MLA’s Moment of Recognition
Finally, after 27 years, a few members of the Modern Language Association have begun to recognize a “truth” promoted by The English Coalition Conference: Democracy through Language, July 6-24, 1987.
The College Strand of the conference suggested
“All English majors should practice writing in several modes and for different audiences and purposes, with an awareness of the social implications and theoretical issues these shifts raise. Classroom practice should bring teachers and students to experience writing, reading, listening, and speaking as integrated, mutually supporting exercises”(35).
The Secondary Strand produced an allied “truth.”
“The act of writing itself helps writers discover relationships among pieces of information acquired from disparate sources. How one thinks is inevitably exposed in writing, so fellow students and teachers (through discussion) can validate a student’s ability to formulate ideas” (21)
The Elementary Strand inscribed a third “truth” as an article of belief.
“Because language is integral to thinking and to human interaction, we believe children should leave elementary school knowing about language --- that is, knowing how to read, write, speak, and listen, and knowing why language and literacy are so central to their lives” (3)
These quotations from The English Coalition Conference: Democracy through Language (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1989) edited by Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea A. Lunsford are refracted in Jean Ferguson Carr’s “Composition, English, and the University” PMLA 129.3 (2014): 435-441. Carr concludes that English studies needs “to remind the public at large of the value it offers students” and “to open a more generous conversation with composition, a conversation that might help English refigure the shape and trajectory of that advanced study”(440). The advanced study to which Carr refers is the sophisticated scholarship prized by many MLA members, scholarship that frequently regrets the need of elementary, secondary, and college students to master the basics of reading, writing, and now computing by way of digital humanities. Carr’s conclusion may be preaching to the National Council of Teachers of English choir, but it promises to wake up those MLA members who think themselves too good to dirty their hands with the work of teaching writing and with the actual needs of students and who believe they are entitled by virtue of their doctoral degrees to be paid to indulge themselves in the pleasures of obscurity.
Obscurity is out; labor is in. Life demands labor. The sooner professors and graduate students in English at PWIs accept the “truths” universally acknowledged by those who do the work of teaching writing at HBCUs, the better. Since the nineteenth century, the work associated with the teaching of composition and literature has been, to use the prized scholarly cliché, always already foundational and fundamental among HBCUs.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 6, 2014