Monday, July 3, 2023

Notes on "Humanities in the World, Humanities at Work" (MAPS Institute)

On June 29, I participated in "Humanities in the World,  Humanities at Work" -- an institute coordinated by MLA Academic Program Services (MAPS). These MAPS Institutes provide training and support for educators and professionals in language and literatures. Of course the Modern Language Association (MLA), is more widely known for the citation style, and then folks in English studies know about the large annual conference. But these MAPS institutes represent really important, under-reported grassroots work in the field.    

Offered over Zoom, the institute gave a wide range of folks a chance to get together, listen, and contribute to discussions about developments and best practices in the field. This most recent institute covered topics such as ways to build undergraduate career readiness, enrollment challenges, AI, and foreign world languages. In short, they covered an array of pressing concerns. 

I participated on a panel entitled, "Making the Humanities Accessible to All Students." I spoke briefly about reading short stories with collegiate black men. I mentioned some of the thinking processes that come to the fore as I've been thinking about  the minds of these young readers.  

The field of English is really large, and thus all kinds of subfields have emerged. That means, I usually present research findings at African American literature conferences and gatherings. So I welcomed this opportunity at the MAPS Institute to participate in a project with a general audience of folks in literature and languages.   

The MAPS Institute rewards those of us looking to enhance our curriculums and academic programming. Participants spoke beyond their particular specialties to highlight best practices and creative solutions to common problems. That gave us a range of possibilities to consider.  

In some respects, the inclination to speak more broadly about the benefits or outcomes of humanities education connects to ongoing commentary from Paula Krebs, the Executive Director of the MLA. She's been out there fighting the good fight actively discussing and making a case for the humanities

This advocacy work is especially significant right now given the conversations about the death of the English major and the humanities. It's disappointing that folks in our field aren't saying more about the intrinsic value of what we do, like what students have to gain by analyzing poems and short stories. My generous guess is that many literature professors aren't fully aware of the threats facing the field. 

Too, specialization leads to particularized projects. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But working in really distinct areas could mean professors aren't as well-versed in discussing the challenges facing the broader field. Here again is why bringing a range of people together like with the MAPS Institute is so critical. 

During the Q & A, Jason Rhody, Director of Academic Program Services and Professional at MLA, raised a good question about how we might all use metrics to highlight the value of our humanities courses. I really wish we had a more thorough discussion, in African American literary studies, for instance, of using data to track our value and challenges. 

The racial bias of evaluations often dominates conversations when we mention metrics. That's an important discussion to have, but it's perhaps prevented us from really engaging in a more expansive conversation about how we might track student experiences, interests, progress, areas for improvement, and on and on. 

The MAPS Institute gave me a chance to start jotting down some of my thoughts on metrics and other issues. Big ups to Janine Utell, Lydia Tang, Ayanni Cooper, Mai Hunt, Rhody, and other staff with MLA and MAPS for pulling off this gathering and giving me and others more to consider. 


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