Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Adjusting the Scale of Values: The Modern Language Association of Ontario, 1886-1919

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Adjusting the Scale of Values: The Modern Language Association of Ontario, 1886-1919

Article excerpt

THE BIRTH OF AN ORGANIZATION, LIKE THE BIRTH OF STAR, is a bright illusion of origin: we gaze across time and space to witness an apparent event, a seemingly founding moment. Of course, the disciplinary or stellar body is in fact not new at all, rather the compression of diffuse molecular clouds, first set in motion and now (that is to say, then), fused, for a time. But such "founding" events inevitably attract our gaze, no matter how often we have heard the well-founded cautions against teleologies and their obverse. We seek evidence of our birth and hints of a future fate.

The organization whose establishment and history are considered here arguably could be considered a precursor to the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE); it is indisputably a counterpart to the Modern Language Association of America (MLA). Interestingly, however, its early years have more thorough documentation than the surprisingly scanty records of the sister organization to the south. (1) The detailed minute books of the Modern Language Association of Ontario (MLAO), the many newspaper accounts of the annual meetings, its publications in educational journals and in pamphlet form, and the information provided by reminiscences and archived personal papers of some key members permit a reconstruction of this vital organization. 2 What emerges is one narrative of the development of "English" in and through the discipline of modern languages (a less-familiar disciplinary story than that of the paradigmatic relationship of English to History, or of the late nineteenth-century supplanting of classics by vernacular language study). The MLAO records also evidence a conscious, Canadian attempt to bridge the seemingly divergent "specialized" and "general" (or "research" and "liberal arts") educational mandates which were elsewhere dividing the North American academy by the twentieth-century's turn (Radway 204-06). (3) A secondary purpose of this essay is to catalogue the MLAO's role as a clearinghouse for early literary-critical work in English Canada and to make both the details and the extent of that scholarship visible for others interested in Canadian disciplinary or intellectual history. A bibliography of almost three hundred scholarly papers presented to the MLAO, giving print locations where the item achieved publication and precis of oral presentations when such information is available from the minute books or other sources, accompanies this article: see "Papers and Publications of the Modern Language Association of Ontario, to 1919: A Chronological Listing" on the English Studies in Canada website.

The MLAO and its records invite analysis from a number of perspectives. (4) While much predated by other scholarly organizations (the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec [1824] and the Canadian Institute [1829], both still extant, for example), it appears to have been the first dedicated disciplinary organization in Canada, reflecting the late-century move to scholarly specialization. It was probably the first academic organization to include women among its ranks, again a sign of the times of its foundation. The group's dogged lobbying of both the provincial education ministry and the provincial university (the University of Toronto) means that its records provide a window onto the history and politics of both bodies. Driving their efforts was the perceived need to incorporate new developments in modern languages scholarship and pedagogy into classroom materials and methods. The MLAO promoted in particular what was often called the "modern method" or "natural method" in language instruction. However, while educational historians, or disciplinary historians of French or German, could find much of interest in these records, the focus here will be on the MLAO's role in the promotion of English studies in Canada (although the other topics listed above will receive treatment in passing).

This essay will overview the MLAO's origins and development, consider its role in defining "English" both with and against the modern languages, and trace its promotion of a more expressly "literary" mode of scholarship. …

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