The MLA Publications Committee
and Reinvigorated Opportunities for Rhet-Comp

By Deborah H. Holdstein

There seems to be a pervasive sense among those in the field of rhetoric and composition that the MLA isn’t interested, doesn’t care, and doesn’t represent their important set of scholarly and pedagogical interests. As I complete a three-year term on the MLA Publications Committee—and reflect on my many years of membership and participation in the organization—I’m pleased to have this chance to comment.

Indeed, representing rhetoric and composition on the Publications Committee has been a distinct privilege, and I’ve had the privilege of doing so twice, serving one term in the early 1990s and another now. The Publications Committee has for over twenty years held a slot devoted to representation in rhetoric, composition, and related areas. Everyone on the nine-person committee has to be an educated generalist, however, even though each person represents a specific field within the MLA, so it should not be unnoticed that rhet-comp has one of those coveted positions. And keep in mind that the MLA represents a wide number of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields.

Now some general information about the MLA book publications program as it relates to rhetoric and composition: books published by the MLA are usually concerned with the study and teaching of language and literature (which, by the way, also gives the lie to the often-expressed sentiment that the MLA is concerned only with theory). The MLA also publishes on topics related to the profession. The program has been, since 2011, part of the office of scholarly communication, under the leadership of Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Consulting with the Publications Committee, the office tries to achieve a balance of titles that will serve the needs of the profession and the varied scholarly and pedagogical interests of the (rather huge) membership. The process for approval has been streamlined recently but still is exacting in a way that ensures the high quality of MLA publications. The Publications Committee has as part of its charge the responsibility to “[a]ssess[ ] prospectuses and approve[ ] final manuscripts for book publications” and to “consult[ ] on policies and priorities for the scholarly communication program.”

The topics of recently published and forthcoming MLA books range from entire areas of pedagogy (Service Learning and Literary Studies in English, edited by Laurie Grobman and Roberta Rosenberg) and wide-ranging topics of pressing importance (Teaching Human Rights in Literary and Cultural Studies, edited by Alexandra Schultheis Moore and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg) to individual works of literature. The Texts and Translations series publishes volumes for use in classrooms. The MLA also publishes volumes focused on foreign language teaching. The MLA continues to work on developing more books on topics from outside Europe and the United States, to join recent volumes on the modern Turkish novel, Naguib Mahfouz, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber).

In addition to these projects, the MLA has also published a number of important books on rhetoric and composition, including, among others, Writing Theory and Critical Theory, edited by John Clifford and John Schilb, and Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words, edited by Susan C. Jarratt and Lynn Worsham. These titles were part of the Research and Scholarship in Composition series, which had its heyday in the 1990s. The last book explicitly on rhetoric and composition published by the MLA, Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition, by Steven Mailloux, came out in 2006. In 2007, the MLA published Integrating Literature and Writing Instruction: First-Year English, Humanities Core Courses, Seminars, edited by Judith H. Anderson and Christine R. Farris. Several of these volumes were the result of proactive work and recruitment on the part of former members of the staff. These days, the MLA has not received many unsolicited inquiries about possible books from scholars in rhetoric and composition, and part of my purpose here is to make clear that the MLA publications program would welcome such queries and that staff members have been actively pursuing such projects.

I can affirm through my own participation in these conversations—and, I might say, my having initiated some of these conversations—that the office of scholarly communication and the Publications Committee have recognized that there is an ongoing and urgent need to develop new titles in rhetoric and composition. This recognition provides a tremendous opportunity for the field as other venues for publication contract or disappear. MLA staff members have corresponded with members of the field to start the development process for at least three new titles (of which I am aware) in rhetoric and composition and are in the early stages of developing other possible titles. The intention is to rejuvenate the frontlist so that volumes on rhetoric and composition appear more regularly among the new titles.

The Publications Committee and our other colleagues at the MLA hope that the appearance of new titles in rhetoric and composition will encourage other scholars in the field to approach the publications program with their proposals for possible new volumes. I find these ongoing developments exciting; they, along with the fact that all three candidates for second vice president of the MLA have deep experience in rhetoric and composition, show that work in our field is receiving renewed attention at the MLA, providing renewed opportunity for those of us in rhetoric and composition.

Developing New Book Projects on MLA Commons

The MLA’s office of scholarly communication is pleased to begin exploring a new mode of book development that takes advantage of the possibilities offered by the MLA Commons platform. We invite authors and editors to think with us about how new forms of communication can contribute to or change book development and to suggest projects and ways of working that might add to or go beyond our submission guidelines.

Why?

Edited volumes are by their very nature dialogic, communal enterprises, since multiple authors bring together diverse perspectives on a text, an author, or a field. As in all books, process and product are related. On a practical level, the interaction of editors and contributors in the development process is inextricably linked to the finished volume’s range of ideas and depth of engagement. Online networks such as MLA Commons have the potential to allow the collaboration and conversation involved in edited volumes to become dynamic, participatory, and transparent throughout a volume’s development, from the initial idea for the book to its publication.

