Archive for November, 2011
I wanted to share the transcript of this interview with all my readers out in the blogosphere. My friend Kevin started the literary journal Criminal Class Press a number years ago as a home for literature that is “on the edge” and exposes the dark side in us all. It has really taken off and I’m proud to have him as a friend.
Kevin is touring the west coast with a number of writers who have contributed to the journal in the past, including Windy City Story Slam founder Bill Hillman. If you’re in California, they’ll be at Book Soup in Hollywood and Edinburgh Castle Pub in San Francisco this coming week.
Check out the journal’s website http://criminalclasspress.com/ for more information.
The words quoted in my subject line are taken from a tweet by a participant at Occupy Cal events this Monday and they express a sense of frustration with the faculty in the University of California system for doing so little in response to the beating and pepper spraying of peaceful protestors at Berkeley and UC-Davis. Aside from a few courageous souls such as former poet laureate and Berkeley Professor of English Robert Hass, most have been content to passively serve the machine. Then, as if to add insult to injury, they pass resolutions or statements of condemnation.
One of the more recent entrants in this growing circus of bad faith is the Modern Language Association (MLA), whose President just issued a statement today condemning the actions of police on the UC campuses and calling for greater vigilance in the protection of free speech. As another member of the Twitterverse notes, “Search all your parks in all your cities / You’ll find no statues to committees.” You also won’t find great historical changes effected by words alone. Without the Union army, what good would have the Emancipation Proclamation done the slaves? Faculty are either blind to their power to effect change on campus or choose not to use it. Either way, they are letting students down during their hour of need.
Here in Chicago, somewhat ironically, violence has not been a problem on our campuses as much as crushing student debt and cutbacks to services. But again, faculty inaction has proved a plague to meaningful change. The only members of the faculty who seem willing to agitate are also the most vulnerable members of the institution–the Adjuncts. When I go out to Occupy Chicago and Occupy Colleges related events, I see hardly any tenured or tenure track faculty amongst the ranks. Instead they seem content to live in a bubble, writing and teaching on issues of social justice and freedom without actually participating in their defense. What are they so afraid of? Tenured faculty in particular have a job security of which I can only dream. Yet I put my livelihood on the line because I am scared for the future of my country as education becomes a scarce resource available only to the superrich. What will it take to stimulate them to action? Does their job have to be outsourced too?
Sometimes it seems like the majority of those in academia are indeed sitting in an Ivory Tower, looking down upon the current dysfunction in the land. I refuse to be one of those who simply shakes his head and waits for Godot because he’s not coming. We are Godot. The time to act is now while there is still something left to save.
Yale historian David Blight in his most recent book American Oracle continues to examine the tension between the reconciliationist and emancipationist narratives of the Civil War, which he began in his seminal 2001 work Race and Reunion. Here he brings that narrative forward from the Gilded Age and outlines for the reader how the United States chose to remember the war during its centennial, a time period that also coincided with the nation’s growing struggle over civil rights. Rather than offer a broad sweep, Blight chooses to focus on four major writers who made the Civil War their theme during this period: Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin. Mixing biography with textual analysis, he attempts to expose how these writers resisted the tendency during the centennial to highlight the clichéd interpretations of the war as a myth of heroism or national unity (both of which were desirable at the height of the Cold War). Instead these four authors, Blight asserts, strove to expose the tragic elements of the war. What we had learned and what the nation still failed to recognize.
Warren, according to Blight, focused mainly on the need for soul-searching in the postwar South and how it had largely been avoided. Catton, in contrast, created a mythology of the Union soldier that highlighted the hardships they had endured for cause and country. Wilson exposed the hypocrisy surrounding the war’s ideals and hoped to shake American’s from their sense of smug uniqueness as a nation. Baldwin, in Blight’s view, held the most tragic vision of the war as it remained part of his day-to-day experience as a Black man.
