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