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A Failure to Think Forward

This is about failure: my own failure to think forward, my own failure to see the future. Perhaps this piece can provide an opportunity to reflect on what can emerge from individual failures as well as our field’s reckoning with its wider failures: failure to grapple with racism and white supremacy, failure to support emerging scholars, failure to intervene meaningfully in the dismantling of the university as a site of serious thought and the generation of transformative ideas.

But lest I be understood to be representing the stance of anyone other than myself, I’d like to recognize the work of the Modernist Studies Association over the course of fall 2020, in a series of events entitled “On Or About 2020,” in addressing, and attempting to redress, these failures. I’m thinking of the roundtables on modernism from the standpoint of labor, on teaching and activism against white supremacy—and I’m thinking of the discussion among those shortlisted for the First Book Prize, a panel entitled “New Work in Modernist Studies.” While the work of these scholars certainly exemplifies the “now” of 20/21 Studies, the new and the paths we might take as a field, I see their conversation offering me another way of thinking forward—the possibilities manifested by enthusiasm. I choose the word “enthusiasm,” with its spiritual reverberations on purpose, seeing in it as I do an antidote to the acedia I feel these days when asked to think about the future, and a means of refreshing my own sense of vocation—which I struggle to maintain and refuse to relinquish even as it is co-opted as a means to my own potential exploitation as an academic, something Sarah Brouillette warns about, as Rivky Mondal notes in the above-mentioned recent MSA roundtable on labor. Is it possible that envisioning the future of 20/21 Studies, here at the start of 2021, lies not in identifying new areas of inquiry, new forms of critique (or of critiquing critique), but in manifesting radically new attitudes towards what we’re doing?

Ismael Nery, Perfil e alma
Ismael Nery, Perfil e alma. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Forms of Failure: Gaps and Lapses

Speaking of attitudes, back to the humility, the not-up-to-the-taskness, I feel in being asked to think forward. In 2014, I approached the editors at the Modern Language Association about the possibility of doing a volume for their Options for Teaching series. I have the proofs for this volume, Options for Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English, on my laptop as I write this—almost seven years later. There are 33 essays in the volume; it’s 410 pages long. It should come out this year. Topics covered include among other things the work of scholarly editing and digital humanities, feminist politics and pedagogy, teaching modernism through creative writing pedagogical strategies and attention to genre, teaching “modernist difficulty.” Contributors—who exemplify the generative spirit of collaboration which may be the future of our field as suggested by Rebecca Colesworthy, Rebecca Walkowitz and Matthew Levay during the MLA convention—come from a variety of types of institutions and career stages (a number have happily earned tenure and/or promotion in the time it’s taken for the volume to get to this point). They talk about teaching a wide range of women writers, even some who appear on syllabi with less frequency: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Radclyffe Hall, Anita Loos.

And yet—when I look at the table of contents for this volume that’s been in the works for close to a decade, I see huge gaping holes. I wasn’t able to see the future any better then than I am now. I wasn’t even able to see the now, the now as it should have been, redressing the failures of the past. I see the volume replicating and reperpetrating some of those failures. Of course the field is different now than it was when we started. The world is different than it was when we started. Except—the structural problems with the field, and the lapses in my own vision, that resulted in those gaps—those were there then, and now they are stark. It is stark to me how every meaning of the word “lapse” is applicable: a failure of judgment, an inability to grasp (needful) change over time. From the Latin, “to fall,” “to stumble.”

These gaps manifest themselves for me in questions. What should the classroom dedicated to 20/21 Studies and informed by its methods look like? What does it mean, especially for the humanities more broadly, to study something simultaneously grounded in the past, over, and continuously unfolding—working as we do balanced on that slash between twentieth and twenty-first, looking forward as we do always with a backwards eye?

These gaps manifest themselves in the members of the profession who are not in the table of contents. There is a dearth of Black scholars and scholars of color. What of colleagues in precarious employment? Colleagues who have left the profession, those who had contributions to make? Can the field be meaningful to students without explicitly foregrounding thought and action emerging from antiracism, from critiques of the violence of capitalism and neoliberalism? Must it address its own complicity? And how?

A Call to Action, A Recall to Enthusiasm

The future we’re being asked to think forward to is in part made by teaching, and I want an alternative table of contents that showcases the teaching that’s happening now, the table of contents that will get made when people look at this book and see everything that’s missing. I work at a teaching-intensive institution that doesn’t happen to send many students to graduate school, so that’s not the future nor the teaching I’m talking about. I’m talking about how we engage students with our enthusiasm, and with pressing matters of mind and feeling and action, thought and courageous critique, through what and how we teach, and what work 20/21 Studies does and can still do in that realm. The future? In the future I would like to see another book about teaching modernism and 20/21 Studies, one that acknowledges the past and speaks much more so, much more urgently, to the future—as well as to our very troubled now. What would that book look like?


This is lightly adapted from remarks given at the 2021 Modern Language Association convention, as part of the roundtable “Thinking Forward: The Future of 20/21 Studies.” The author acknowledges living and working on land taken from the Lenni Lenape people by the sons of William Penn in the Walking Purchase. Despite the violence done by white colonialist settlers to the Lenni Lenape people, including not recognizing and using their name, driving them from their land and homes in Southeastern Pennsylvania through terror and murder, erasing them from the history of Philadelphia and their stories from the narrative of this place—the Lenni Lenape continue, making connections, teaching their language, telling their stories. Such an acknowledgment insists upon the persistence of the past, and how it shapes our thinking forward.