Modern Languages Association petition

July 13, 2006

In News

To: MLA Program Committee–Maribeth Kraus, Gabriele Dillman, Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, Lawrence Kritzman, Satya Mohanty, Aldon Nielsen, David Palumbo-Liu, Kristin Ross, Leonard Tennenhouse, Barbara Weissberger

A panel entitled “The American Academy and the Question of Palestine: Confronting the Politics of Evasion,” which was recently submitted to the MLA for consideration for this December’s annual conference in Philadelphia, was rejected by the Program Committee. The panel would have brought together some innovative, albeit controversial voices, to consider how the politics of tenure has the tendency to dissuade academics in the humanities from honestly confronting their own role in promoting ignorance and silence about the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict. In response to the MLA Program Committee’s decision to reject this panel, which one member of the committee called “the sole critique of its kind so far,” this petition has been created.

Whereas the United States intellectual community should pay greater attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians within the Occupied Territories in professional forums such as the Modern Language Association Annual Convention;

Whereas intellectual silence about Israel’s recent military incursion into the Gaza Strip is contrary to the goals of a professional organization such as the MLA;

Whereas the very processes that inform how knowledge is created and distributed within the academy can only take place through an examination of how politics informs decisions about appointment, tenure, and promotion;

Whereas MLA special session panels addressing contemporary and controversial issues should not be held to an impossible standard and rejected in bad-faith to protect the sensibilities of certain of its members;

Whereas difficult topics such as Israel’s occupation is a difficult issue for the U.S. intellectual community to confront because of professional obstacles such as professional ostracism, threats to appointment and tenure, etc;

Whereas Special Session 131, “The American Academy and the Question of Palestine: Confronting the Politics of Evasion,” was rejected by the MLA Program Committee, which did not find the rationale for the panel entirely convincing;

Whereas every year at the MLA attendees are treated to such irrelevant topics as “The Sublime in Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Poetry”;

Whereas it is important for the MLA to encourage political advocacy against oppressive social hegemonies among its members through the sessions that appear at the annual conference;

We the undersigned strongly protest the Program Committee’s Decision to reject Special Session 131, the proposal of which is reproduced below.

Proposal for Special 2006 MLA Session

The American Academy and the Question of Palestine—Confronting the Politics of Evasion

Chair: Tim Brennan, UM
Paper #1: Lennard J. Davis, UIC
Paper #2: S. Shankar, U. of Hawaii
Paper #3: Bob Jensen, U. Texas
Respondent: Matthew Abraham, DePaul U.


In his Academia and the Luster of Capital, Sande Cohen claims that:

[t]here isn’t a faculty in the United States that offers resistance to its Officer Corps and bureaucratic “center” (e.g., legislature); academic discourse at times is where the most elementary processes of concept formation are dependent upon one’s loyalty to an institution. As Gayatri Spivak notes in her discussion of the creation and reproduction of an “academic subject of true knowledge” (the university narrativized in the shape of a helper to society), we can say that this Officer Corps ensures that the university will not be contaminated by acts of reading that undermine its own constituency. There will be no excess of critique that removes the rationalizations and mythifications responsible for our evasions. The institution called academe will not contribute to the problematizing of its own practices.

While there has undoubtedly been an improvement in the intellectual climate of the U.S. university in the last twenty years in confronting the Question of Palestine, the stories of those who have paid a heavy professional prices in establishing and maintaining a principled stand, in accordance with international law, in favor of the Palestinian movement for self-determination, have not received an adequate hearing. Early attempts to raise awareness of the Palestinian issue by Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad, Ibrahim Lughod, and their students created the conditions of possibility for today’s activists and scholars to advance a serious challenge to the very structural mechanisms within the university, which often are quite effective in deterring serious intellectual challenges to social hegemonies such as American Zionism. These pioneers, as well as those who were inspired by their examples, faced and continue to face academic blacklisting, perpetual underemployment, difficulties in securing tenure, and often nearly impossible barriers to professional distinction and advancement.

In the course of this panel, we shall consider how the politics of tenure, which contributes to the types of professional silence around the Question of Palestine, while also thinking about the specific ways academic professionals can support one another in the course of advancing progressive social causes.

Paper #1: Lennard Davis

Tenure and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

In his paper, Lennard Davis will recount the circumstances surrounding his denial of tenure at Brandeis University in 1988. Although Davis was an extremely well published scholar at the time, and received a unanimous vote from his colleagues in the English Department, as well as a strong vote in favor from an ad hoc committee that heard his case, Davis was mysteriously denied tenure by Brandeis’s Provost, who went against the department and the committee, citing weaknesses in Davis’s scholarship, teaching, and service record. At that time, Davis had published a classic in the field of eighteenth studies, Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel, finished a second book (Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction) that was already in production, and was completing a third manuscript. Davis learned from a member of the ad hoc committee that his connections to Edward Said, the celebrated Palestinian literary critic and spokesperson, as well as his pro-Palestinian writings in The Nation and the Journal of Palestine Studies, had turned the administration against his tenure case because it feared the loss of alumni dollars if Davis were to remain on the faculty publishing in support of Palestinian resistance and liberation.