I wanted to like Blight’s book more than I did, but it really comes across as a rushed job. Perhaps this might have worked as a series of lectures. The best portions of the book are in the middle where Blight examines the source of Catton’s fascination with the war and attempts to rescue him from charges of mindless hagiography of the Boys in Blue. His reading of the eclectic scholar Edmund Wilson is also quite cogent. Yet despite these bright spots, the author proves himself to be better at description and cultural analysis than he is as a close reader of literary figures and texts. In this respect the book underscores the limits of interdisciplinarity. Blight tried to write a work of literary criticism and in the process ends up reminding us that he is a historian.
If nothing else, this book has succeeded in making me want to reread Robert Penn Warren and I will definitely pick up a copy of Catton’s memoir Waiting for the Morning Train. American Oracle serves as a reminder that the primary source, full of life and meaning, is the point for writing secondary texts such as Blight’s in the first place. So that what we have loved you may love as well. Thanks David for sharing these texts you love with me.
Our main point of disagreement is not concerning the solutions to the problems we face in Higher Education but in how we interpret the nature and purpose of a “scholarly/professional organization.” Both in your remarks as well as those of First Vice President Michael Berube it is evident that the MLA leadership understands the organization as above the mundane concerns of daily life in the disciplines that it represents. These problems are apparently best left to the university and the individual members of the organization who should talk directly to their supervisors. Should the problem prove particularly intractable, you suggest, it should be taken to another organization whose job it is to deal with such problems: the AFT, COCAL, or AAUP.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the logic of this position and its implications.
First, it is a self-congratulatory stance that evades the ways in which the MLA has itself helped to create the problems in Higher Education today. While tenured faculty slept, the ranks of those tenured shrunk to historic lows. While tenured faculty slept, Higher Education became a business rather than a duty owed to society. While tenured faculty slept, privatization found the university and outsourcing became the new norm. Why were they sleeping? Because their professional organization was convinced that scholarship was limited to the dissemination of works among friends. A few tried to shape themselves into public intellectuals and activists, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Most were content to let someone else take care of the problems in Higher Education or conduct a study telling others how to fix the problem. And we wonder why the phrase “it’s academic” has entered the idiom of United States English as a pejorative. Inaction is not the same thing as innocence. In fact, in my opinion, it is worse than the actions of those committing misdeeds.
Second, it places undue pressure upon the individual member to fix these problems on their own. The MLA asserts that it has provided a roadmap or “guidelines” for its members with which several MLA leaders were more than happy to supply me. They then tell me–“Find your way out of the problem. If that doesn’t work, go to your department head or supervisor. Go to your Provost or Dean. Show them the MLA roadmap and pressure them to help you out of the problem.” With all due respect, I’m a part-time worker without even a yearly contract. I’m hired by the course or by the semester. As an intellectual immigrant who is perhaps best understood as the academic equivalent of a day laborer, I somehow doubt that those in the university administration are all that interested in what I have to say and more than likely would fire me for making waves. In fact, I’ll be surprised if this series of letters to you, Director Feal, doesn’t lead to me losing my job. Yet another inequity of power that you seem content to overlook.
To this, you more than likely would retort, “Go to COCAL or the AFT. They will solve your problem and protect you from recrimination.” I’ve worked with Unions and grass roots labor ogranizations in the past such as Jobs With Justice. They would more than likely help me to retain my job as they are interested primarily in issues of labor law and workplace regulations. They are not, however, interested in issues specifically relating to deep rooted problems in the profession of English and Foreign Languages. Nor should they be. That is the job of the MLA. I am not asking the MLA to become a pseudo-Union or labor organization. I am asking the MLA to become an activist professional organization that backs its words with deeds. How many of these Deans, Provosts, and Department Heads that would never listen to my concerns about the steady decline of the profession are fellow members of the MLA? If the organization leadership can’t effectively speak to them on my behalf as an adjunct, then the MLA is not a true professional organization but an erudite book club.
This brings me to my final point about the membership of the organization. Just as every book has a target audience, every organization has an ideal member. Based on the responses I’ve received from the MLA that ideal member has the following characteristics. They are tenured or tenure track, work at a major state university or well-known private school, have held their position for three years or more, have published multiple books and/or articles with high visibility presses, and are more interested in research (per se) than issues of pedagogy.