Book projects developed in a shared environment present an extraordinary opportunity for discussion and dialogue, allowing authors to see how their work fits into the project as a whole, allowing editors to enlist the community in creating an organic shape for the project, and allowing a variety of scholars and teachers to participate in a public way in the project’s development. The editorial function of delimiting or defining the subject, assembling materials, and balancing and arranging topics that might be covered can be aided and enhanced by conversations that share the accumulated experience and knowledge of a broad group of participants. Developing edited volumes in an open environment can build engagement across a range of disciplines and perspectives, which in turn advances scholarship and pedagogy in all fields.

How?

The office of scholarly communication envisions that the initial stages of book development, including the prospectus, would take place in an MLA Commons group started by potential editors who are experienced scholars. In this group, ideas for a volume’s table of contents and essay abstracts would be posted, discussed, and revised as the project evolves. While the process is new, the goals and purposes of this form of project development align with our existing book development guidelines (for some examples, see the guidelines for the series Approaches to Teaching World Literature or Options for Teaching).

After the prospectus stage, volumes approved for publication might continue to develop in the MLA Commons group. Even if a decision is made not to publish the volume, the MLA Commons group can remain an active resource. In both cases, the group would be a place for people interested in the subject to exchange ideas and inform each other of developments in the field, conferences, and new publications.

We encourage potential volume editors to explore the resources of MLA Commons with this new model of book development in mind. Your participation and responsiveness not only will help your ideas and scholarship reach more scholars, teachers, and students but also will affect the future of scholarly publishing by helping shape a new and vital method of book development. We invite you to look at the books we have published and our various series. MLA members who are interested in developing an edited volume on MLA Commons should contact the MLA office of scholarly communication at scholcomm [at] mla [dot] org.

Statement on Public Access to Federally Funded Research

On 14 and 15 May 2013, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a public comment meeting concerning public access to federally supported research-based publications. Kathleen Fitzpatrick presented the following statement on behalf of the Modern Language Association.

Since the Royal Society of London, learned and professional societies have been founded precisely in order to help facilitate communication among members and between their members and the broader public. That communication developed into the form of the scholarly journal, which accrued a number of formal publishing processes, including editing and peer review, that marked it as an authoritative resource for knowledge in its field. Such resources came to be valued not only by the members of the society but also by a broader range of scholars, researchers, and students; as a result, research libraries collected these journals and made them available to their patrons.

This system was stable for some time: scholars joined societies in order to access those societies’ resources; societies were supported in their work not only by their members but also by libraries, whose subscriptions extended the reach of those resources. Funds generated through membership dues and subscriptions enabled societies not only to fulfill their mission of facilitating scholarly communication but also to support members in developing professional practices and standards, to advocate on behalf of the field within institutions and on the national and international scene, and so on.

Things have changed in recent years, however, and the development of new communication technologies is only one of those changes. Scholars’ professional lives have become increasingly precarious as employment conditions in colleges and universities have dramatically worsened; as a result, many scholars are unable to commit resources to membership in professional societies. University and research libraries’ budgets have been strained by often exorbitant subscriptions to commercially produced journals; as a result, those libraries are decreasingly able to help support the not-for-profit societies to which the scholars at their institutions belong. Societies are faced with declining memberships, increasing publishing costs, and diminishing subscription revenue; as a result, many societies have turned to larger publishers as a means of sustaining their communication programs and supporting their other functions.

Into this already complex set of competing interests and needs, enter the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web. The web was, like scholarly societies, invented for the express purpose of supporting communication amongst researchers. The difference, of course, is that the web permits any individual scholar with server access and a little bit of technical ability to share his or her work directly with the world, seemingly reducing the need for the collectives historically provided by scholarly societies. Moreover, the web reduces the reproduction costs – if not the production costs – of scholarship to near zero, further diminishing everyone’s willingness to pay for such work. And polarization sets in: the Internet wants all information to be freely and openly available; scholarly societies, needing membership and subscription revenue to survive, want to control access to the work they produce.

These constituencies in scholarly communication have largely talked past one another in recent days, but we at the MLA strongly believe that this need not be so. We all – scholars, libraries, and societies – share the goal of increasing the wealth of knowledge that we hold in common. And if we focus on that collective goal, a viable path forward can be forged.

There is still reason for some benefits of membership in a scholarly society to be exclusive to members if we rethink the role of the scholarly society in the digital age. The shifts that I have described require us to consider the possibility that the locus of a society’s value in the process of knowledge creation may be moving from providing closed access to certain research products to instead facilitating the broadest possible distribution of the work done by its members. This is a profound change, and not just for societies but for their members: we may in coming years operate under a model in which, rather than joining in order to receive the society’s journal, one instead joins a society in order to get one’s own work out to the world, surrounded by and associated with the other work done by experts in the field.

The value of joining a scholarly society in the age of open, public web-based communication, then, may be in participation. At the MLA, we have developed a platform through which our members can collaborate with one another, conduct group discussions, and share their work freely with the world. We are working with our members to develop a set of new professional practices and standards for such open, publicly accessible communication – new modes of editing, new forms of peer review – and we are committed to the idea that the role of the society in the years ahead will be to support those new practices, to promote the work done by our members, and to create the broadest possible public understanding of the importance of such work for our collective future. For this reason, we are happy to support the National Endowment for the Humanities in its work to meet the goals of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s public access directive, and we look forward to collaborating with the NEH in building a robust, open infrastructure for publicly accessible scholarship.