In January, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, several panels were organized to discuss the profession’s current quandary: that the production of graduate students does not match the availability of entry-level professional appointments. I compared my own path 60 years ago with that of new doctorates today. This is a version of that talk.
In 1951, I went to the University of Wisconsin/Madison on a teaching assistantship meant to last for five years and to include the writing of a dissertation. I left after three years because of a husband who was a failure at graduate school and who insisted that I leave as well. This, as I have told countless young graduate students, was a mistake I should not have made. Though I have had a rich teaching career, and though I was granted tenure at two academic institutions, and though I have published significantly, I missed several opportunities because of the missing doctorate.
In 1970, when The Feminist Press began, I was a tenured assistant professor at Goucher College, without a Ph.D. I had been there for eleven years when, in 1971, I was invited to move as a full professor with tenure to the College at Old Westbury. I was also invited to move the Feminist Press with me, since no one in Baltimore wanted to house it there, and since the young, new President at Old Westbury thought it would prove important. It’s a long story, and I tell much of it in my memoir, but for this essay what is important to note is that I never planned to have an alternative career. I loved teaching and had not yet found my niche in scholarship, though I had been the person to open Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts at the Berg, and might have had a career working on Woolf.
By 1985, when the Press moved into Manhattan, renamed The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, the work of managing it was so demanding that I had to give up teaching altogether, though I did not give up writing and work relevant to MLA members. In the 1990s I edited another version of No More Masks! the ground-breaking anthology of women poets first published in 1973 with one of my students, Ellen Bass, who has become a significant poet.
In the second half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, and even after retirement in 2000, I spent my literary energy and skills on two enormous projects: the rediscovery of Indian women writers in two volumes called Women Writing in India; and the rediscovery of African women writers in four volumes called Women Writing Africa. These volumes confirm and extend the original revelations with which the major work of The Feminist Press began: first, that women in the U.S. and the world over have been writers since the beginning of time, and second, that their work has been excluded not only from students’ curriculum, but from any acknowledgement of its existence, not only in the U.S. and the West, but everywhere in the world. I understand now that the work of The Feminist Press has been to reclaim that heritage and history. And clearly, this work has been and continues to be significant for the work of the Modern Language Association.
But unlike my first 50 years in the MLA, academe no longer can provide work for all of its doctorates in the modern languages. That’s the bad news, and none of us knows whether this is a permanent condition, or a temporary aberrant like those we endured during some periods in the last century. I am pleased to be able to describe one small remedy, the Public Fellows Program begun three years ago by the American Council of Learned Societies. This past year, twenty new doctorates in language and literature applied for two-year fellowships at a living wage to work for non-profit institutions in need of such specific skills as the ability to think and write clearly.
At The Feminist Press, we now have one of these fellows on a two-year appointment to us. Nino Testa is a graduate of Miami University who recently earned a doctorate in English at Tufts. His part-time work at Tufts’ Women’s Center was responsible, he has said, for allowing him to think outside of an academic teaching job. As a graduate student, though he enjoyed teaching and scholarship, he also enjoyed working with people and he found administrative work especially challenging. As I interviewed Nino for this paper, I found him clear-headed about the skills he has accumulated from his academic work, his scholarship and teaching, which make him suitable for a variety of other kinds of work. He cited his writing skills, and his ability to figure things out on his own—a result of his dissertation research—as well as his critical thinking.
At the Feminist Press, he is to focus on the work of development, which means fund-raising. He’s pleased because he has had no experience in this area and he knows that it is very important to non-profit organizations both large and small. He is very realistic about the future. He considers himself very fortunate to have been chosen for the two-year fellowship, enjoys being in the midst of a Graduate School environment, and working with a small but highly-committed staff of publishing professionals. Certainly, I would claim that Nino Testa represents, for MLA, one vision of the future.