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Disabled by Definition

Despite its name, the Modern Language Association devotes more time to matters outside the realm of literature than it does to literary affairs at its annual conference. Thus its members, thousands of English professors from about as many schools, are more likely to come to the MLA’s annual convention and argue against globalization than they are to discuss Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Add to that dynamic, to take a favorite phrase used at the conference, the use of the MLA convention by English Department chairs as a clearinghouse for new hires. There were about a half dozen job-training workshops on the first night of the conference alone and every time I went out to have a smoke I was continually running into conference attendees “stressed out” about all the job interviews they had been through.

The newly-minted Ph.D.s quickly discover that the way to gain that faculty chair is not through a mastery of the masters but by the invention of a new field of study, one for which there is usually little demand outside of the Ivory Tower. But if you stir the interest of the Search Committees, a professor’s office could be yours.

Hence, we get the spectacle of graduate assistants strutting their stuff, peddling their hypotheses. To showcase some of this nouveau theoretical work, the MLA presented a panel arranged by its Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession. Twenty-three people attended the MLA’s panel on Black Disability Issues, half a dozen of whom were black and three of whom were visibly handicapped.

Of the three panelists, only one was black. The two who were not both agreed that “we need to find an intersection of queer studies, disability studies, gender studies and black studies.”

(And they accuse conservatives of stereotyping and labeling! At least the so-
called intolerant right-wingers usually understand that not all blacks are queer, disabled or even female.)

“Critical race studies,” Anna Mollow, one of the Caucasian panelists, suggested, “can be vitalized by queer studies.” Ms. Mollow is a Ph. D. candidate from Berkeley. She compiled, with Robert McRuer of George Washington University, the forthcoming anthology, Sex and Disability.

“Professor McRuer’s research centers on queer studies, disability studies, and the intersections of the two,” according to GWU’s web site. “His current book project, DeComposing Bodies: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, examines both the cultural construction of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness and the cultures of resistance shaped by queer and disabled writers and activists.” Dr. McRuer presided over the MLA panel on black disability issues.

“Disability is best understood as a social phenomenon, not a biological given,” Eden Koren Osucha, the other occidental panelist, offered at the MLA panel. Ms. Osucha, a doctoral candidate from Duke, warns against “the false separating of race and disability.”

Mollow makes the point that marginalized people feel disabled, adding, “Who can be more marginalized than people attending the MLA?” Let’s hope that every English professor in the country does not apply for benefits under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.