Davis will recount the personal struggle he endured in the years leading up to and after his experience at Brandeis, including the feelings of doubt and loneliness he felt as friends and colleagues often kept him at a distance, treating him as if he had been struck by an indescribable malady. Davis’s experience demonstrates the difficulties of resisting the politics of orthodoxy within the research university, even when one possesses academic pedigree and extensive publications.

Paper #2: S. Shankar:

Tenure and Its Discontents

If we read Marx, Gramsci and other thinkers of the Marxist tradition correctly, we should recognize the university as a system of patronage for intellectual production. If under monarchy patronage for intellectual production flowed from the power of the king and under systems of caste from the power of Brahmins and Kshatriyas (for example), in late capitalism patronage flows from the power of the commodity and the class that controls this power, the bourgeoisie. The relays through which this power is exerted are elaborate and often opaque; nevertheless they are real. This paper will examine the North American university and the system of tenure and cultural capital on which it depends from this perspective. This paper will draw on personal experiences relating to the argument

Paper #3: Bob Jensen ,Univ. of Texas

The modern university, like any institution that serves powerful constituencies, has methods of social control. Tenure is part of that, in complex ways. On the one hand, tenure does provide protection for critical and independent inquiry, and some professors make use of that space. But the tenure process also tends to encourage conformity; in the years professors spend earning tenure, the majority of them internalize a set of rules that steer most people away from serious critique of powerful institutions in the society. When combined with increased demands on faculty to raise money through grants and gifts, tenure becomes less relevant. Protecting tenure is crucial to preserve some space for independent inquiry, but it is alone not enough to guarantee an intellectually vibrant institution.

Timothy A. Brennan is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cites. He is the author of Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (Columbia UP, 2006), At Home in the World (Harvard U P, 2003), Salman Rushdie and the Third World(1997), and co-editor of Music in Cuba (1989). He has published numerous articles in journals such as South Atlantic Quarterly, the Journal of Palestine Studies, and Critical Inquiry.

(Speaker #1)
Lennard J. Davis is Professor in the English Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he also served as Head of the Department. In addition, he is Professor of Disability and Human Development in the School of Applied Health Sciences, and Professor of Medical Education in the Medical School.

He is the author of two works on the novel—Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (Columbia U. Press, 1983, rpt. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996) and Resisting Novels: Fiction and Ideology_(Routledge, 1987, rpt. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001) and coeditor of Left Politics and the Literary Profession. His works on disability include Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (Verso, 1995), which won the 1996 Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights’ annual award for the best scholarship on the subject of intolerance in North America, and The Disability Studies Reader (Routledge, 1996). His memoir My Sense of Silence (University of Illinois Press, 2000), was chosen Editor’s Choice Book for the Chicago Tribune, selected for the National Book Award for 2000, and nominated for the Book Critics Circle Award for 2000. He has written numerous articles in The Nation, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other journals.

(Speaker #2)
S. Shankar is a novelist, literary critic and translator. His novel A Map of Where I Live (Heinemann) was published in 1997, his critical book Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity, and the Economy of the Text (SUNY) in 2001 and his translation of Komal Swaminathan’s important Tamil play Water! (Asian Theatre Journal and Seagull) in 2001. His co-edited anthology Crossing into America: The New Literature of Immigration will be published in 2002 by the New Press. Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Ariel, Amerasia Journal, PMLA, The Nation, Village Voice, Tin House, and Massachussetts Review.

(Speaker #3)
Robert Jensen is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

Jensen is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002); co-author with Gail Dines and Ann Russo of Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (Routledge, 1998); and co-editor with David S. Allen of Freeing the First Amendment: Critical Perspectives on Freedom of Expression (New York University Press, 1995).

Matthew Abraham is assistant professor of English at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Rhetoric, Writing, and Resistance. His forthcoming book, Out of Bounds: Controversial Academic Scholarship and the Question of Palestine (Rowman & Littlefield), will focus on academics whose work on the Israel-Palestine conflict placed their careers and livelihood, and sometimes their lives, at risk. Abraham has published articles in the Journal of Advanced Composition, Logos: A Journal of Culture and Ideas, and Nebula. His forthcoming work will appear in Cultural Critique and South Atlantic Quarterly.


The Undersigned