January 8, 2015
I was at the Modern Language Association (MLA) convention some years ago, waiting to meet up with a friend in the lobby of one of the hotels. We were trying to find each other in the midst of the crowds, and he insisted he was in the lobby itself; I insisted I couldn’t see him. To give me a clue, he finally said, “I’m in a dark blue suit.” I turned to look around, and all I could see was a sea of dark blue suits, worn by men and women with that unmistakable MLA air about them, their faces strained with a very particular combination of deep unhappiness, anxiety, and abject terror. “That really doesn’t help,” was all I could respond.
The MLA was founded in 1883, and it has hosted its giant annual convention nearly every year since then. Until 2011, this came at the single most awkward time for travel, firmly wedged between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The timing allowed the organisation to get its 30,000 members, nearly 12,000 of whom attend the convention, drastically reduced hotel rates. Today, the convention is scheduled January 8-11.
The MLA is usually an excellent snapshot of current threads and debates in the field and its sub-disciplines, regardless of where you stand on any of them. More recently, panel topics have included the state of academia, the scarcity of jobs, the adjunct “crisis,” tips and pointers about marketability and even what, exactly, to do with a Phd without a tenure-track position.
The convention is an international one, with members in approximately a hundred countries, and past attendees have included theory giants like Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler. It’s a convention of academics so it has for much of its history been a mostly unsexy, mostly staid, even dorky gathering (and I say that as a dork who doesn't think "sexiness" is either desirable or easy to define).
In the late ’80s and ’90s, the emergence and rise of fields like queer theory, postcolonial studies, and cultural studies briefly created ripples of interest the world outside the MLA. In 1989, Eve Sedgwick presented a paper titled “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” at the convention, and the title alone became the focus of an angry backlash against academic work (and, unfortunately, initiated queer theory’s entirely undeserved reputation as the radical wild child of academe when it has in fact always been a conventional and neoliberal one).
But the times are rather different now, and when the MLA makes the news these days, it’s often in the context of the job crisis and its attendant issues. In December 2013, Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct who has gained a measure of fame for her Slate columns on academe, wrote a short piece on her personal blog, Pan Meets Kafka, about the University of Riverside’s English Department giving job candidates only three days notice that they would be interviewed at the MLA in January. She exhorted readers to express their anger at the search committee chair Katherine Kinney, and the piece became a center of attention across social media, inciting responses from MLA president Michael Berube and Kinney herself.
Schuman’s post was deeply disingenuous in that it pretended that notifying candidates about interviews with very little notice was a new and shocking practice, whereas this had been in fact been in place for many years. When I was on the job market, about a decade ago, it was accepted wisdom, over many prior generations, that you simply made plans to attend the convention no matter what, and rejoiced if you had even one interview. This is, of course, horrible and deeply stressful for candidates, and the outrage was not entirely unjustified. But Schuman never, in her original post, even acknowledged that this had been going on for generations of job searches because, I suspect, that would have taken away from the newsworthy gloss of her grand pronouncement.
I dwell on Schuman not to debate the merits of her post (for more on that, see the links above), but because it demonstrates a central tendency among those who write about academe in mainstream media, the tendency to dehistoricise its various and ongoing crises at the cost of understanding the ghastly and long-time-in-the-making mess of academe.
Of all the many issues facing academe today, it’s the adjunct crisis that has gained the most traction as a matter of interest across the board. But, as I’ve pointed out in “Class Shock: Affect, Mobility, and the Adjunct Crisis,” this has a lot to do with an ahistorical sense that what adjuncts face is something like what is often termed the crisis of the middle class. Despite some excellent organising practices, adjuncts tend to see the lack of tenure-track jobs as unfair because they feel locked out of a class structure. In other words, their anger is not always because they recognise the inequality of the larger context they’re enmeshed in but because they find themselves disallowed from enjoying the fruits of a deeply unequal system. In that, adjuncts are very much like the denizens of the middle class whose new and rising anger at inequality tends to be based not on, for instance, discovering that the very concept of the middle class is a historical fiction or that class structures and the “American Dream” are in fact motors of neoliberal inequality, but in a fury that they can no longer buy houses and cars and accrue debt at will.
