Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

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It’s Time for the MLA. Are You Angry Yet?

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It’s about to go down at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association—if you believe the advance press, at least.

The theme of this year’s meeting, which starts today in icy downtown Chicago, is appropriate: “Vulnerable Times.” With vulnerability comes anger and disillusionment, a fair bit of it casting the MLA itself as the enemy.

Does that mean the conference will be a deeply contentious one? Not necessarily. Past efforts to turn up the heat at annual meetings haven’t always panned out.

We’ll get to that in a bit. First, a quick look at the disputes:

Israel and academic freedom: Following in the footsteps of the American Studies Association, which announced a boycott of Israeli institutions shortly after its annual meeting, the MLA is taking up the issue. The organization doesn’t have a boycott on the table at the moment, but it is preparing to consider a resolution that would ask the State Department to condemn Israel for its human-rights record.

The debate over Israel has led to some local flares: Two campus groups that support Israel, Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition, say they were denied the opportunity to present their views at a separate session on academic boycotts tonight. The MLA’s executive director, Rosemary G. Feal, says the groups simply missed a deadline for requesting a place at the table.

(The pro-Israel groups aren’t the only ones peeved about being turned away. After the MLA denied requests for a press pass from The Daily Caller, the right-wing website, its education editor, Eric Owens, had a meltdown. He declared that the next four days will be “a hothouse of leftism” and called journalists who will be covering the meeting “pro-fascist.”)

Questions about profit: Rebecca Schuman, writing for Slate, mocked the MLA meeting in a tone reminiscent of a much-talked-about New York Times article published over 20 years ago. The Times piece pilloried the conference as a showcase for self-important, tweed-wearing academics talk, talk, talking all day about esoteric topics. Schuman portrayed the MLA as out of touch and overtaken by "extortionate cash bars," and she contrasted the cost of attending the conference with the financial struggles of many grad students and contingent professors.

“They’ll all be there: muckety-mucks whose rings ache for kissing; frazzled early-career professors angling for tenure; and, of course, hordes of desperate graduate students and barely employed Ph.D.s, hoping to break into what everyone actually calls ‘the profession,’” Schuman wrote. The event, she went on, is “just a big, expensive celebration of the academic status quo.”

On his Facebook page, the MLA’s president Michael Bérubé acknowledged that some scholars hate the association “with the passion of a thousand blazing suns.”

But he disputed complaints from some corners that the MLA is making money off the backs of interviewers. “People mistakenly think the MLA convention is a major source of revenue for the association,” he wrote. “They actually think the MLA organizes the job search process in such a way as to profit from the misery of jobseekers. At an extreme, they think the MLA is not just a clearinghouse for academic jobs and interviews but some kind of regulatory agency that sets the terms for the number of jobs and interviews available.”

Academic labor concerns: Schuman’s essay drew added attention to the MLA Subconference, a branch event organized by graduate students and featuring appearing adjuncts and activist scholars. Sessions at the subconference, which started a day before the MLA convention, are focused on systemic problems such as the adjunct labor market, unionization drives, and student debt.

“An alt-conference isn’t exactly what everyone understands as a protest,” William Germano, an English professor and a dean at Cooper Union, told me. “But it inherently engages issues of activism and alternative representation.”

Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, told me that he expected the subconference to have a good showing. “It’s not going to be a bandit crew,” he said. “It’s going to be a genuine event.”

But he expected discussion, not recriminations. “Knowledge of academic labor has become a known entity in our profession,” he said. “It’s not as contested, and many people are concerned.”

Decades of Discontent

It’s important to note that the potential for controversy at this year’s MLA is nothing new. Over the years we’ve seen numerous motions and actions planned on thorny issues, from diversifying the profession to defending the rights of graduate students to participate in unions. Some have produced results; others have fizzled.

In 1968, an upstart group of grad students and young professors protested the MLA’s generally apolitical nature, eventually elevating two members of their ranks to the MLA presidencies in the early ‘70s. Later that decade, women and minority scholars decried the MLA for its perceived elitism, sexism and lack of diversity.

The discontent amped up in the early 1990s over the lack of academic jobs. Fast forward to the meeting of January 1998 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Hundreds of graduate students promised to pour into the convention center to confront the MLA leadership, vowing to make it a “convention to remember.”

Their chief aim was to radically reform the association and push for a greater voice in how it was being run. They also wanted the MLA to counter the trend of replacing full-time faculty with part-time ones, and they wanted the association to collect and publish data on the salaries and working conditions of adjuncts. And they got their way.

As Chronicle reporter Courtney Leatherman wrote: “Graduate-student leaders didn’t stage any protests, demonstrate, or picket the convention. Instead, they calmly, deliberately and simply won almost every item on their legislative agenda.”

Fourteen years later, disgruntled members of the MLA sought to capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street movement’s message about income inequality. The OccupyMLA movement turned to blogs and a Twitter feed to air grievances about the exploitation of adjuncts.

There was talk of showing up at the meeting en masse, and a proposal for Occupy members to wear clips on their collars and draw O’s on their conference badges to identify each other. In the days heading up to the conference, though, there still wasn’t a specific call to action.

Nothing happened at the meeting in Seattle, but that was actually part of the point: OccupyMLA was “an elaborate fiction,” according to Mark Marino and Rob Wittig, the two writers who later admitted to being behind the hoax. The entire project, Marino wrote, was merely “a netprov satirizing the adjunctification of higher education.”

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