Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thank God For Skype: How Grad Students Built the MLA Subconference

Full 01082014 subconference

You remember the days of the academic unconference. Now, it appears, the Modern Language Association has entered into the era of the subconference. And the first installment is already getting a lot of attention.

The MLA Subconference, now underway at Columbia College Chicago, is a two-day gathering of primarily graduate students, contingent workers, and autonomous intellectuals who wish to discuss issues facing higher education. It’s unaffiliated with the annual MLA convention, which begins tomorrow in the same city.

So what makes a subconference different from an unconference? While the idea behind the alternate conferences is similar, the formats vary. Instead of spontaneously building the event’s itinerary, as is done at an unconference, the subconference follows a model similar to the traditional MLA convention. There are scheduled workshops, roundtable panel discussions, receptions with food and drink.

But instead of classic MLA panel topics like literature and language, all of the subconference sessions will confront academia’s systemic problems—skyrocketing university tuition, union organizing drives, and adjunct labor, among other hot topics. And while an MLA membership and conference pass will set members back some bucks, the subconference is totally free. (That’s right—even breakfast and lunch won’t cost you a penny).

Naturally, many young—and cash-strapped—scholars are applauding the subconference’s formation. And for good reason: From all angles, it seems like a pretty sweet deal.

But we wondered: Who scrambles to put a thing like this together? And who, if anyone, arrives early in Chicago for the event? I reached out to Laura Goldblatt, a graduate student in English at University of Virginia who is one of the co-organizers of the subconference, to find out.

‘People Are Intrigued’

Goldblatt has been involved since the first days of planning the shadow conference, in September, when she replied to a message on a graduate-student listserv that announced the idea and asked for help. Since signing on, she’s worked with seven other graduate students across the nation to make the conference a reality.

“All of this has been done over Skype,” she said of their collaboration. “The first time I will see these people is when the subconference begins.”

But the distance didn’t slow them down, she said. A small fund—made up of donations from individual academics, as well as money contributed by a working group at the University of Wisconsin at Madison—was established to help provide food. The organizers collaborated with part-time faculty at Columbia to set up a free meeting site; they reached out to like-minded scholars on their website, Facebook group, and Twitter account; and they requested academic papers, panel proposals, and volunteer presenters: standard stuff, but on a shoestring budget.

As of last week, Goldblatt said, the subconference had eight panels, a handful of roundtable discussions, and 70 people registered to attend. But because RSVPs were encouraged, not required, she predicts more people will show up. (The recent wave of publicity generated by the subconference certainly won’t hurt attendance.)

“We didn’t really know what to expect, but people are intrigued,” Goldblatt said. “There’s been a larger response than we anticipated.”

Just who are the attendees? The subconference registration form didn’t include a field for participants’ institutional affiliation, position or location—just names and the number of people attending—so it’s unclear exactly what the breakdown will be. But Goldblatt expects a smattering of MLA conferencegoers—chiefly people in town for interviews at the big convention—along with a strong local presence. Members from groups like Unite Here, a Chicago union, plan to attend.

And there may be a few surprises: The subconference invited everyone, not just academics, to join the event. It’s even being streamed free online.

“The subconference is inspired by alternate conferences and different labor working groups,” she said. “It’s inspired by the actions that have been taking place in other industries. It’s inspired by other groups of people—who either because of their role or financial circumstances—were able to resist ways of being marginalized.”

But the panels and mission of the subconference cater to ivory-tower issues, and to scholars seeking a more proactive approach to the academic conference.

“The MLA can be—for job seekers, adjuncts and those on the periphery of the tenure track—a disempowering place,” Goldblatt said. “We want to provide a response to that. We want to give them a chance to have their voices heard.”

If subconference organizers are able to do that, she said, the event’s first year will be a success.

“In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner wrote that he declined to accept the end of man,” Goldblatt added. “I have a lot of problems with the spirit in which he made the remark, but when thinking about the subconference, I decline to accept the end of literary studies and the humanities.

“I think the key to saving and strengthening them, though, is by building solidarity within the academy and outside of it. I hope the subconference is one step in that direction.”

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