A better professional organization

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#cloudcrew photo credit: John Harkey (@felixfardo)

I’m going to engage in some blue-sky thinking here. I am not a policy wonk, and this is not a policy document of any kind.

A response to the Modern Language Association (MLA) task force report on graduate education, co-authored by a group of 10 humanities scholars and published this week in Inside Higher Ed, draws attention to the limitations of the existing proposal. Proposals to shorten the time to degree and to welcome new engagements with digital technology are hardly controversial, of course. But the recommendations of the task force, like many of the activities of the MLA, do not a thing to meet on their own ground the gross inequalities of academic labor conditions in the profession.

I am far from the first to observe that the disconnect between the activities of the MLA and the lived realities of the profession has become increasingly stark (this recent blog post by The Good Enough Professor makes the case succinctly and well). The standard institutional response to such complaints is that adjunct hiring and other such issues, while undoubtedly important, do not fall under the control of the MLA and/or do not form a central part of its mandate. On the one hand, the rationale for this view is entirely plain. That the MLA carries out certain functions and not others is certainly unobjectionable. The MLA has no authority over hiring decisions; it cannot re-open tenure lines that have been closed or “restructured” by university administration. It cannot reverse trends in academic hiring that plague the academy as a whole. On the other hand, if a scholarly organization does not take concrete steps to improve the working conditions of those who pay dues and attend annually and at considerable cost its national convention, what exactly does it do? If the support of instructors teaching languages and literature at all professional ranks does not fall within the purview of a scholarly organization purporting to represent these educators, of what use is the organization today?

While the MLA enters into lengthy, disputatious, and ultimately fruitless discussions over whether to issue a resolution censuring Israel’s denial of entry to scholars seeking to work at Palestinian universities, various other organizations, autonomous and mostly leaderless movements unburdened by bureaucratic protocols and the necessity of executive compensation, have sprung up to serve functions that the MLA does not or cannot do. It may simply be the case that the existing organization is insufficient to protect the interests or even to represent accurately the contemporary academic workforce in higher ed literature and language instruction.

Imagine, then, a professional organization that served and supported its constituents directly. Groups like the Adjunct Project and the New Faculty Majority were created to represent and advocate for the overwhelming majority of literature and language instructors today. As more and more adjunct unions enter into collective bargaining agreements with universities, these cross-institutional alliances serve an invaluable purpose in representing the interests of adjunct faculty and facilitating communication with the general public.

The last of the proposals by the IHE authors is “direct action” — “strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach.” The possibilities are many here, of course; I want in closing simply to suggest one kind of organizing and outreach activity that might at minimal cost materially improve the lives of those who teach language and literature. Some time ago, a few colleagues and I — @prof_anne, @readywriting, @occupyMLA, @shanteparadigm, and some others — set to imagining a StrikeDebt-style direct action of some sort for and by adjunct professors and their advocates. One of the most potentially fruitful ideas to come from this discussion was that of a time bank that could be participated in by faculty and staff within a university community, or regionally across institutions, as a work in mutual aid. With sufficient buy-in from a coalition of university employees at all professional levels, a range of professional tasks could be exchanged without money —

  •      substitute teaching to cover for sickness or conference travel
  •      guest lectures or class visits
  •      reading and commenting on work
  •      editing and proofreading
  •      printing and copying, and so forth

— to say nothing of the many nonprofessional tasks for which time exchanges have been used for decades. Time could be “donated,” of course, and one can perhaps imagine a system in which the value of one’s hours were inversely proportional to wages for labor in real life, so that graduate students and adjunct instructors would for a change receive an advantage on this market.

From adjunct unions to other forms of direct action on the part of students, teaching staff, and university employees, we see that organizing and outreach works. If the MLA is not the professional organization we want or need, perhaps we need to invent another (or many others). MLA will continue to produce editorial content, and host, at significant expense to most conference-goers, an annual conference for those with sufficient institutional support to attend. I expect that the functions of representation and advocacy will come increasingly from other organizations: unions, advocacy groups, etc. The MLA may of course assist in the formation of these new collectives, and would I hope be invested in promoting and supporting them too. Otherwise, teachers of language and literature (at all professional levels) should start preparing for a future without the MLA.

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