Conventional Wisdom

Can a bunch of rabble-rousers and their shadow academic conference actually change the higher ed world?

Next week, thousands of literature scholars will emerge from their research cocoons, don their finest black duds, and descend upon Chicago for this year’s Convention of the Modern Language Association. 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.”

At its best, an academic conference such as MLA offers a once-a-year chance to catch up with old friends, forge camaraderie with new ones, listen to interesting papers, discover fascinating new scholars and books, and have what academics consider “fun” (copious consumption of alcohol away from one’s spouse and children). But there are unsavory aspects to the academic convention as well, and I’m not talking about the spike in Craigslist “Causal Encounters” with unusually erudite syntax.

Because MLA is also where first-stage academic interviewing gets done, the conference uneasily mixes self-professed Marxists in $1,200 suits, complaining that the suite their university secured at the W is too drafty, with the teeming unemployed, wondering how they’ll pay off the plane ticket and room at Motel 6 they just charged—all for a 1-in-20 shot at a job. Meanwhile, those prestigious panels often have more participants than audience members, and the publishers’ room is full of books everyone is far too poor to purchase and far too busy to read. And while the convention nominally addresses the sweaty, underpaid, exploited elephant in the room—the adjuncts that now make up more than half of the professorial workforce—largely it’s just a big, expensive celebration of the academic status quo.

By “nominally addresses,” I mean that in recent years the Modern Language Association as an organization has taken steps to acknowledge the current crisis in the profession. But if you ask many in attendance at the convention—anyone, for example, on the job market for the fifth year in a row—too much remains the same: the preening, the expense, the dwindling number of interviews for an even dwindling-ier number of jobs. And yet, any student at a reputable Ph.D. program will be advised to attend this conference no matter how much it costs, if only for the innumerable networking possibilities. The adviser will say: Yes, the market’s terrible, but what can we do about it? Keep your head down, be good enough to get a job, and then work to change things from the inside.

This year, a group of activist scholars have decided change from inside isn’t coming fast enough. The result: the “MLA Subconference,” organized with the chief aim of confronting loudly and bluntly, the very real problems crippling higher education today, from the adjunct labor crisis to ballooning student tuition. The subconference “shadows” MLA by being held in the same city, one day before the established convention begins. And its “sub” also comes in its total subversion of the MLA paradigm: While attendance at MLA requires shelling out at least $75–$300 in membership and registration fees, and its social highlights all include extortionate cash bars, the subconference is free and open to all, including food and drink.*

Instead of esoteric panels about revolutionary impulses in literature, the subconference’s roundtable discussions seek to start an actual revolution (if only in the way marginalized scholars think about themselves), employing what participant Lucia Pawlowski, an assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, refers to as “militant research,” which she describes as “the practice of bringing to the surface and mapping out information that someone is trying to hide from you—information that can provide the essential tools you need to organize.” Indeed, instead of the academy’s “tendency to promote individual merit as the primary source of success or failure,” as the subconference’s promotional materials put it, MLA Sub focuses on organizing and collective action.

Now, is the answer to a largely ineffectual conference really another conference? Someone made cynical by four years of MLA convention trauma (i.e. me) may be skeptical. MLA Subcon, like its preenier older sibling, consists of panels and papers. And although these panels have a more pragmatic bent (“Adjunct Labor and Organizing”!), they’re still panels. It will still be four scholars yapping to an audience of like-minded brainiacs, followed by a civil Q&A and a catered lunch (although, as I said, it’s a free catered lunch, which is important).

Indeed, as with any shindig put on by the idealistic, the goals of the MLA Subconference are lofty. Co-organizer Lenora Hanson, a graduate student in English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, tells me that for scholars working on the margins MLA can be a “disempowering and defeatist environment,” one structured “by competition and false meritocracy.” Sounds about right to me. The subconference is meant to create a safe “alternative space,” as Hanson puts it, and an opportunity, according to Pawlowski, to do more than wring hands. “When you establish a space outside something,” she tells me, “there is a lot more potential for building projects rather than just critiquing it.”

More potential, yes—but will that translate into more action? My four years of traumatizing MLA experiences mean I’ll be as far away as possible from Chicago next week, but as I sun myself on a California beach, I’ll be wondering: Can the subconference harness its attendees’ very real and raw feelings of disconnectedness and disaffectedness into real change in the profession? What will make the hand-wringers of the MLA actually begin treating the adjuncts in their departments differently—walking the picket line with them, if it comes to that? The 1.4 million contingent faculty in the United States need a massive overthrow of the status quo, and one “shadow conference” isn’t going to do it, no matter how spirited its organizers are.

But you know what the subconference can do? Make those comfortably entrenched in the profession very, very uncomfortable. That’s a goal shared by Marc Bousquet, tenured Emory professor, author of How the University Works, and veritable superstar of the academic rabble-rousing circuit. The subconference, he says, is “a chance for the academic majority to put their issues front and center,” to remind “the profession’s comfortable staff and privileged faculty that a system that works fine for them isn’t working for most faculty, most graduate students, and most undergraduates.”

I’m pretty cynical about the profession. But I am pulling quite hard for the MLA Subconference. I hope that everyone who cares about the future of higher education will attend in earnest (all right, maybe a little bit for the free food). And I hope that both attendees and observers will recognize that while MLA Sub might not bring a million adjuncts out into the street, it will force a more blunt and pressing conversation about the future of higher education—a future that, make no mistake, is rapidly approaching.

Correction, Jan. 3, 2013: This article misstated the low end of fees for the MLA conference. It is $75, not $100. (Return.)