Deadline for Commenting on Revisions to Division and Discussion Group Structure

1 February is the deadline for commenting on a new draft of the proposal from the Working Group for the Revision of the MLA Divisions and Discussion Groups. This latest draft, which was revised in response to nearly 1,000 member comments on MLA Commons and discussed in sessions at the 2014 convention in Chicago, includes brief explanatory comments and specific questions about certain groups. The working group welcomes your feedback.


Theresa Kelley

Will the MLA executive committee call for a vote of the membership on the proposed revision to division and discussion group structure? Thank you.

Gordon Hutner

From my vantage point as editor of American Literary History, it’s clear to me that our scholarly activity understands the post-Civil War era up through World War II as a distinct period. Routinely is the literature of this era in conversation with issues of modernity, whereas late19th century literature typically has less, though certainly not nothing, to say about antebellum concerns, according to scholarly trends I see. This tendency has become more and more pronounced in the last 10 or 20 years. So it seems to me that a division calling itself 19th century would really be divided against itself, in the ways that Brad Evans describes. Nor does the proposed configuration attend very closely to the burgeoning of scholarly activity in the era of the early republic, once the unhappy afterthought of the Revolution, now an increasingly researched era in its own right, an era more fully in conversation with late-colonial and antebellum periods. Perhaps in British literature it makes more sense to think of the 19th century as one entity, but the analogy breaks down entirely.

So I would rather see a division between 1865 and 1945, and then another between 1945 and the present, though given the fullness of literary production and the explosion of the archive, the proliferation of various American literatures, we might also consider the wisdom of dividing that at 1989. Be that as it may, it seems to be mistaken on any critical or historical premise I’m aware of to reshape the divisions along the proposed lines.

Profile photo of Augusta Rohrbach Augusta Rohrbach

I am writing as current chair of the Executive Committee for the Division of 19th Century American Literature. I want to begin with our sincere apology at not having expressed our thoughts on this matter sooner—and the apology is all the more heartfelt as it might appear that our silence came out of complacency. Though at least in name, our division will remain the same, we most urgently support all the arguments made by the other two committees regarding the proposed revisions to the current divisions.

While debates that focus on scholarly issues of periodization have long been a major feature of the work we all do, the pressure to redesign the field might appear to address ethical meanings of field divisions, though not the practical ones, and it is to these that our remarks turn. As important as it is to find news ways to frame the work we study, the restructuring of the divisions strikes us as a detrimental act of collapse rather than a generative move to rebuild.

Furthermore, as historians of the book and students of print culture, we would stress that there is a material argument to be made for current divisions. As presently formed, the divisions reflect the massive technological growth that gave rise to new and expanding quantities and qualities of material that took place during each respective time period—not some moribund notion of “field” or “period.” Rather, echoing the twin themes of self-criticism and renewal (urgently voiced by Michael Bérubé in his 2013 presidential address) we support the retention of the divisions as currently numbered as well as the new nomenclature suggested by the 20th century division as reviewed in Paula Moya’s recent email. With over a decade into this new century, it seems well considered that we acknowledge this historical fact in the title of that division.

We are not, however, adverse or resistant to building broader connections and expanding dialogues. Indeed, we have embraced the MLA guidelines stipulating that divisions collaborate with other groups and divisions on a 3rd proposed sponsored session for the annual convention. This structural innovation has created greater and deeper collaboration among the various areas of study. Our division, for instance, has worked hard to establish cross-connections with other divisions and discussion groups, fostering extended collaborations that extend beyond the convention and into future project development. So, too, have the other divisions made important connections among and across fields. Indeed together with the 18th century division, we are sponsoring a session that examines this very subject—one that has been gestating since last year’s convention.

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