Posts Tagged MLA
In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago. This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.
Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now). So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).
I guess the best place to start is with my life and career. For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter. Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution. In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June. So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.
None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation. Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures. Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair. Try doing that same activity today. You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid. This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances. An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.
Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors). We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then. The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.
As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition. These can be dealt with at the departmental level. One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors. We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars. In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).
While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation. Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it. Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test. Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.
Has the MLA done the same? Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?
Yes and No.
Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.
What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism. The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body. Neutrality was a farce in 2011. It remains so today.
If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over. We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.” Let’s start doing something about it.
Imagine this scenario: After weeks of preparing your talk and struggling to cut it to fit the 20 minute time slot of your three person panel, you arrive in the conference room to find that not only is your session chair missing but there are three people in the audience, one of whom is your best friend from grad school.
Think I’m making this up? Well, I’m not. It really happened. I was one of the three people in the audience at the above named conference panel and I felt bad for the presenter. I did my best to ask her insightful questions but I couldn’t help wondering where the other attendees had gone. Where was the loyalty to intellectual inquiry and more important where was common courtesy, which should have dictated to the panel chair that he contact his panel in advance to let them know he would be absent?
Although I have no way of knowing exactly what led this scenario to occur, it is possible to make two assumptions. The first (in the venerable tradition of Stanley Eugene Fish) is based on the Convention program which was well over 1,000 pages long and listed hundreds of events each day starting at 8am and ending around 8pm. Even the most dedicated audience member couldn’t help but crash after about four panels. I tried to listen in on five or six a day but found myself succumbing to the “museum effect.” All of the talks started to merge into one huge cluster of meta-discourse in my brain.
Some professional organizations such as the MLA (Yes, I am complimenting them. Try not to gasp too loud.) have made positive steps to ameliorate this effect by implementing new conference presentation formats. The dominance of Digital Humanities at this year’s MLA convention made this change much more prominent than it might otherwise have been as presenters in these fields are quite frankly much better at using audio-visual equipment than traditional humanities scholars. They also seem to have learned how to be succinct without omitting essential information in their talks. This allows more time for discussion and is less overwhelming for the audience.
The second assumption I gleaned from listening to conference attendees talk in the hotel lobby. As I sipped a coffee and prepared for my own presentation, it became clear that cost concerns or job pressures forced many to attend simply for the day of their talk. It was also clear that some convention attendees were more interested in sightseeing than their were in listening to the latest scholarship in the field.
Bearing all of this in mind, it is worth asking–What exactly is the purpose of the large academic conference in 2012? In the age of social media such as Twitter and Google + why not simply hold a “tweet-up” or create a “google hangout” for scholars in a particular field of study? These virtual arenas would cost participants far less and could be used at any time during the year.
The short answer to these questions seems to be career networking.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of face to face interaction with scholars in my field. I value it greatly. However, $800, which is the average amount I’ve spent attending academic conferences, seems a steep price to pay for networking. Almost as much, in fact, as my monthly rent. That is why I make a habit of attending conferences only if I’m either presenting or chairing a panel.
I wonder how many make the same choice and are thus shut out of the opportunity to network and exchange ideas in real-time. Yet another way that non-elite faculty are prevented from full participation in the discipline they help sustain.
Among the many changes that I hope will take place as the discipline of English is forced to evolve or disappear is a reexamination of the annual convention model. It seems at best overly bloated (a point made by Fish that most of his readers conveniently ignored) and at worst hopelessly out of date. Fewer panels of shorter duration, new presentation methods, new division structures, less pressure to conduct face to face membership business one time a year. These changes are all desperately needed. Maybe regional conferences affiliated with national ones could pick up the slack. Or perhaps a lot of the work needed could be done online.
In any event, if we want all the members of the profession to have a say in its future, we need something better than the traditional annual convention. The premium for attendance is too steep. Even if you might get to shake hands with Michael Berube.
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.
In my last post I promised readers of my blog that I would move beyond the problems in Higher Education to focus on a list of solutions that pertain to non-tenure track faculty. This is an issue I have been discussing for some time with my colleagues at both Columbia College and UIC. What follows is a list of proposed workplace changes composed by Brianne Bolin and myself as part of an Adjunct Manifesto. This list is simply a piece of the larger work. To read the full text of the manifesto, go to this site: http://adjunctmanifesto.tumblr.com/
WE, AS NON-TENURED FACULTY, CALL FOR REFORM FROM WITHIN THE CURRENT SYSTEM. WE DEMAND THAT OUR ADMINISTRATORS ADOPT THESE CHANGES:
- All hiring and firing of adjunct faculty will be handled by a non-partisan committee composed of tenured and non-tenured faculty in the same discipline, a union representative (if applicable), and a human resources staff member.
- All adjunct faculty will be hired on a contract that is a minimum of one year and a maximum of five. No longer will adjuncts be hired by the semester or the class.
- Tenure will be opened to all faculty. The current system treats adjuncts status as a stigma and blocks advancement from within. Even in corporations, this does not align with common practice.
- Evaluation of all faculty for tenure and promotion will be based on three components: a dossier of research and/or educational materials, teaching evaluations, and a classroom visit report from a senior member of the faculty in their discipline.