If adjuncts and their ally commentators were to take their situation seriously, they would have to admit that what faces adjuncts today is not a crisis, but a symptom of a set of long and deepening practices in the neoliberal university. Adjunct exploitation, which is admittedly rampant, is not a singular issue but part and parcel of a widespread system of inequality. The only way to resolve the “crisis” is to ensure the abolition of an adjunct system. In that, adjuncts and their allies are at a strange crossroads: they must solidify and strengthen their ranks if they are to gain any bargaining power, but if they are to actively fight against — and perhaps eventually demolish — the neoliberal university, they also have to ensure an end to the very existence of their ranks.
In the meantime, there is a growing awareness of the kind of class shock I’ve referred to, and at places like the University of Illinois at Chicago, adjuncts and faculty have begun to unionise while remaining mindful of their combined status as workers, and not just as special snowflakes.
But the myth of exceptionalism still persists. In “A Specter Is Haunting Precacity,” Laura Goldblatt, at the University of Virginia, points to the problems with the concept of what Guy Standing and others refer to as the “precaciat,” a term that has been embraced by many to describe the precarious livelihoods of those employed (or self-employed) as adjuncts, designers, and, well, freelancers like yours truly. She writes,
The term’s exclusions also bear comment...When Gary Rhoades, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, titles his searing critique of U.S. universities’ reliance upon poorly-compensated adjunct labor “Adjunct Professors are the New Working Poor,” I have to ask: what about the old working poor? Likewise, bloggers and columnists often conjure up the immiserated labor conditions of the global South only to warn their readers of all that the United States can and should never become. “Watch out!” these headlines warn, “Or the United States will end up like those irreparably nasty and humid countries beneath the equator.”
Goldblatt is part of this year’s MLA Subconference Organising Committee, which began as a kind of shadow MLA gathering in 2014. The Subconference also aims to go beyond the usual rhetoric of professionalisation and marketing, often the only coping mechanisms proposed by more formal panels at the MLA, where the emphasis is still largely on how to survive in a deeply faulty academic system. According to another member of the committee, Lenora Hanson, who contacted me this past fall in an email, the Subconference “is also meant as a practical way to forge relationships between academic and non-academic activists during a time in which the professionalizing and individuating pressures of our field are at their peak.”
Intrigued, I spoke to Hanson, Goldblatt, Bennett Carpenter, Sean Kennedy, Mike Strayer, and Karim Wissa over Skype, about their plans and aspirations for the MLA Subconference and beyond. The six are part of a larger committee that puts the Subconference in place (you can see more details and bios here), and I was struck, from the outset, at how much they exemplify the massive — and welcome — differences in academe from even a decade or so ago.
When I joined UIC as an adjunct in 2000, organising around academic labour had barely begun, and the field of “languages and literature” remained one of the least politicised ones and one of the few to take kindly to the notion of professors or professors-to-be as workers of any kind.
The newer lot of humanities scholars, like those running the Subconference, are entering graduate school or working in and around it with fewer illusions about the fecundity of the “job market” or their super-academic abilities to somehow conquer it, and they often come to their graduate work with prior or parallel experiences in real-time organising. Goldblatt, for instance, is also a member of UVA’s Living Wage Campaign, Hanson is involved with work that looks at the relationship between high-cost construction at low-wage work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Strayer is active with radical service learning projects, Wissa is part of a wage sharing project, Carpenter is active in local housing issues in Durham, and Kennedy is involved both with the Boycott and Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the Adjunct Project at City University of New York (CUNY).
My conversation with them gives me greater hope about academia than I’ve felt in years. There’s an acute self-awareness about themselves and the ramifications of the positions they stake out that strikes me as absolutely necessary if academic institutions are to continue to remain relevant and/or potentially revolutionary. All of them are or have studied in fields that fetishise individual achievements (consider English Departments’ tendency to valorise Great Authors, whether white and male or not), and have or will enter job markets that stress solitary work that resolutely marks itself as “the first” to perform some academic feat. Despite that, this group talks and believes in collective action and work to a degree that would have been unfathomable years ago, speaking and working as a collective rather than as a constellation of atomised individuals.
