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Modern Language Association, Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), PLMA, PMLA

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Edgar Mittelholzer Biography to Mr Norris Changes Trains

The MLA (Modern Language Association) is the main professional organization of teachers of modern languages and their literatures (predominantly English) in America. As Article II of its constitution states: ‘The object of the association shall be to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of the subject.’ These common interests do not imply conditions of work or salary, which is generally left to the AAUT (the American Association of University Teachers).

The MLA was founded in 1883, and held its first meeting on 27 and 28 December, at Columbia University, New York. (The annual convention has, ever since, been held in the interval between Christmas and New Year, since the 1940s in large, metropolitan hotels.) The impulse behind the formation of the association was the desire of professors ‘in different institutions in the Eastern state’ to meet with colleagues and discuss matters ‘pertaining to Modern Language study’. Forty members (out of a membership of 126) attended the first convention. There were four plenary meetings on pedagogic and curricular topics. At this first meeting, there was ‘animated discussion’ on ‘methods’, with sharp disagreement between modernists and traditionalists—a split that would enliven meetings of the association over the next hundred years, reaching explosive dimensions in the 1960s. The first president was Franklin Carter, followed, in 1887, by the better-known James Russell Lowell of Harvard. Initially, presidents held office for a number of years; nowadays, they are elected by the membership (in keenly contested elections) for one year only. In the first decade, membership of the association reached some 3,000–4,000, and attendance at the conventions was about half that. The character of the association was male, WASP, and Ivy League. Meetings were at colleges up and down the Eastern seaboard. Attendance at the annual conventions gradually increased, breaking the 1,000 mark in 1930 and the 5,000 mark in 1959. Then, with the post-war expansion of higher education, it leapt to 12,300 in 1966 with an all-time high of 14,000 attendees at the epochal New York convention of 1968 (this represented half the 28,000 registered members—in more recent decades, average attendance has varied between a sixth and a third, depending on the attractiveness, and the remoteness, of the host city to the convention).

The late 1960s were the era of anti-war demonstration, campus protest, and riotous political assemblies. At the 1968 MLA there was chaos, with the arrest of three demonstrating participants, and the threatened arrest of scores of others. As a result, the next year's venue was switched from Chicago (tainted by Mayor Daley's ‘police riot’ against demonstrators at the Republican Convention) to Denver. 1968 also saw a qualitative change in the MLA programme. A decision was taken to go for growth: ‘Faced with its constant expansion in size and activity’, the ruling committee reported, ‘the MLA cannot realistically escape its responsibilities by a nostalgic quest for the serene and intellectually exclusive meetings of the distant past.’ As a result, sessions (four at the first meetings in 1883) hovered between the 700 and 800 mark in the 1990s. One of the most effective committees of the MLA, that on the status of women in the profession, was set up in 1970. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the clearest split between old and young in the MLA (fanned by ‘theory’ which had taken root in a seminal conference at Johns Hopkins, in 1967). Maynard Mack's presidential address in 1970 was elegiac: ‘What is very clear in December 1970’, he declared, ‘is that we who teach the oncoming generation have arrived at some kind of watershed beyond which the familiar landscapes look different, or even begin to fade away.’

From its inception, the association published its proceedings, and its members' scholarly articles, in a learned journal, Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA). Only members might publish in the journal, and members received quarterly copies free, as part of their subscription. Early contributions to the journal concentrated on philology, grammar, and curriculum issues. Over the years PLMA has evolved into the best-selling literary journal in the English-speaking world, with a circulation of between 30,000 and 40,000. Since the 1980s submission has been ‘blind’ (i.e. papers are read by assessors with all evidence of authorship suppressed). The MLA also issues a ‘style sheet’, which instructs members on how to prepare and present scholarly work. One of the earliest practical initiatives of the MLA was to create a list of member institutions and personnel. This provided an arena in which continentally separated colleagues might meet, debate, and, not infrequently, dispute among themselves. Over the decades, the MLA has been the glue that holds together teachers and scholars of English and Modern Languages at the tertiary level. It has also been the platform on which the profession's conflicted views on political ‘relevance’, affirmative action, ‘cultural studies’, ethnic studies, and ‘theory’ have been debated. The MLA awards prestigious prizes to academic publications (notably the William Riley Parker prize, for the outstanding article of the year in PMLA, and the James Russell Lowell prize, for the best academic book of the year). The convention has increasingly become the site where ‘faculty exchange’ (i.e. hiring) takes place.

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