[Many readers will be familiar with Michael Bérubé -- distinguished scholar and author, outgoing Grand Poobah of the MLA, blogger emeritus, and no relation to the Bérubé doing a surprisingly decent job coaching the Flyers and sadly probably the best player the Flames received in exchange for Doug Gilmour. He's been engaged in some fascinating distinctions on Facebook concerning the MLA and the academic job market, and has graciously agreed to allow his final word on the subject to be published here so we can discuss it. --SL]
So I am trying to figure out just how I got caught up in debates about the Modern Language Association even though I am no longer an officer or committee member. In fact, I have no official relation to the MLA any more– I am just an ordinary member (though people still address me as “Mr. President,” and I have to say it does have a nice ring to it). So why do I bother, and why do I get defensive and frustrated whenever I hear “the MLA has not done anything about X” (where X is usually “the working conditions of contingent faculty”)?
And then the other night I realized: this here is one reason why.
People– MLA committee members, contingent faculty themselves– worked on that document. (MLA staff helped!) It was written so that people– faculty on and off the tenure track– could take it to their home institutions, to deans and provosts and department heads, and get stuff done to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. And it incorporates the MLA Statement on Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members, which I wrote way back in aught-three when I was an Executive Council member. Is it enough to end the exploitation of adjuncts altogether? No. No one thing is. But it is the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession’s blueprint for people who want to try to improve contingent faculty working conditions on their campuses. (You can print it out and take it to your campus, free of charge!)
Now, most of the time, when I point this out to people, suddenly the goalposts move. People who had just finished saying “the MLA has never addressed this” (and who had no idea that the MLA even has a Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession) then shift to “oh yeah, of course I know the MLA has addressed this, but it hasn’t done anything to enforce it”– as if any scholarly organization, be it the MLA, the AHA, the AAA, or the APA, could do that. For comparison’s sake: the AAUP has a comprehensive policy document on contingent faculty. It is terrific. The AAUP can’t enforce that, either.
(As an aside, it really is remarkable what people think the MLA can do. For example: I like very much Miriam Burstein’s argument that departments should fund their graduate student jobseekers both before and after the Ph.D. Seriously– you want to run a graduate program? Fine. Then fund your graduate students, especially when they are looking for jobs. But when she says the MLA can monitor and penalize departments that don’t do this, I had to ask how. The exchange is here. Seriously, if a UC-Riverside did a bad thing– I am talking totally hypothetically here– and the MLA banned it from the convention and the Job Information List, and this hypothetical UC-Riverside advertised elsewhere and conducted its interviews by Skype instead, who among the legions of academic jobseekers would say “hell no, I’m not taking a tenure-track job at this hypothetical UC-Riverside– why, the MLA banned it from their convention!”)
And of course, on another side note, there are plenty of other things I did with the organization over the past ten years. I did these things for many reasons, one of which was that I was deeply frustrated with how the organization worked in the 1990s, and decided to get inside and help change it. Like by serving on the task force that produced this document, one important aspect of which tried to open the doors for a wider range of scholarly work online and off. Or like by drafting policy statements on foreign language learning, attacks on ethnic studies, the closing of university presses, and the right of scholars to travel freely across international borders, with a special emphasis on US borders. The reason these things needed to be written is that the MLA, like other scholarly organizations, is asked to sign other groups’ statements on such things all the time. Especially with regard to foreign language study, those statements tend to be inadequate for the purposes of most MLA members, insofar as they are all about economic competitiveness and national security. So I wanted to help fix that, and I modeled these on AAUP Policy Documents and Reports (the “Redbook”).
So when people say “the MLA has never bothered to address X in the past twenty-thirty-whatever years,” they are actually pissing on the work of a whole mess of people– not just me, but MLA staff and MLA members from all ranks of the profession. (And of course the only recompense MLA committee members receive for their hard work as editors, referees, and task force members– and only if they serve on a committee that meets F2F– is a trip to New York, a couple of meals, and a hotel stay. Sure enough, because academe is chock full of cranks, people have been complaining about that too, including someone who was offended that the hotel he stayed in was too nice for a humanities organization. Amazing but true fact.) Some of the people who say this actually do know better, but have MLAnimosities that go back to the time of the Boer War. But most of the people who say it don’t have the first clue what the MLA has or hasn’t done, or can and can’t do. It is funny … I am feeling an uncanny sense of déjà dit….