So where does that leave the rest of us who do not fit the mold of the ideal MLA member? In my case, I seem to fit the “cranky graduate student” stereotype who will assuredly (the satraps believe) grow out of his awkward phase once he gets a tenure track job. Should that not happen then I will be politely asked to move to the back of the bus, joining one of the committees or discussion groups meant to address my “condition” of contingency. For what is the Committee on Contingent Labor if not a back seat on the bus. Those of us who do not fit the MLA ideal, regardless of how we are pigeonholed, are the Denizens of the realm. We are subject to the will and pleasure of the reigning aristocrats and apparently should be quiet and simply bask in the glory of being amongst the cognoscenti at annual conventions while they discuss issues relating to oppression in literature and culture. Does no one else see the irony here?
I can’t say that I am all that surprised by the elitism and willful blindness of the MLA. Legacy institutions tend to suffocate under the weight of their own bureaucracy and inertia which are born of outmoded traditions. I was, however, hopeful (for at least a moment) that my words would matter. Now I see that I was mistaken. My membership dues are good until the end of this coming year. After that date, I intend to let my membership lapse and use the money to join a professional organization that not only shares my ideas but allows me space to nurture my talents as a scholar-teacher. To all my true colleagues, those who have read this post and found yourself in essential agreement, I encourage you to do the same. Vote with your feet. Leave the MLA and join an organization that better meets your needs.
Should my words have caused offense, I can only remind you Director Feal that you wanted to know what was on my mind. Now I have told you. The secret’s out and we are right back to where I left our conversation on Twitter so many days ago. We will have to agree to disagree. The one rhetorical advance we seem to have made in this verbal figure eight is in exposing the exact nature of our disagreement. In doing so, my point has been deftly illustrated that we hold the same degree but live in different worlds. The ground upon which you stand is very different from mine and it affects your point of view. Perhaps if you came down into the valley, you’d see the village is on fire and would grab a bucket to help put out the flames. I’d like to believe that of you as you seem from your words a well-meaning person.
John Casey, PhD
Adjunct Professor of English
University of Illinois at Chicago
Columbia College Chicago
UPDATE: I have removed from this letter two inappropriate analogies that compared the MLA’s failure to act directly on behalf of its non tenured members to citizens in Nazi Germany and Penn State during the sexual abuse scandal surrounding its football team. I apologize to both Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, and Michael Berube, its First Vice President, for this needlessly inflammatory rhetoric. Neither comparison is justified. The rest of the argument stands awaiting an answer (12/06/2011).
I wrote this open letter in response to a spirited discussion that took place this Sunday between myself and MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal via Twitter. Having worked in academia for some time, I hold no illusions as to the efficacy of my words. I wrote this open letter primarily because it was the right thing to do. Too many non-tenured faculty are silent out of fear. I refuse to keep living in darkness. Here is a little piece of light. Hic Placet.
An Open Letter to Rosemary Feal
Executive Director of the Modern Language Association
November 21, 2011
On Sunday, November 20, we engaged in a spirited conversation via Twitter about the role of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in advocating for non-tenure track faculty. I claimed in my initial tweet that the organization was woefully behind the times and you asked me for specific examples to explain my position. To your initial inquiry, I replied with a list of requests, starting with a call for a change in attitude of tenure track faculty towards adjuncts and moving on to more tangible demands for equity of resources (i.e. computers and office space) and opportunities for professional development such as sabbatical leaves and the ability to design new courses. Your reply to my list of requests was that each item on it was a “university issue” and related to the “profession” more than the “organization” that is the MLA. Following this observation, you requested that I more fully articulate what I believed the MLA was not doing for its adjunct members. In your words, you asked me to tell you “what a scholarly/professional association like the MLA can do for its members.” I write this open letter to you in response to your request.
Perhaps the best place to begin is with your distinction between the university, the profession, and the MLA as a “scholarly/professional organization.” The way in which you reference these terms makes it unclear to me whether you believe these spheres overlap or are distinct regions within Higher Education. My impression from your tweets is that you view the MLA as a sacred space—distinct from the schools that employee its members and the disciplines it represents. As a long time student of the work of Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, I cannot help but see such a distinction as a fallacy of the highest order. It is impossible to separate “the profession” from the organization that represents its many branches. Likewise it is not possible to separate the MLA as “a professional/scholarly organization” from the campuses where that organization’s goals are (at least in theory) expressed. These spheres are interlocking and mutually supportive. Together they have long worked to enforce the status quo in research, teaching, training, hiring, and disciplinary structure.
