More MLA Wrap-Up

Here’s a second TCS Daily article, “The Kids Are All Right, Dammit,” by Nick Gillespie.

First, I think Jonathan’s read of Gillespie’s TCS Daily article is a good one (I gave it a half-hearted read a few days ago). As Jonathan notes, articles about the MLA convention have a bad habit of attributing agency to a professional organization consisting of over 30,000 people. These articles, which are often written for an audience that is already “negatively predisposed” towards the MLA. Reading Gillespie’s article with that audience and that “insider” position in mind, I’d argue that his asides about “political correctness” are worthy of suspicion.

The second article raises a few red flags as well. Gillespie discusses a panel on “English Studies and Political Literacy,” a topic I sought to address in my Rhetoric and Democracy coures last fall. The first major prblem is the assumption that professors are confronting the problem of dealing with “increasingly conservative” student populations, a characterization that Gillespie offers little evidence to support, as Rich Puchalsky’s comment to an entry at The Valve points out. The Census data used to support this claim shows little change since 1980, although there was a dramatic, and perhaps unsurprising, change from 1970 to 1980. To be fair, this description of an increasingly conservative student population may have come from the professors themselves, but Gillespie accepts it at face value. In fact, it’s probably the case that something far more complicated is happening when it comes to students’ political beliefs, one that cannot be represented by the census statistics that rely upon people to self-identify within a liberal-conservative-moderate spectrum.

Some important points did come out of the panel: Mark Bauerlein did point out the importance of political literacy, which again is something I sought to emphasize in the Rhetoric and Democracy course I mentioned earlier, in which I required studnets to follow election coverage and arguments (including the major deates) and to analyze those arguments on their strengths and weaknesses. I am often suspicious of claims about declining political literacy, encountered in such venues as David Mindich’s Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, in part becuase these models sometimes rely upon a Golden Age of a “Tuned In” populace that I’m not sure ever existed (or if it did exist, it was only available to a limited population). That being said, Mindich’s book is now high on my reading list.

Gillespie’s bias about the MLA does show up in the article in which he describes freshman composition courses as “those dreary required classes which are often little more than clumsy attempts at political indoctrination.” The charge of “political indoctrination” is pretty much a right-wing buzzword that has been around since before I began teaching ten years ago, and to describe the classes as “dreary” sets up expectations that they will be. There’s also some antipathy when Gillespie notes that one professor identified “openly” as a progressive, as if that’s something that ought to be kept secret.

Still, I’m glad that Gillespie highlighted the dicussion that took place at this panel (and I now wish that I had attended) because I do think these issues of political literacy can positively inform the kind of work we do in the composition, literature, and (in my case) media studies classrooms.

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