or her Ph.D. at age 40 - burdened by "considerable debt," which has been steadily rising. "Ph.D.'s who have landed appropriate work might justifiably feel indentured under the weight of these loans," he said.
The audience laughed when he said, "Once in a faculty meeting at the University of Missouri, I proposed that if you were directing a dissertation and your student did not find a job the first year he finished, you had to adopt him for the subsequent year and put him up in an apartment over the garage." He said he wanted to shake his senior colleagues would could be "sometimes oblivious regard of their students' actual conditions of existence."
Mr. Williams said a national Ph.D. job corps would help solve the labor problem across the profession, but would require federal funding and potentially involvement by the states. Students would perform two or three years of service "in exchange for a fair if modest salary and, more consequentially, forgiveness of a significant portion of federal education loans per year in service."
Drawing on the model of the GI Bill and the Works Progress Administration, Mr. Williams spoke of his proposal taking three forms: Firstly, National Teaching Fellows, teaching in areas with little access to higher education. Mr. Williams offered the example of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program as a successful undergraduate model of what the Ph.D. job corps might look like.
Secondly, Mr. Williams proposed "Scholars in the Schools," whereby teachers would become visiting speakers or workshop leaders at elementary and secondary schools. Mr. Williams cited Artsbridge, begun in 1996 in Irvine, Calif., which utilizes art students to expose children to their field. Thirdly, Ph.D. students could serve at governmental agencies in internships or visiting research positions, he said. Mr. Williams gave the example of University of North Carolina's exchange program with local businesses. He said a sociologist, for example, might consult for the Census Bureau.
Mr. Williams said his proposal would reduce Ph.D. debt, enrich students' experience, and benefit society as a whole. "As a side effect, it would foster a better image of academe, through face to face contact, with those who might otherwise see Ph.D.s as effete snobs or snotty wastrels. Conversely, it would teach us what is useful, relevant, and needed in what we do, and what is not."
"This proposal might seem farfetched, but programs like social security in 1918, the WPA in 1925, the GI Bill in 1932,or the Peace Corps in 1952,were also far-fetched. Although I would like to think that I would make a fine commissar of Education, my point finally is not to say that my plan is the grail that we have been seeking, but to enjoin you to imagine other plans, to work to implement them and to test them out, and to quote Nine Inch Nails, to find a way."
BOOK PRIZE The Modern Language Association of America also presented awards for excellence at its annual convention. Diana Taylor of New York University won the 14th annual Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for an outstanding scholarly book published in English in the field of Latin American and Spanish literatures and cultures. Her winning book is "The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas" (Duke University Press).
CENTENARY CELEBRATIONS The Dickens Fellowship of New York is celebrating its 100th birthday - not its 50th anniversary as previously reported. The organization is sponsoring a "Best of Times" tour - at a special group rate - of Charles Dickens's London haunts and will set sail on the Cunard's Queen Mary 2 on May 28 arriving in Southampton on June 3...Princeton University Press is celebrating a century of publishing. The press began in 1905 with offices over a drugstore.