Because each of them has dealt viscerally with how their individual universities engage or, rather, brutally disengage from their surrounding environments, they have no illusions about the transformative power of the university as an agent for positive change. Carpenter knows first-hand the tensions between the gentrifying power of Duke and the onslaught felt by residents of Durham; Strayer has been looking at Johns Hopkins’ role in the drone-making industry, and so on.
If we are to rethink the meaning of academic institutions and their material and conceptual presence in our lives, we have to consider the varying and often horrifically brutal roles they play in their built and unbuilt surroundings. Which will also mean going beyond arguing for and about wage labour or job security or the creation of more tenure lines, the issues that are most likely to capture the imagination of academics and their allies. Instead, we have to consider the university as simultaneously the site of great potential — as the committee put it to me, perhaps even as a transitional space that can engender radical thinking — and a site of enormous potential destruction.
This will also mean dispensing with some of the angry and embittered rhetoric hurled against the university as elitist and exclusionary because of what is often termed “inaccesible” and “jargon-filled” language and research. While those charges can sometimes stick, we tend to forget that they’re usually made, with ominous regularity, only against those disciplines like those of language and literature. Consider the fetishisation and even glamorisation of physics, for instance, a far more inscrutable field than poetry. As a result, over the last few decades, organisations like the MLA have grasped at straw after straw, aiming darts at an ever-moving target, imploring its graduates to resort to any number of survival techniques: Blog More! Blog Less! Learn Another Trade! Specialise!
But the results have been dire. Or, as the subconference’s description of the 2015 event puts it,
Living wages AND reduced labor time, healthcare, and accessible and affordable education must be understood as the conditions under which our mutual social aid and academic lives will thrive, rather than a cost that capital must bear. For far too long, those of us in higher education have been willing to make compromises that we thought would save us, compromises that translated into higher costs of tuition for students and families; compromises that led to decreased state and federal funding in favor of privatized dollars; compromises that immiserated low-wage workers to free up increasingly scarce resources; compromises that negatively impact the affordability and quality of higher education in order to improve the status of our brand for Wall Street, tech firms, and for an out-of-state and international student body. That zero-sum game has run its course and it has become increasingly clear that the high-stakes race for private dollars has been a loss for almost everyone who works and learns in higher education. Our struggle needs to be understood as capable of generating material and theoretical gains for us all, not less for the few through a misguided “race to the top.”
I find these words, and the general politics of the Subconference, to be more bracing than what I’ve encountered in academic organising so far. An expansive view of what the university truly means, both in its potential and its ability to damage, is preferable to the kind of shop-worn, shoddy, and often clumsy attempt at solidarity that now pervades, for instance, much of the organising that unions are apt to do within universities, organising that smells more of the fervent desire to collect more dues than to bring about change. 1
It’s a brand new world, this, where academics finally agree to stand in solidarity with the workers who keep their enterprise running, hopefully in terms shorn of the usual affective talk about the sheer saltiness and heroism of “ordinary workers” that is cringe-inducing, counterproductive, condescending, and anti-intellectual. The Subconference committee members I spoke to are able to hold and put forth the contradictions presented by the university and see them through to their ends, logical or not. This might, as the members put it, mean the end of the university entirely or as we know it, or it might mean that it becomes a transitional or permanent space that opens up the resources it hoards so avariciously, like library holdings and knowledge production, and returns them to the cities and towns that help sustain such exclusionary systems, with nothing offered in return.
If you’ve in Vancouver, check out the MLA Subconference. And if you can, donate to this and next year’s event.
1You will have gathered by now that I am deeply sceptical about unions in universities. Future pieces on this subject will detail why I believe in unions, and why I'm also wary of what they can and can't do in academia.
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