Exploring “Vulnerable Times” at the 2014 MLA Annual Convention

By Marie Christner

The Modern Language Association of America, founded in 1883, is an association of scholars and teachers dedicated to emphasizing and strengthening the studying and teaching of language, literature, and rhetoric. Each year, the MLA hosts a convention designed as a series of conversations, seminars, and forums that promote discussions of language, rhetoric, and humanities, and their place in our ever-changing world. The 2014 Convention, held in Chicago, Illinois, spanned over four days, with sessions commencing on January 9. Sessions ranged over a wide variety of topics, governed by the 2014 MLA Presidential Theme, “Vulnerable Times.” 

Marianne Hirsch, Phi Beta Kappa Alum of Brown University, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and Professor in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, presided over the convention as the 2013-14 MLA President. As President of the MLA, she was given the responsibility of choosing a theme, around which the convention would be focused, which would provide the topic of discussion for the Presidential Forum and related sessions. Hirsch’s chosen topic, “Vulnerable Times”, highlights vulnerabilities in society, both past and present, and ways in which these vulnerabilities can regain their importance. In the MLA Presidential Theme Invitation, which served as both an invitation to the convention and an introduction to her chosen theme, Hirsch writes that her interest in the topic of “Vulnerable Times” comes from two places: her interest in and studies of feminism, “on lives that have been marginalized, forgotten, or omitted from dominant histories and narratives”, and her “concern about the precarious place of education – particularly in languages, the humanities, and the arts – among the local and global priorities of the present moment.” 

It is of utmost importance that the MLA fosters and encourages the promotion of education, especially in the liberal arts, and instigates its establishment as a matter of global importance. “Vulnerable Times” as a theme encourages productive collaboration to arrive at a solution. Hirsch proposes one such response: reimagining the structure of The MLA to reflect the twenty-first century. Published on Twitter by the MLA Convention page, Hirsch asks “what kinds of institutional structures might best serve us now?” (@MLAconvention 2014). This suggestion to update the current structure of The MLA reflects the spirit that change must happen both internally and externally. How can we anticipate the changes that need to be made in order to address the topic of vulnerability? 

The vulnerability of language and the study of language today should be addressed with connectivity, not with comparison. In the MLA Presidential Theme Invitation, Hirsch explains this need for connectivity through the lens of feminist theorists who have tracked the historical vulnerabilities of groups that have been sidelined: “They have seen vulnerability… as a space for engagement and resistance emerging from a sense of fundamental openness, interdependence, and solidarity.” This interdependence is how scholars of language and rhetoric can remain relevant: with cooperation, rather than with separation. For a society in which communication is rapidly changing, that cooperation means embracing those changes and using them to re-establish an even greater importance of the study of language and rhetoric across the globe.

Marie Christner is a junior at Trinity College majoring in German Studies and English Literature. Trinity College is home to the Beta of Connecticut chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.