In response to my complaints about the MLA’s support of the status quo, you brought to my attention the work of the executive council, delegate assembly, and various committees of the organization such as that on “contingent labor” (a term that I despise for its dehumanizing connotations). You assert that great strides have been made in the last five years. As a member of the MLA for over a decade, I can assert that from the ground upon which I stand little seems to have changed for the better in the academic landscape. In fact, conditions have grown steadily worse. Every committee report and nonbinding resolution only signals for the other half of academia a reality that they as non-tenured faculty already knew. Statistics and statements mock rather than comfort. They suggest failure and futility rather than foster hope and innovation. What we (i.e. the non-tenured members of the MLA) need Director Feal is not another proclamation, study, discussion group, or committee. What we need now more than anything is action.
You rightly assert that the MLA cannot effect structural changes in Higher Education on its own. Individual members, particularly tenured members, and the schools in which they work must shoulder their part of the burden. However, the tone of your remarks resounds heavily with the ethos of “passing the buck.” “We at the MLA have done our part,” you imply, “Others have dropped the ball and let you down. Our hands are clean.” Somehow the MLA manages, in your view, to stand pure and whole in the middle of an ocean of dysfunction in which its members swim. Perhaps they receive a magic towel to dry themselves off when they enter the halls of 26 Broadway or preen on the convention floor.
The time is now Director Feal. The MLA must lead or be left behind. If the organization is up to the challenge, here are five suggestions from a member of its heretofore silenced majority. Five ways to take action on behalf of non-tenure track faculty rather than writing more speeches on their “condition”:
1. Leadership positions in the MLA must be made to more accurately reflect the heterogeneous nature of its membership. How is it that an organization of nearly 30,000 individual members has no community college faculty let alone non-tenure track faculty in its main governing body—the executive council? Standing committees on contingent labor and community colleges not only represent tokenism at its worst but have all the trappings of a ghetto for paying members who don’t fit the MLA’s desired type (i.e The Research One Tenured Professor).
2. There must be consequences for members both individual and institutional who do not abide by the already existing resolutions on academic labor. One reason that talk about the “condition” of non-tenure track faculty is cheap is the official words of the MLA come with no power of enforcement. The MLA needs to back its words with action. Any member (individual or institutional) who does not abide by existing MLA resolutions on labor and workforce conditions should face potential expulsion from the organization or sanctions preventing them from accessing organizational resources. Moreover, violators of MLA labor standards should be placed on a public list on the organization’s website and members should be warned not to engage in business of any kind with those institutions.
3. The MLA should learn from organizations such as HASTAC how to better incorporate alternative academic job paths into its convention and also its governance structure. They should additionally lobby member institutions for changes in educational practice to make graduate students at the MA and PhD level aware of these nontraditional paths and give them an opportunity to train for jobs other than that of college teaching or research. For those already in the non-tenured faculty pool, the MLA should create funds to help those interested in doing so to retrain.
4. The MLA must quit its stance of neutrality. At best it is acquiescence to the abuse of non-tenure track faculty and at worst it is complicit in the destruction of Higher Education. The organization must become more active politically. Its presence must be vocal and visible in the state capitals as well as Washington, D.C. If the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) can do this, why can’t the MLA?
5. There should be limits to the number of times that a member can consecutively publish materials in the organization’s publications or present papers at the annual convention. This would allow MLA members outside the upper tier to more actively take part in the scholarly activities associated with the organization. Fresh voices provide fresh perspectives. These in turn will allow the organization to change in order to meet the new exigencies of the twenty-first century.
