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English professor becomes president of Modern Language Association, extending service to the humanities

August 27, 2013

The humanities challenge

Video (3 min 13 sec)

Videography by Karen Nikos/UC Davis

Keeping the humanities alive and thriving for students from kindergarten through college and beyond is the primary goal of University of California, Davis, Professor Margaret Ferguson as she becomes the 2014 president of the Modern Language Association. It is the world’s largest professional organization advocating for the teaching of language and literature.

As political leaders and others debate the roles of humanities education in the U.S. today, Ferguson wants people to remember how critically important it is that students learn to read and thoroughly understand what they are reading. And she is convinced that people need to learn languages that will help them in an increasingly global society.

“Students do need some guidance in dealing with complicated texts…,” she said. “It’s much easier to read hard things in a group than by yourself. There’s a broad range of things that we teach that benefit from discussion and better understanding.”

And, such interaction fosters a different kind of test — one that cannot be measured with multiple-choice answers, she said. “The classroom provides a place to test our ideas.” 

Ferguson, a distinguished professor of English, is officially taking the helm of the MLA in January. Founded in 1883, the association traditionally focuses on college-level teaching — and is perhaps best known for its iconic style guide that helps scholars cite sources and construct footnotes accurately. It serves 30,000 scholars throughout the world, with divisions on European, African, Latin American, and East and South Asian languages and literatures, among others. It also has divisions on translation, the teaching of writing, film, visual culture and the digital humanities.

Ferguson’s tenure as an elected MLA officer lasts three years, culminating with her term as the 124th president, which runs from January 2014 to January 2015. 

Jessie Ann Owens, dean of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at UC Davis, said: “Margie Ferguson will provide critical leadership at a time when our nation is struggling to understand the value of the humanities not only in our educational system but in our civic life as well. I can’t imagine a leader better equipped to make the case and to provide much-needed advice.”

Ferguson joined the UC Davis faculty in 1997. She served as chair of the English department from 2006 to 2009 and has received numerous honors, including a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 2011. That $60,000 award supported her writing of the book “Missing the Maidenhead: Cultural Debates About the Hymen in the Early Modern Period.” (A more complete biography on Ferguson is available online)

“Professor Ferguson is as extraordinary a teacher of the humanities as she is a scholar,” said Ralph Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor. “As president of the MLA, she will advance the case of humanities education throughout the world. We at UC Davis can take great pride in her new role. It is yet another example of our university's global public service,” he said.

As MLA president, Ferguson will chair a new committee on “K-16 Education,” attempting to increase communication between high school and college humanities teachers, and look at how students are being prepared for college.

“The MLA has a long history of working to foster collaboration across the high school-college divide,” she said. Now, however, collaboration is even more critical as most states begin to adopt the new Common Core Standards, which recommend changes in instruction in all subjects from kindergarten through 12th grade. Among the recommendations are new verbal literacy standards, designed to improve students' readiness for college and careers in the 21st century.

“It seems important to ask again — and with a new urgency — whether postsecondary faculty members can support primary and secondary public school colleagues … and if so, how?” Ferguson said.

She would also like to see more support for teaching both Western and non-Western languages at all levels of education in the U.S.  “We need to respond to 21st century globalization by beginning non-English language instruction early and continuing it through college and beyond. We have an incredible cultural resource in the ‘heritage’ languages, like Chinese, already spoken by many people in our own country,” she said. 

“I am thrilled to be the MLA’s next president at an important time in its history,” she said. She’ll continue to work collaboratively on key projects such as K-16 education, planning international conferences and helping to design the first major revision of the MLA’s intellectual structure since 1974.

She will soon develop her presidential theme for MLA, to be announced in December. The current presidential theme, for example, is “Vulnerable Times” — a theme around which convention papers and speeches will be built.

“I’m very much looking forward to bringing some of the lessons I’ve learned at UC Davis to my MLA post — chief among these is that it’s immensely rewarding to work outside my comfort zone and to listen carefully to my colleagues — past, present, and future — even if, indeed especially if, their languages and literacies aren’t the same as mine.”

Besides Ferguson, the only other MLA president from UC Davis was Sandra Gilbert, professor emerita, also of the English department, who was president in 1996. She recently won the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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