The MLA Pulls No Punches

By Kristen A. Renn

Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life. Sean P. Murphy, ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 2009.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) has long recognized that the majority of its core members—foreign language and English PhDs— will not make careers out of tenure-track faculty positions at research universities like the ones where they received their own graduate training. Indeed, Sean Murphy notes in his introduction to Academic Cultures that of the 4,382 institutions in the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classification system, only 278 are research universities. The other 4,104 institutions represent by far the biggest part of the potential job market in higher education, and these two-year colleges, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive teaching-intensive positions. Rather than lament this state of affairs, Murphy and the authors assembled for this volume present a thoughtful and nondefensive yet insistent argument that PhD holders in languages have individual agency to act within a system that overproduces doctorates for positions at research universities.

Unlike other writing on the topic, Academic Cultures avoids several potential traps in addressing the topic of preparing doctoral students for the realities of life at teaching-intensive institutions. In describing their lives and work, the authors who contributed to this volume avoid painting themselves as victims (“No one told me I’d end up at a place like this; they promised I’d work at Harvard”), missionaries (“I came to free the locals from their benighted past”), or heroes (“My sacrifice has been worth it to see the many souls I’ve saved through knowledge of the subjunctive”). They also manage the difficult task of integrating important scholarship on faculty work and teaching into fresh, narrative accounts of personal experience. The result is a readable volume that has as much to say to those outside the MLA as it does to those within it.

Murphy divides Academic Cultures into three sections. The first, “Academic Career Options,” consists of six chapters, each describing a different institutional setting: a tribal college, a regional comprehensive university, a rural university in Montana, a Catholic high school, a Taiwanese university, and a conservative Christian university. Readers learn about the authors’ adjustments from doctoral programs at research universities to these diverse contexts and about their challenges and satisfaction. Chapter authors recommend how we might better prepare future faculty for such transitions and for a wider variety of students than they typically encounter as teaching assistants at research universities. Acknowledging the potential for cross-institutional collaboration, community involvement, and activities related to the scholarship of teaching, the authors make clear that life at teaching-intensive institutions is not a “second-best” option for those unlucky enough to land there. This section of the book should be mandatory reading for anyone who plans to work in higher education as a faculty member or administrator.

The second section, “Reflections on Careers at Teaching-Intensive Colleges,” introduces readers to additional institutional types and cultures while exploring topics that may be of particular interest to MLA members. Authors in this section describe teaching languages, including English as a second language; leading writing centers; and working on “writing across the curriculum” initiatives in teaching-intensive institutions. They take up the myth that faculty at such institutions do not contribute to scholarship, pointing out that although they do spend more time on teaching than their peers at research universities, these faculty members continue to be active researchers and writers. The intellectual curiosity that led many of them to enter graduate school in the first place does not disappear with the signing of a community college contract.

The third section, “Preparing Future Faculty Members,” deals with the critical issue of doctoral education, socialization, and preparation for faculty careers in a range of institutional contexts. Continuing the book’s attention to diverse faculty experiences and institutions, this section offers several concrete recommendations that graduate language programs can adopt; I would suggest that with minor adjustments, these practices could strengthen graduate preparation for teaching in any field. From relatively easy (shadowing faculty at different types of institutions) to more complex (semester-long faculty-in-training programs akin to supervised student teaching in K–12 education programs, complete with seminars, mentors, and regular assessment), the recommendations focus on getting doctoral students to consider options outside research universities, to learn to teach students with diverse backgrounds and learning styles, and to think about what kinds of careers they would like to begin. Leaders of graduate programs in all fields, as well as those involved in faculty development and teaching assistant training, would benefit from reading this section.

Throughout the book, the authors use personal experiences to illustrate and enlighten. For example, in a discussion of engaging in campus politics, Ann E. Green takes on fellow—and famed—MLA member Emily Toth (who writes as “Ms. Mentor” for the Chronicle of Higher Education) for Toth’s admonition that graduate students and pretenure faculty should subscribe to traditional power structures and keep their heads low until they have tenure, when they can address systemic injustices. Green instead suggests that graduate students and early-career faculty deal cautiously with such received wisdom and embrace the principles of shared governance and academic freedom that distinguish higher education in the United States. Green writes from a position of authority on the topic; as a feminist and new faculty member at a small, comprehensive, Catholic university, she founded and directed the writing center, negotiating departmental, disciplinary, institutional, and cultural politics on her way to earning tenure without sacrificing her scholarly or political integrity. She credits her doctoral experience with preparing her to take on this potentially fraught assignment. On departmental committees in graduate school, she learned to read local history and lore, build coalitions, and debate issues relevant to undergraduate teaching. She learned what faculty actually do in addition to preparing for and teaching classes—attending and running meetings, preparing reports, performing various other administrative tasks that keep the institution running—and that knowledge prepared her for success on her own terms as a faculty member.

That theme—success on one’s own terms—resonates throughout Academic Cultures. These authors offer graduate students, faculty, and graduate program directors a vision for professional life that emphasizes individual agency and embraces without apology the “teaching life.”

Kristen A. Renn is associate professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University. She is book review editor for Academe and associate editor for international research and scholarship for the Journal of College Student Development.