Failure to take action will simply precipitate the decline of the MLA, which has become for many of its members no more than an acronym for a citation style and a place to interview for jobs. I am cautiously optimistic that having gained your attention some of my suggestions might be at least considered if not implemented. Whether this blessed outcome happens or not, I am nonetheless grateful to be noticed and taken seriously by a member of the Research One elite. As an adjunct faculty member I am, quite frankly, used to being ignored or used as an example of what can happen to a profligate graduate student. This letter offers me the opportunity to remind those in the inner sanctum of academe that I am not tenured but I am faculty. I don’t have books published by scholarly presses but I am an intellectual. I am unable to obtain a tenure track job but I am not a loser. I am you but for a twist of fate and your patronizing resolutions hurt more than simply being ignored.
In closing, I would like to acknowledge the reality that there are consequences for me writing this open letter. As a non-tenured professor, I could easily have my contract “not renewed” (a handy euphemism for being fired) at any time for any reason. I take this risk of perhaps losing my job on behalf of future generations of students (both undergraduate and graduate) as well as the inspiring non-tenure track faculty who increasingly teach them. I have known in my eleven years of teaching as a Graduate Instructor and Adjunct Professor so many non-tenure track faculty that have given so much of their time and effort while receiving so little in compensation or recognition from their schools and the professional organizations that ostensibly represent them. It is for this silent majority that I speak today. I hope my words meet their approval.
John Casey, PhD
Adjunct Professor of English
University of Illinois at Chicago
Columbia College Chicago
This evening I had the privilege of facilitating a teach-in with members of Occupy Chicago’s education committee. My thanks go out to them again for inviting me. I also extend my respect and admiration to all those who attended and raised such interesting insights at the teach-in that are crucial for the future of the movement as well as our city.
For the benefit of those unable to attend or who would simply like to read my remarks, I have attached a copy of my lecture to this post.
Remember–united we stand, divided we beg. This is OUR CITY, OUR INHERITANCE. Not a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.
After reading Cathy Davidson’s book Now You See It, a work that examines the potential of technology to reshape the ways in which we learn and work, I thought it would be beneficial to get the other side of the story. Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other provides a perspective that is vastly different from that of Davidson and other Digital Humanists who see technology as a way to enhance our humanness and connect with each other in more productive ways.
Turkle sees technology as a hindrance to meaningful human interaction. First examining humanoid robots and then exploring social media, she argues that what we are seeing in both instances is simply ourselves. Both the robot and our lists of “followers” or “friends” simply reflect back at us what we want to see. We are talking to ourselves and they (i.e. our electronic audience) applaud our performance. And, what’s more, on those occasions when we do receive a negative review they are easily unfriended or ignored.
The consequences of the shift in our emotional relationship to technology are far-reaching, according to Turkle. Most importantly, they remove mutuality from any discussion of human behavior. Everything we do is directed one way with little thought of the consequences or the response. The speed of communication also insures that thoughts will come and go as fast as leaves blowing in a strong wind. Reaction rather than sustained thought, acquaintance rather than true friendship are the rules of the day.
Turkle’s book is not meant to offer solutions to these problems but instead to outline them and offer an explanation as to their origin. On this latter point she is uniquely qualified as she has written two previous books on the connection between humans and technology–The Second Self and Life on the Screen. Turkle readily admits that she has grown increasingly pessimistic about technology as she written on the subject over time. In this third book she shows how humans have increasingly become more like machines even as machines have become more like us. Thus making the famous Turing test besides the point. We are all bots now, is the constant refrain of her text. In making this claim she shows an unlikely affinity to Neil Postman, the cranky humanist whose 1992 book Technopoly deftly outlined how humans had become the tools of their tools. Her conclusion seems to be that if more people feel the same concern she does, we will step back from the ledge and find ways to make technology work for us in ways that foster human interaction rather than mediate it.
As with Turkle’s two previous books on the subject, Alone Together is well researched. My only complaint involves the overall structure of the book, which is confusing at times. Her division of the text into one section on humanoid robots and another on social media feels artificial and makes the work appear to be two smaller texts stitched together. Additionally, there is a considerable amount of repetition in each chapter that suggests a need for more editing. The book could have been cut by at least 60 pages and still made its point effectively.
That said, Turkle’s book is worth reading by those who are suspicious about technology as well as those who embrace it with open arms. She leaves the reader much to think about and paints a damning portrait of how humans have let each other down while using technology as an excuse. One cannot help but think that Marx would approve.