Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Early Thirsty: A Penny at the MLA?

Q. Anybody else headed to the MLA?  And, if so, are you planning to wear a penny in your badge (the sign of support for the Occupy MLA movement)?

I have to admit, I'm a bit torn.   I, too, want to "teach as [I] [was] trained," and to be paid decently for it (at least as well as others are paid for more research-oriented jobs, and with equal access to service/governance and tenure).   But I'm not so sure about the rejection of alt-ac careers; after all, taking on work outside the academy is one way to demonstrate the larger applicability of our skills and knowledge, and to bring market forces to bear on the academic hiring pool.   Really, I think alt-ac and reforming the academy should be both/and, not either/or. Finally, to get really petty, they managed to use "past" when they meant "passed," and to include some really stale, cliched language (expressed in sentence fragments, no less) in item #3 of their manifesto platform.  I know rough and ready is the Occupy aesthetic, but we're English proffies, fuhgoodnesssake.  And doesn't point #4, which calls for recognition of outside-of-the-academy experience in job searches, sort of contradict the anti-alt-ac stance?  

Or am I just being an old grump, sniping at the idealistic young'uns who, truth be told, I'm half-afraid will eventually end up with TT jobs that replace my own non-TT one? Am I drinking the kool aid/embracing a false consciousness because there's a part of me that wants to go to panels in areas that interest me and browse the book exhibits and try to envision how I might reinvigorate my own academic career (the reason I originally decided to go this year, even though I am not (yet) on the market, and even though, truth be told, I can't imagine how I'll manage to fit writing a book -- which I can now envision --  in among the obligations of my 4/4/2-plus-freelance-work-to-pay-the-bills load)?  Besides, what do you want to bet that pretty much everybody sticks a penny in their badges in "solidarity" and then goes back to business as usual?

This is either going to be very interesting, or very depressing.  Or, quite possibly, both.  Any and all pre-MLA thoughts (or specific answers to the question above, or whatever) welcome below.


  1. What is the alt-ac issue? I've never heard of that.

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    2. alt-ac, in my experience, refers to alternative careers for academics/people with Ph.D.s, perhaps especially but not exclusively careers in the digital humanities. Some involve full-time non-tenure-track non-teaching work within the academy; some involve work for mostly nonprofit/government entities outside the academy (libraries, historical societies, museums, archives, etc.).

      It's probably mostly a humanities term (I've never heard working as a researcher for the NIH, for instance, referred to as "alt-ac," though the principle would be similar). The controversy is not so much over whether Ph.D.s should take such jobs, as over whether grad programs and others (e.g. the MLA and the Mellon Foundation, which was an early proponent of "alternative careers" for Ph.D.s, not long after it gave up predicting a shortage of Ph.D.s in the '90s, and sending a bunch of us to grad school on that basis) should spend as much time and energy as they do promoting the idea, in part with what many of us perceive as the ulterior, perhaps unconscious, motive of justifying the continued existence of the present number of Ph.D. programs. The alternatives would either be to convert a bunch of adjunct jobs to full-time, teaching-intensive, preferably TT ones (a la an AAUP proposal of a few years ago, which I support, but doubt is going to be carried out anywhere in my professional lifetime), or to severely cut (probably eliminate) a bunch of Ph.D. programs. The latter is probably the more feasible solution, since it would not only diminish the number of new Ph.D.s, but would also require finding another way to staff the classes grad students have traditionally taught or TA'd, and free up faculty who have been teaching grad classes to do just that (or, more likely, to begin some sort of domino-effect process in which everybody's teaching loads changed). The latter would be very painful, especially for tenured/TT faculty who have worked hard to get jobs in departments with Ph.D. programs, and to build and/or maintain those programs. And there's a real argument that it would diminish the diversity (class as much/more than racial/ethnic) of the Ph.D. pool. But, at least from my non-TT perspective, it increasingly seems like decreasing the number of Ph.D.s while moving more full-time, TT faculty back to focusing on undergrad teaching (and holding the line on doing that well, mostly in small classes taught by people who are full integrated into their institutions through, at a minimum, full-time relatively-secure jobs that involve service as well as teaching) is the way to go.

