11 June 2014


Suppose the Modern Language Association were a professional organization that reflected the lives of most people teaching modern languages and literatures.  The annual convention would be a very different thing.  Instead of taking place in a cluster of upscale convention hotels in a major American city, it would be centered on a interstate offramp somewhere in the the middle of the country, one with a huge concentration of cheap motels.  Even so, there probably wouldn't be enough rooms for everyone attending, so some people would have to reserve rooms at the next few offramps, but that's okay--a lot of them are used to commuting.  Sessions would take place in the party rooms of McDonalds, Applebees, and the like.  In some cases, tables in the regular seating areas of the Bob Evans or Arby's could be pushed together to accommodate smaller groups. A hat could be passed to cover the cost of ordering enough food to justify taking up the space--and after all, everyone's got to eat, right?
The event would have to be held in the summer, rather than January, so that convention fees, such as they are, could go to renting space in the local fairground, as well as tents and microphone equipment for holding the keynote address and plenary sessions.  Nearby campgrounds could accommodate those for whom several nights in a Super 8 is a financial strain.  Any publishers, educational software companies, learning management system corporations, or the like willing to present their wares to customers with little individual purchasing power and even less institutional purchasing power could sort themselves out using the meeting rooms of one of the more deluxe hotel chains, where the handful of attendees who get travel reimbursement also stay.  The few institutions still committed to holding convention interviews could make arrangements to do so in motel breakfast areas after the morning rush is over.

The MLA convention, held under these conditions, would be unpleasant and inconvenient.  Energy for discussing research and networking would be dissipated into the challenges of trying to be professional in unprofessional circumstances.

But then, that's the reality of teaching modern literature and language for most of the people who actually do it.

Which is why, when Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of MLA, gets on Twitter to take on adjunct anger, she and her interlocutors seem to be speaking past each other.

Everyone can agree that
and that, whatever the faults of the report from the MLA's task force on doctoral education,
Also, when adjuncts look at the kinds of meaningful steps that are currently being taken to improve adjunct working conditions, it's easy to see Feal's point that:
But the fact remains that the MLA's most visible trappings--the convention, documents like the task force report, the PMLA--reflect a vision of who college teachers are that has little connection to the realities of how literature and language gets taught. Many of the people doing a lot of that teaching have had no reason to pay MLA dues for years (most contingent instructors, after all, get no research money that might go toward professional memberships) and so, perhaps, might quite reasonably simply write MLA off as an irrelevant and outdated organization.  But many of us cling to a sense of ourselves as part of a broader educational endeavor and look to a center nonetheless.

The "Burn it Down" anger that Feal decried elsewhere in her tweets reflects the widespread dismay that the center we long for just isn't there--there's good intentions (and perhaps some dawning recognition) but it's still mostly nostalgia for a tenure-driven past.  The remnant of that past, it seems,  can celebrate itself annually in high-end hotels and urge those of us on the highway offramps to aspire to its return.  But for many instructors of language and literature, grappling with the off-ramp reality involves struggling to locate a new center.

1 comment :

  1. This is the best critique of the MLA as elite faculty formation I've yet read, thanks in large part to your imaginative, yet realistic, description of what the opposite of the current version of the MLA convention would be. Putting forth that image is invaluable, as is the rest of your critique here. Grateful for it.