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Obama’s Presidential Campaign Explored by Language Scholars

PHILADELPHIA – At the 125th annual Modern Language Association (MLA) convention, held last week in Philadelphia, professors and students of languages and literature examined the historic campaign and election of the nation’s first Black president – and how it impacted their fields.

As the four-day convention concluded last Wednesday, several sessions centered on the effects of Barack Obama’s election and presidency on the creation of literature, on teaching writing, and on academia in general.

“Teachers of writing have a lot to learn from President Obama,” Jeff Swift, a graduate student in English at Brigham Young University in Utah who teaches writing and composition, said during a session titled “The Impact of Obama’s Rhetorical Strategies.”

Considered the world’s largest scholarly gathering, the 2009 MLA convention attracted about 7,500 attendees with sessions on more than 750 topics related to languages and literature. This year’s theme, “The Tasks of Translation in the Global Context,” was addressed in more than 50 sessions, including talks on postcolonial translation, retranslation, and self-translation.

“The MLA annual convention is the central gathering place to exchange ideas on language and literature study and learning,” said MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal.

More than a dozen convention speakers focused their talks on Obama, delving into topics from his impact on Black literary history to how his campaign’s use of digital media impacted how the nation experienced his historic inauguration.

During the session on Obama’s rhetorical strategies, arranged by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, speakers explained how writing instructors could embrace digital media, in ways similar to the president, as a teaching tool. Swift, of Brigham Young University, encouraged educators to incorporate the micro-blogging website Twitter into writing class as a tool to link students to their professor, their peers, and outside experts.

“Just as President Obama has taken advantage of Twitter as a medium to create connections between followers and a cause,” he said, “teachers can use Twitter to create connections between students and a subject.”

Also during that session, brothers Dr. Dominic Delli Carpini, an associate professor of English at York College of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested students of rhetoric would find much to analyze in Obama’s “Organizing for America” website. Students, for example, could question the website’s arguments through fact checking.

In an earlier session called “Poetry and Hip-Hop in the Age of Obama,” Dr. David Caplan, an English professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, examined how poets and hip-hop artists, with varying degrees of success, documented Obama’s ascendance. Though Obama’s inauguration “seemed a poetic occasion,” Caplan argued that the nation’s most admired poets, many of whom teach creative writing, were plagued by challenges as they tried to write, on deadline, works about Obama. Many poets, Caplan said, seemed overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment. On the other hand, Caplan said hip-hop songs inspired by Obama, especially “My President” by Young Jeezy, “seemed effortless.”

“Reading Race in the Obama Era” and “Changing Black Literary History after Obama” were among the additional sessions related to the president. The convention also delved into diversity-related topics ranging from “Travel Literature, Race, and Ethnicity” to “Religion and Religiosity in the Hispanic World” to “Placing Korean American Literature in American Literary History.”

Outside of scheduled sessions, much of the conversation among convention attendees focused on the grim state of jobs in the language and literature fields. Just last month, the MLA’s annual jobs report projected a 37 percent drop in faculty opportunities in English and foreign languages and literature this academic year, the steepest decline in more than three decades. Last year, the positions advertised in the MLA’s Job Information List – an authoritative collection of faculty positions in languages and literature at the nation’s colleges and universities – plummeted 26 percent, the second biggest backslide since its launch in the 1975-76 academic year.

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