      Of course, any such change would have to be made/agreed to by tenured faculty (or at least I hope so; the other possibility is the sort of wholesale elimination/restructuring of departments/programs that we're already seeing). Of course, tenured/TT faculty have a very strong interest in resisting such change, at least at their own institutions. The only decision people not on the TT have fully within their own power is to leave the academy, or at least the adjunct teaching ranks -- or, in other words, to go the alt-ac route (or enter the business world; I'm not sure whether that's seen as alt-ac or not; it would probably depend whom you asked). So, I guess I'd say that while I support adjuncts, grad students, recent Ph.D.s etc. encouraging and mentoring each other onto the alt-ac track (with, however, an awareness that some of those jobs are none too secure or well-paid), I do understand Occupy MLA's suspicion of "official" endorsements/encouragements of alt-ac. It's a tricky balance.

    3. Very nice summary of alt-ac, Cassandra: accurate and concisely put despite the complexity of the issue. I also think you're right to see it as part of the realm of humanists, as most STEM fields have fairly clear, socially recognized opportunities to apply knowledge gained through grad degrees outside the confines of the academy. As for the humanities...we're working on it. (Slowly.)

      Best of luck to you & all others girding their loins for a run at the MLA. Never been there myself, and I hope never to feel compelled to go. COURAGE!

    4. From your description, it seems that schools and funding organizations should continue focusing on alt-ac regardless of what happens at the department level. If schools continue to pump out too many PhD students, they'll need more jobs than academia could provide. If academia cuts the number of grad programs, then current adjuncts and non-TT faculty will be looking for work outside of academia. The only scenario that would not involve alt-ac would be for schools to make adjunct and non-TT faculty permanent TT positions. That's simply not going to happen.

  2. I won't be at MLA. I can only offer best wishes to those who will be.

  3. Your post hits very close to home,Cassandra. I just joined a job board and sent out two applications for jobs that have nothing to do with academia that I can do as part time, telecommuting gigs.

    I feel I have to at least go through the motions, I signed contracts for the upcoming semester....but even if I don't get into Ph.D. school in the fall, I may just throw the whole damn program out and start over.

    I don't want to be without health insurance, nor do I want to be scrambling constantly to make ends meet. Since I have time over the next 5 months, I am going to try to start my own business, selling artwork and crafts on eBay. And forget the bloody academic articles I had planned--I think my novel would be more of a money maker as a $2 download on Amazon!

    Seriously, I don't want to sit in adjunct hell forever---I feel like I'm missing out on life!

  4. Academics are, by and large, cowards. No one with anything to gain or lose will be sporting a penny. No one.

    My qualms with the manifesto are as follows:

    #2, The prioritizing of internal candidates should not be policy but should depend on the institution and the position.

    #3...well I'm sorry but the question of a "stale Ph.D." is relative. Depends on how stale, and depends on how much the candidate has kept up with their research. A candidate for an R1 job with an eight-year-old degree and a smattering of semi-related publications does indeed have a "stale" Ph.D. If that same candidate had been publishing seriously in their area and obviously had kept up with current research, that's different.

    #4, which indicates that "outside work experience should be given the same kind of respect as academic experience on the job market" is fucking moronic. Our candidates need experience teaching college students, and experience as productive members of English departments. I'm not granting equal respect to other work experience. Period.

    I know the people that wrote this. Not literally, of course. But I know them. They added up all the shit that bothers them about their personal situations and are attempting to turn it into a rallying cry. I would be more sympathetic if some of this stuff weren't so fucking self-serving.

    Because a lot of what their saying definitely is not in the self-interest of new Ph.D.s, who have not been adjuncting, and who don't want internal candidates prioritized, and who don't have Ph.D.s that could in any way be determined as "stale".

    The economy fucked over these people that wrote their manifesto, and they lost their place in "line". They don't like that. I sympathize, but their perspective is not one that universally benefits all job candidates. It benefits them personally, and their peers who were crunched in the recession. They don't think it's fair that newer candidates might get the advantage.

    Again, I think this whole thing is self-serving, because I'm willing to bet that if these same people were the newly-minted Ph.D.s, they'd be saying "tough titties" to those in the recessional crunch, and they'd be perfectly happy to take a job over an internal candidate.

    1. Everybody wants May `68, Prazske jaro, 1917, sort of thing to happen because America is stuck in a dead decade....maybe it will happen, or maybe OWS was our 1905 and we have to wait for the "real deal" to happen later.

      While we are hanging on, here's Kin-Dza-Dza:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I47CNxwlt9U (part 1)

      And Chris Marker's "Grin Without a Cat":

      (It's in little 9 minute chunks, sorry.)