If you click on that last “hyper” link, check out the paragraph about what happened when I actually took an MLA statement back to Penn State in 2002. It’s paragraph number eight, if you’re in a hurry. The antepenultimate one. The point is that MLA statements about the profession are supposed to work that way: people are supposed to take them to their departments and colleges and see what they can do. And note that someone responded in comments that the MLA should make the Job Information List free to all members. Guess what? They did that! And you know what else– one of those senior staff members who is the object of that slash-all-the-senior-staff-salaries-because-somehow-adjuncts-will-benefit petition* negotiated a deal with Interfolio that drastically reduced the costs of job searches for jobseekers. Just because it was the right thing to do.
Oh, and if you want information about academic labor and staffing at individual institutions– yes, every single institution of higher education in the United States– with comparative data from 1995 and 2009? (It’s very helpful if you are trying to figure out which institutions have cut back drastically on tenure-track lines.) Check out this awesome database, also compiled by one of those senior staff members whose work nobody understands or credits (or, sometimes, deliberately pisses on, because Boer War). If you’re a contingent faculty member at any institution in the US, you can upload your information to that database anonymously. It’s a lot like Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project– to which, of course, it includes a handy “hyper” link!
OK, that is all. I am going back to posting things about Jamie, because that is what social media were invented for. And of course I have an Institute to run and a sixty-student 100-level science fiction course to teach. So if you’re an MLA member and you want the MLA to do stuff differently, nominate yourself for a committee that does things you care about. They take self-nominations all the time, partly to get new people involved and partly because self-nominated people almost always accept when they are asked to serve.
* As if that petition weren’t misguided enough as it is, some of the signers are even more amazing– including people in the upper echelons of the profession, like David Halperin of the University of Michigan (not an MLA member, but apparently pissed that there are some MLA staff in his income bracket), and a guy named Kyle Whitney who writes, “(1) Don’t make yourselves rich off of us (2) Use our membership dues and fees for something other than making executives millionaires.” Is Kyle Whitney actually paying membership dues to the MLA? Please. Is the Pope a Marxist? In fact, of the 52 “supporters” who signed that petition, gave their names, and offered reasons for their support, only six – six– are MLA members. And there’s more: of those six, four are “life members”– who pay no membership dues (this includes a named chair at an elite private college). You will not be surprised to learn that the author of the petition is not an MLA member, either. But the point remains that the MLA is ripping these people off, and that must stop. Or, as one signer puts it, “The MLA hierarchy–now accepted practice–that allows adjuncts to work in a system of indentured servitude is inherently unfair.” Bad MLA, allowing adjuncts to work in that system for its own benefit and then charging them $6.25 for granola bars. Really, of all the weird-ass things I have seen in this business, this year’s complaints might very well be the weirdest-assest. The entire “ratio” thing is based on the premise that the MLA employs adjuncts, and has taken the volume of Misinformation About the MLA to 11. But as I have remarked in a Facebook thread, claiming that MLA staff salaries are contributing to the immiseration of adjuncts is a little like David Horowitz claiming that tuition increases at American universities have been caused by Cornel West’s speaking fees. So here is the petition to reduce Cornel West’s speaking fees.
Last but not least, about the MLA Executive Director herself. I have to think that the petition is really all about her, even though it targets every senior staff member. I mean, are people seriously upset that directors of departments in a major scholarly organization, people with 20, 30 years of seniority and experience, are earning 125-175K, just like some full professors at large universities? Do they really think that these salaries come from the dues of adjuncts? Someone posted the MLA’s 990 form on Twitter, and the petition reproduces one page– the page about executive pay. Did anyone read the page that reports revenue? (And don’t even bother with the page that reports how much the MLA pays its presidents and vice presidents and Executive Council members. I will tell you. Zero dollars and zero cents, tax free.) Total revenue, 15.8 million; revenue from dues– 2.4 million, or 15 percent of total revenue. The dues structure itself is markedly progressive– and will stand up well in comparison to any similar organization (which is why the AAUP modeled its new progressive dues structure on it). Anyway, Rosemary spent yesterday in Washington, in a legislative briefing on adjunct issues organized by the New Faculty Majority in connection with that report released by Rep. George Miller, and attended by about thirty Congressional staff members. It is just part of the job– the kind of thing she and MLA staff do all the time (when I attended the NFM summit in January 2012, MLA Director of Research David Laurence went with me). I am beginning to think that scholarly associations that really don’t give a shit about adjuncts have been exempt from the kind of criticism Rosemary and her staff have been getting precisely because no one expects them to respond to these issues.