Denizens in the Realm–A Response to Rosemary Feal

Director Feal:

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.

Sincerely,

John Casey, PhD

Adjunct Professor of English

University of Illinois at Chicago

and

Columbia College Chicago

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  1. #1 by David Parry (@academicdave) on December 6, 2011 - 7:58 am

    I really think this gets to the heart of the problem, that the MLA as an institution serves a certain “ideal” member, and the closer you are to that ideal member the more likely you are to find the MLA a valuable institution.

    I find the response that the MLA is whatever its members make it to be more true than those uttering it would perhaps want to recognize. The problem is not so much a crisis in leadership, in fact I personally admire much of the work Michael Berube and Rosemary Feal have done. The problem is that the MLA is what its members have made it, the problem is members want it to be a scholarly organization which promotes a certain “image” of the scholar. That is the MLA is precisely a reflection of its members, which in many cases is a sad and frustrating conclusion. The head isn’t sick, it is the body that is ill.

  2. #2 by Lee Skallerup (@readywriting) on November 29, 2011 - 4:04 pm

    I’m a bit sad that this response didn’t illicit any comments. Sad, but not surprised.

    Perhaps we need to start outlining concrete examples of advocacy we’d like the MLA (and other scholarly organizations, including the AAUP) to do. The more concrete the better.

    Please keep writing. It is good to know that I am not alone in this fight, that there are names and faces who care about these issues (and see the same structural problems) that I do.

    • #3 by ,,johnacaseyjr on November 29, 2011 - 5:18 pm

      Specifics would help but I sense a strong resistance to any type of change beyond that requiring a report. Michael Berube’s response was particularly discouraging. I don’t think that professional organizations like the MLA and AAUP are fully aware of the crisis ahead. If they were, I can’t imagine them not taking action. Not just tenure but our entire profession may disappear (replaced by corporate communications consultants) if something isn’t done soon. It is in the best interest of the TT to advocate for NTT but I can’t seem to convince even my tenured friends of this. I guess Horatio Alger got us good. We still seem in love with his idea as a culture. “I got mine Jack. You get yours.”

      I didn’t expect a huge response as many are afraid to speak up. However, hundreds have read my posts each day. My hope is that they’ll carry that message to their campuses and start by taking small actions to change the status quo. If the MLA membership changes more in attitude, maybe then the MLA itself will change. Here’s hoping.

      I will keep writing as it is something I feel passionately about. Positive feedback such as yours offers me encouragement to keep going. So, many thanks.

      John

      • #4 by VanessaVaile on December 5, 2011 - 8:07 am

        Not to mention that the preferred mode of “action” is to declare a conference session on the topic. Talk more. Publish something. Commission a study. Do nothing.

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