- Governing bodies of an institution, such as departmental committees and faculty senates, will be comprised of representatives in a ratio that mirrors that of the faculty. For instance, if adjuncts represent 77% of the total faculty at a college of university, they must account for 77% of the departmental committee appointments and faculty senate membership.
- Courses will be assigned based on expertise. Many of us hold degrees and experience that allow us to teach courses at the intermediate and advanced level, yet because we are deemed “contingent,” we are only assigned introductory-level classes. Not only is our current system of course assignment arbitrary and unfair, but it shortchanges our institutions. By adopting this practice, our institutions will be supporting greater diversity and innovation of instruction.
- Salaries will be based on experience in a field of study, evidence of quality teaching practices, adoption of innovation in instruction, job performance, and length of service.
- Terminology will be clarified to more accurately reflect the expertise of existing faculty. MA and MFA holders will be referred to as Instructor or Senior Instructor, regardless of their employment status. PhD holders will be referred to as Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor, with the prefix “Visiting” added to those not on the tenure track.
These are just a few of the solutions that came to mind. I encourage readers to think of their own and also to offer suggestions about how to improve those listed above. We are but a handful thinking and speaking on these issues for the first time. Add your voice to the conversation and turn these musings into realities. Once we gain critical mass, perhaps we can motivate those organizations that supposedly represent our profession to take action on our behalf.
The first lesson you learn upon entering the realm of Academia is that “it” is always someone else’s problem. What constitutes “it” depends on the specific setting of your conversation, but this ethos remains surprisingly consistent. If we are talking about a conference or journal article, “it” is the hegemonic forces that are “hiding,” “masking,” “distorting,” or otherwise oppressing someone or something. If we are talking about a department meeting, “it” is the College Administration (i.e. the Provost, Dean, President, or Chancellor) who just doesn’t understand the value of what we do. If we are talking about meetings at the upper echelons of Academia, “it” becomes the legislatures or broad social forces that hamper the leaders of colleges and universities from making much-needed changes. Everywhere in the Higher Education the message seems to be–Our hands are tied. We’re waiting for Godot to come and untie them.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Pozzo and Lucky. I’d invite them to dinner if I could and, of course, make them wait an insufferably long time for their food. But too much is at stake to continue the hand wringing and finger-pointing that has thus far passed for action on the problems in Higher Education. While we wait for Godot, our professions are increasingly marginalized. Many schools have already consolidated individual language departments into one massive campus unit and it is only a matter of time before those mega-departments are deemed “too costly.” Then work can be outsourced to private contractors to tutor students in foreign languages. Much maligned First Year Composition programs, quite frankly, are the only reason most English departments have remained intact. However, in some schools English is now part of a new department of Media and Communications or is blended with History or Language study. Seismic changes are coming soon to a humanities program near you and yet not many in the professions are agitating to be at the helm of these changes. Or, if they are, they have been shut out due to their marginalized place in the academy. As I’ve said before, the most active and engaged members of the profession right now are the non-tenured who are easily fired for making waves.
And so, at the risk of sounding monotonous, I ask again: WHAT IS TO BE DONE? My recent tiff with the MLA shows that their idea of action is a committee report. We don’t need any more data. There are probably giant warehouses along the Potomac filled with statistics and studies that no one has ever read let alone used. Picture the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The problems we face in Higher Education have not changed that much since I entered school as an undergraduate fifteen years ago. They have merely intensified.
When it comes to taking action, HASTAC and THAT Camp are among the few groups who seem to be getting it right. Embracing technology rather than fearing it or treating it as a fad, they are looking at how that aspect of Higher Education is changing the ways in which we understand grad school in the humanities and the nature of the profession as a whole. Also, unlike legacy organizations such as the MLA, they are doing something to make sure that students (both undergrad and grad) are learning the knowledge they need for the 21st century. If you haven’t been following these two groups, you should. HASTAC is holding a conference in Ann Arbor, MI as I write this post and I’m sure that more learning will take place there than at the MLA in Seattle this January.
Despite my frustrations with the current system in Higher Education, it would be foolish to deny all that I have gained from my experience as a student and a teacher. Among the lessons learned are two key truths. The first is how little I actually know and that I am dependent upon others to help me fill in the complete picture. This is something that Cathy Davidson addresses in her own way through examining attention blindness. The second is that keeping silent is not an option for intellectuals. The state paid a lot of money to educate me and I have a duty to society to share what I have learned. That is what I try to do both in the classroom and out. Scholarship is either vital, active in the world around us, or it dies in a sub-basement somewhere. What I do is of value to the non-academic community and I am proactive in asserting this.
In my next post, I’m going to address a specific set of solutions in Higher Education that affect me directly, listing some suggestions that I have for changing work conditions for Adjuncts. Until then I encourage you all to think about solutions rather than problems, changes that might be applied to whatever you do in the academy. And yes, I am looking squarely at you Occupy MLA. Your heart is in the right place, but some of your tweets make me want to scream. If you have any solutions specifically relating to Adjuncts that you’d like to see in my next post, send them along. We’re all in this boat together. We can either collaborate to fix the leak and survive or drown alone.
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.
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