In looking back on my skirmish with the MLA, I’ve struggled to find the right words to describe the experience. The title above is the best summary I’ve come up with to date. Perhaps I was foolish to assume this, but I had always believed that in Higher Education a higher standard of discourse would apply. After all, aren’t we the ones supposedly teaching the next generation how to argue effectively and lead ethical lives as engaged citizens? The response to my Open Letter from many quarters suggests that our students might be better served looking elsewhere for their models.
Why do I say this? One reason is the shockingly high incidence of bad faith evident in the discourse on academic labor. Those in the upper tiers of the profession are more than willing to descry oppression out “there” in the world but are willfully ignorant of the part-timer down the hall grading papers in a walk-in closet sized office with two other adjuncts squeezed in. These are the workers who shoulder the heavy burden of the undergraduate curriculum so that tenured and tenure track faculty in the Liberal Arts and Sciences have the time to research and teach more graduate students to enter the already saturated market of MA’s, MFA’s, and PhD’s.
This same group is ever so cautious about what to call “undocumented workers” from Latin America but are more than willing to sneer at the “contingent faculty” who have failed to make it in the profession. I remember once as a Graduate Student being told to not speak with the Adjuncts as they were all losers. Because I’m a humane student of the humanities, I refused to listen. I guess I caught their disease. Ha! No canyon is as deep as the one that separates the promising Grad student from the wan cheek of the Adjunct. At least, that is, if you listen to the myths propagated by a certain breed of senior faculty.
Luckily for the profession, this attitude towards Adjuncts is slowly lifting. But the reason is simply that of crisis. The Age of Austerity has hit the Humanities particularly hard and even tenured faculty are starting to realize the implications of these changes. Yes, your job can be outsourced to. It can also be turned into a contract gig that can be changed or cancelled at any time for any reason. What works for the goose works for the gander. Now if only that message would shift up to the rarefied air of Professional organizations like the MLA.
Added to this circus of bad faith is an incivility that would make a Congressional Lobbyist blush. One angry writer went so far as to dissect my CV to show why I was unqualified to have an opinion on the issue. Most simply called me a whiner and suggested that I shut up and look for a full-time job outside of academia. In all honesty, Grumpy Reader, I’m giving it serious thought. But I happen to like teaching and am quite good at it. My only regret is that I can’t seem to do what I love and pay the rent at the same time. So much for the recurring trope of the “teacher shortage.” Seems to me more like a cheapness epidemic among employers.
When respondents weren’t busy engaging in personal attacks, they instead decided to patronize me. One writer suggested that the issues I brought up had already been addressed “before my time” while the other argued that only massive social change would alleviate the condition of “contingency.” I don’t know what bothers me more. A direct personal attack or a pat on the head by the sympathetic bystander. Both are demeaning but at least the former has some degree of sincerity to it.
All of this leads me to conclude that I was barking up the wrong tree in addressing my concerns to a scholarly circle like the MLA. Prince Prospero is happy in his castle. Blissfully unaware of the imminent arrival of the Red Death. Consequently, I’ll leave him to his happy ending and move on to arenas where people are actually doing something to save the profession. One is the New Faculty Majority Summit, which will be held in Washington, D.C. this January. The other is in my local union chapters (NEA/IEA and AFT/IFT).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again #leadorbeleftbehind. The times they are changing and if we don’t take an active role there may come a day when language and literature are only taught by Kaplan for workplace communication and witty rejoinders at corporate events.