Saturday, April 27, 2013

The MLA, Old English and all

MLA President, Marianne Hirsch, wrote to the Old English Division of the Association on 28 March 2013. On behalf of the Executive Council, she asked us the following, among other things: 'Given the disproportionate number of divisions in English in relation to other fields like African and East Asian, would you consider consolidating with Middle English Language and Literature, Excluding Chaucer and with Chaucer? What would such a division be called? Old and Middle English? Early English?' The Old English committee replied that we wanted no such consolidation.

Now, almost a decade ago, I argued for a more nuanced approach to periodization, with its arbitrary categories creating strange literary and linguistic lacunae ( For research purposes, and even for teaching (especially in the undergraduate program), it is useful to cut through swathes of time, to juxtapose and reconfigure in ways that narrower foci of single periods might not obviously permit. Yet, there's a great deal to be said about concentrated study, if that study is framed by peripheral vision.

Salisbury Cathedral Library 150: Gallican Psalter and Gloss

Still, though, I cannot agree to a request from a professional association to conflate, collapse, concertina a thousand years of English literatures, languages, and cultures into one. The letter that the Division wrote in response (here: gave a number of very good reasons to maintain the distinctiveness of Old and Middle English, and all are compelling. One of them, though, has a significance that is easy to miss: it's the #5 in the letter, the 'Professional' reason, which states that 'MLA Divisions in English Literature tend to mirror hiring specialties'. I think, perhaps, that 'mirror' is the most politic way of putting it. I wonder if, in fact, in some economically constrained and resource-light English Departments, the MLA's divisions and trends don't actually contribute to/drive/impel/suggest particular hiring specialties?

For this reason, as well as many others, the MLA has an influence that is actually quite astonishing when one thinks about it (and this is to say nothing of the job lists, which, as a British academic, I find bizarrely centralized in schedule and format, and utterly brutal in implementation). My view of a professional association is that such a body exists principally to encourage a love of its subject and to assist its subject's practitioners; that it seeks to support and defend and lobby; that it helps to provide useful meeting places, tools, and contacts for its members. And that would be all its members: from a hard-core Anglo-Saxonist (whoop!) to a contemporary digital theorist; from an African-American literature scholar to a Slavic linguistics PhD student. All the members, MLA. All of them.