Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

MLA Subconference Wrap-Up: If You Feed Them, They Will Come

Full 01082014 subconference

In the days leading up to last week’s Modern Language Association convention, a surprising amount of talk swirled around an unaffiliated shadow conference in the same city.

The upstart MLA Subconference, held at Columbia College Chicago last week, was billed as a free, two-day gathering of primarily graduate students, contingent workers, and autonomous intellectuals who wished to discuss issues facing higher education.

So how’d it come off? Pretty well, say the event’s organizers. And according to participants and attendees I spoke with, the inaugural meeting exceeded expectations.

Attendance was respectable, though not huge. Organizers estimate that over the two days, more than 100 people showed up.

“The majority of the attendees were graduate students, though we also had some adjunct faculty members, some postdocs and some tenured and tenure-track attendees and presenters,” said Laura Goldblatt, a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia, who is also one of eight subconference organizers. “We also had at least one Unite Here! participant. We’re hoping to increase the participation and attendance of such outside groups next year.”

But the event’s footprint extended beyond Columbia College. A live stream of the subconference ran online, Goldblatt said, and as of Monday afternoon, more than 900 people had viewed the archived footage.

Among the physical attendees was Emily Clark, deputy director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Clark, who was on the academic job market for two years before she decided to pursue an alt-ac position, saw the conference mentioned on Facebook. She traveled alone to check it out, she said, and she’s happy she did.

“I’m pretty burnt out and cynical about academic conferences in general, but I was really engaged for the two days,” said Clark, who has attended the main MLA convention three times. “At most conferences, it’s just people having the chance to get a line on their CV and doing super-specific research not connected to the world. This was the opposite of that.”

The subconference followed a model similar to the traditional MLA convention, with scheduled workshops and roundtable panel discussions. But contrary to the classic panel discussions on literature and language, all of the subconference sessions confronted academia’s systemic problems—skyrocketing university tuition, faculty unionization, and adjunct labor, for example.

“I think that most of the organizers and participants would agree that the workshop-style and strategy sessions seemed the most productive and sparked the most ongoing debate,” Goldblatt said.

Unlike at larger conventions, which require attendees to choose between multiple simultaneous sessions, the MLA Subconference allowed everyone to attend the same workshops and visit during breaks. The event was “positive” and “inclusive,” Clark said.

Among the subconference sessions, Clark said, her favorites focused on university finances and student debt.

“I think that was the news of the conference,” she said. “We were really digging into materials like IRS documents. There was actual due diligence, and that’s something I’m going to continue thinking about.”

‘The Only Option Left’

Edward Michael Gomeau, a graduate student and lecturer of philosophy at Marquette University, served as a panelist for a discussion on “Adjunct Labor and Pedagogy.” Gomeau spoke about his own professional experiences as an adjunct, lecturer, and graduate student at Jesuit universities.

Nationally, some Catholic colleges have opposed faculty unionization, viewing it as a threat to their religious liberty. Gomeau has had trouble rallying his colleagues, he said, so he saw the subconference as an opportunity to have his voice heard.

“I personally felt as if it was the only option left for me, in terms of drawing attention to this,” he said. “I felt like someone has to stand up and say something who has the background in the social teaching of the church, who still believes in it.”

The subconference gave him confidence to continue that mission, he said.

“Solidarity is important with these struggles,” Gomeau said. “When I see there are 80 to 100 people listening, I know I’m not waging a lonely battle. It was tremendously encouraging.” (A similar panel discussion at the main MLA conference had a much smaller audience.)

Both Clark and Gomeau said they are interested in attending the next subconference, which will follow the 2015 MLA convention to Vancouver.

Plans for that meeting are already being discussed, Goldblatt said. One aspect of the conference that will stay is the free food. "We ate and discussed together, made friends and made plans," she said. "It ensured a collaborative, rather than competitive, environment for the subconference, which was exactly what we hoped for.”

But there are some changes on the horizon, particularly in regard to fundraising and participation.

“Vancouver is going to be prohibitively expensive for many graduate students, adjuncts and organizers,” she said. “We’ve started fundraising so we can help offset some of those costs.” Also on the table: negotiating university stipends and discounted hotel rates.

Organizers have proposed stretching two long days to three shorter days, she said, as well as booking the conference venue closer to the main MLA conference space and providing a free shuttle between the two.

They also plan to issue personalized invitations to certain faculty members, along with a general call for attendance, and to set aside some time to educate those faculty members about the experience of contingent workers and provide them with ways to work with them in solidarity.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Goldblatt said.

But this year’s event counts as an encouraging start. “I was also surprised by how much attention we got on Twitter and afterward at MLA,” Goldblatt added. “I had many conversations with MLA attendees who were interested in the subconference and want to attend next year.”

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