I’ll start with two observations about the MLA, since so many have asked for my impressions as an anthropologist attending for the first time.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Because I have no years of psychic wounds connected to the MLA, I felt free as a bird. I could go to a panel and enjoy it. I could talk to someone and enjoy it. I could not talk to someone and enjoy it. I could do whatever I damn well pleased and enjoy it, because it was Not. My. Conference. The contrast to the AAA was quite extraordinary. The AAA is my place of pain and anxiety and the agony of inclusion/exclusion. The MLA was entertainment.
One interesting point of contrast with the AAA. (Well, aside from the clothes, and the haircuts, and the shoes, which were, quite simply, better. Really amazingly, devastatingly, better).
That is, from its repute, I expected it to be electric with a kind of concentrated intellectual intensity, but it was not. Compared to the Anthro meetings, the energy was oddly dissipated. There was, in a way, no “there” there. Undoubtedly it’s because it’s spread out over a bunch of hotels, and there was no one central lobby, where everyone’s energy and angst is focused. More interestingly, I could not help but notice that the MLA folks are a far less gregarious bunch than the anthropologists. It’s not that people didn’t talk and laugh. They did. But they also sat alone with their phones and ipads and laptops to a really extraordinary degree, at least in the public spaces that I could see. At the AAA, the public spaces always feel a bit like a giant grad school party, with scores of people bunched in groups chatting, sitting at tables chatting, sitting on any available steps chatting, and even sprawled on the floor chatting. I needed to meet up with some Interview Intervention clients, and knowing what I know of the AAA, I assumed that we’d never find a quiet, empty spot in the lobby to do our work. I was wrong. There were endless quiet empty spots. I don’t mean to make a disciplinary caricature here. But the contrast was striking to me. There is definitely a different ethos of sociality at play in these disciplinary gatherings.
As I was leaving the conference, the very last person I ran into, as I wheeled my luggage out the hotel door, was Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director of Duke University Press. Ken goes to all the conferences. When he asked how I liked my first MLA, I mentioned this oddly subdued feel. “Oh definitely,” he exclaimed, “it’s nothing like that intense AAA energy, because of the way it’s spread out over all the hotels.” “But you know,” he added, “it’s also because of the job seekers.” “Oh?” I asked, “How so?” “At the AAA, it’s still just November, and it’s early enough that people don’t really know yet how the job market chips are going to fall. They still have hope. But here, it’s already almost over. If the interviews you get here don’t work out…. So the concentrated strain and anxiety of all the job seekers really shape the feel of the conference.”
Yes. Of course. There was a ‘buzz” to the MLA, but it was a pervasive emotional buzz of desperation. It took me a couple days to pick up on it. Bit by bit, piece by piece, conversation by conversation, it took shape. Everyone I talked to, it seemed (and of course the kind of people I end up talking to will certainly represent a particular population) was an adjunct or NTT in some form. They had at most 1 or 2 interviews. The interviews that they did have, half the time, were for short-term positions, 1 year here, 3 years there. The fabulous young scholars giving cutting edge papers were often not, as it turned out, assistant professors. No, they were on temporary contracts, with no security at all. “I don’t really know what I’m going to do….” was the refrain of the meetings.
As Roger Whitson wrote on Facebook today, after listing his best experiences of the MLA, “My least fav MLA moment? Feeling hopelessness at the growing tide of adjunct suffering and resentment, my sense of smallness in the wake of its scale, and the apparent apathy of some of my tenured and t/t colleagues.”
This sums up my feelings exactly. The growing tide of adjunct suffering and resentment, and the degree to which the tenured–the seniors of the field–didn’t get it. Jesse Stommel’s conference talk itself, “Vulnerability, Contingency, and Advocacy in Higher Education,” went to the heart of adjunct suffering.
Which brings me to my title: who is “us”?
I went to a panel called “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Reform.” I came late, and only heard about half. What I heard were talks by 2 tenured profs and the Managing Editor of the MLA Commons,* that basically said versions of: “the market is bad so we have to train our Ph.D.s to pursue other kinds of careers. We have to encourage them to consider these careers, and we have to create an environment in which they can make that choice. But under no circumstances should we consider cutting the size or scale of Ph.D. programs in the humanities.”
Now, I’m sure to the tenured articulating these ideas, this sounds radical indeed. ACKNOWLEDGE that the market is bad, publicly? And ADMIT that your Ph.D.s might have to take a non-academic job? And SUPPORT them in doing so? Wow—very au courant!
However, the pointed agenda of the panel to refute the call to cut Ph.D. programs was strange, to say the least. Indeed, apparently one presenter, speaking before I arrived, recommended expanding them. Scott Jaschik, Editor in Chief of Inside Higher Ed, leapt to his feet as the first questioner in the Q and A, to point this out (and then today wrote his own column about this event). He told them that in a meeting of graduate students he hosted under the auspices of IHE, the students themselves spoke as one that it was a “no-brainer” that reducing the size of Ph.D. programs is one of the most urgent responses needed to the decimation of the academic job market.
Absolutely not, was the response of the panel. To paraphrase: “any move that we would make to cut our graduate programs would be professional suicide for us.”
At which point I raised my hand and asked, “who is this ‘us’?”
“Any move that we would make to cut our graduate programs would be professional suicide for us.”
Professional suicide is what graduate students are already committing on a daily basis as they confront the reality of a Ph.D. that cannot be turned into meaningful work, and the looming default on what are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.
Professional suicide is what adjuncts are committing each year that they spill out their time, energy, and spirit in an endless, pointless and ultimately fruitless quest for security.
Professional suicide is what Ph.D.s contemplate when they have to painfully and laboriously attempt to reinvent themselves for a non-academic position, for which the Ph.D. is appallingly expensive, slow, and imprecise training, when they are already often in their mid-40s or beyond.
Professional suicide is what Ph.D.s face when they discover ten or more years of their peak earning years have been lost in the black hole of a graduate program that yields nothing in the end but devastating opportunity costs.
This panel set out to ask “who benefits” from graduate training. They could not have answered the question more clearly. The tenured benefit. It is for them. They are the “us” that cannot contemplate or countenance a change in their cherished way of life. I get that the tenured love their world and its rituals of admissions, training, defense, and graduation. Not to mention of course the labor that allows faculty to avoid teaching various types of classes. It was a nice world at one time, when the economy supported it. But let there be no mistake. Who benefits from these practices at this point in history? The tenured. At least, could you be honest about it?
*This is incorrect. Note my correction in the comments below.