Forward Thinking

Fiction and Farce: Democracy at the MLA

By Rachel S. Harris

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I would love to say that powerful argument won the day. I’d like to claim that intellect and facts persuaded the members, and whether the resolution was won or lost, its decisive outcome was a result of profound and significant reflection.

The first resolution before the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly served to censure the Israeli government for preventing the free and open travel of American academics to Palestine passed, despite little but anecdotal evidence.

The removal of the term ‘arbitrary’ from the original proposal in response to critical evidence proving the procedural legitimacy of Israel’s actions left a resolution which declaimed that Israel should no longer be allowed to control its own borders. With only 142 Americans denied access to Israel out of 626,000 last year, it seems ludicrous to consider a denial rate of 0.023% prejudicial and illegal. But that didn’t stop the resolution from passing 60:53.

Unfortunately, the public farce that was the Delegate Assembly made it impossible to take any of the process seriously. United in condemnation of the MLA officers who managed the room, both those who spoke for the resolution and those who spoke against it were mainly silenced by the arbitrary application of rules of governance, which frequently left the officers huddled at the back of the stage.

Members spoke without recognition by the chair; speakers suddenly found their three minutes of allotted time cut to one.

When members voted in favor of a 15 minute extension to hear more argument, they found that despite calling the vote, the officers decided the vote was out of order, and denied the increased time. Finally they allowed 10 minutes but only for delegates and not those members of the MLA who stood in long lines to speak but were told by the Chair that she knew already what they were going to say, silencing those who had not yet offered testimony to the proceedings.

In despair, following repeated procedural snafus, the Chair called out for clemency – “Please be patient with us!” – an interesting request given her decision not to show patience with those who wished to speak out as part of the democratic process of the assembly.

Before the resolutions were proposed, a powerful and fruitful hour-long discussion on ways that the Humanities can promote their public perception, better engage with their communities and innovate within the profession and the field, revealed deep seated optimism in the process of dialogue and scholarship within the academic community. Yet ultimately, the vote demonstrated that these idealistic hopes face powerful opposition.

Two other resolutions were brought before the assembly, the second of which supported efforts to restrict the corporatization of education, and the impact on the process of accreditation. It passed with a 92% majority. The third ‘emergency’ resolution, which asked members to stand with the ASA and disingenuously commit to protecting freedom of speech, seemed to miss the fact that the ASA had itself rejected the rights of Israeli academic freedom a month earlier.

Rejected out of hand, this resolution didn’t even make it to the floor – and still the Delegate Assembly Organising Committee (DAOC) insisted that the motion had enough merits to send on to the MLA executive committee, so that they could make a statement in support if they so wished.

Did the democratic process really take place today? Up to a point.

But it was a mess, badly thought out, rarely on point, and those in charge were often out of touch with the needs of their constituents, and the rules they set for themselves. Though they eventually caught on, the MLA will be ridiculed and justifiably so. For an organization that was founded in 1883, one would have hoped that by the 129th MLA convention, they would have known what they were doing.


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