    2. Hmm, your number four is ... interesting.

      I've never come in contact with a professor who found my non-academic work experience impressive. They never worked themselves outside of academia--so how could they understand what it takes to be successful in non-academic endeavors? I did a lot of interesting, ambitious things outside of grad school, but I leave them off my CV because I've been assured that the stuff is absolutely foreign to people who have spent their entire lives in a university setting.

      It's sometimes very alienating that people within academia have absolutely no respect for non-academic work experience, especially when much of that experience is transferrable and extremely challenging (securing grants, for instance).

      It's also interesting that academics want the private sector to recognize their skills--public speaking, managing people, writing, blah blah blah. However, apparently they are unwilling to extend the same courtesy to those of us who worked in the private sector for various reasons. And that's disappointing indeed.

    3. I have plenty of respect for non-academic work experience. But it's nowhere near as important as university experience teaching and researching. I think it's certainly relevant with regard to committee work. Do you think when considering a candidate for a teaching job, that it's reasonable to equate five years of work in the private sector, and little teaching and research experience, with five years of full-time teaching and research? Who would think that?

      I am not in a grant-heavy discipline so that doesn't cut much ice, unless the position is administrative and requires grant writing ability.

      And I don't expect the private sector to equate my skills with the skills of another job candidate with more precise experience. I don't expect to be extended any courtesy whatsoever.

      Once upon a time, I didn't get tenure. Until I found my present job at the last minute, my plan was to go to a big city and work as a temp. Start at absolutely the bottom, and expect that my skills would be recognized and I'd be advanced accordingly. I certainly didn't expect to waltz in and get some big job in the private sector on the basis of my English Ph.D. and years of teaching.

    4. Hmm. I see PhDs waltz into TT teaching positions all the time without extensive teaching experience. Many programs in my field require people to teach only four quarters throughout their entire graduate careers. These people still manage to get teaching positions. At least in my field, teaching experience does not seem to be valued heavily. As long as you've done some, you're in the same pool with the other applicants who have done bunches.

      So why *not* consider people with non-academic experience for the same positions? As long as they have *some* teaching experience, and a solid reserach record, I don't understand why their experience should be brushed aside.

      I would never, ever dream of penalizing someone who worked in the non-academic sector for five years rather than starving it out for the same amount of time as an adjunct.

      Once upon a time, I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree. I did move to a big city, work at a low-paid job, and work my way up from basically nothing. And now I am in the position to advise students who are looking for work in tough economic times with the same degree. They bring me their resumes for feedback, and I tell them about my own job search and experience. I don't know if it's much help to them--I'm not dumb enough to think that anyone's ever gotten a job because of my advice. But I actually think it's useful for students to have teachers who were in the same position that they're in, who made the transition from academia to other sectors, and back to academia again.

    5. "So why *not* consider people with non-academic experience for the same positions? As long as they have *some* teaching experience, and a solid reserach record, I don't understand why their experience should be brushed aside."

      Maybe some search-committees have this as an explicit policy, but even if they don't, even in a field as specific as my own (Miniature Albino left-handed Hampster Fur Milkshakes), in any given search we can lop off anyone without teaching-experience and *still* have a pool that we would have to further reduce.

      You might say "But what about the unique and interesting perspective brought by the life-experience of those from outside the traditional track?"; and I would say it doesn't automatically stand above the unique and interesting perspectives brought to the table by those WITH teaching experience.

      Short of in-depth interviews with EVERY candidate who sends in a resume, you establish your job-description, set forth your minimum criteria, and then winnow down the resulting pool of candidates. Sometimes you wind up with THREE finalists who would EACH be excellent colleagues, with publications and tenure-track teaching-experience, who are well-known in the field. In such a situation, why would a search-committee or department jettison one of those candidates in favor of someone without teaching experience? For a job where their primary responsibility will be teaching?

  5. You want an interesting experience at the MLA? Fold up at dollar bill in your badge and proclaim that you are the 1%. That's what helps you create memories.

  6. I'm going to jump in to this discussion. While I don't agree with the entire Occupy MLA manifesto, I do believe there are some valid points.

    Of personal concern is the two tier system that is emerging in academia: those who land a TT job and those who adjunct. While I appreciate that TT jobs have more out-of-class responsibilities, I am also deeply concerned by the feminization of the teaching aspect of the profession and the huge pay disparity between adjunct pay and TT pay. I have personally experienced the pressure to attend and participate in department functions that were essentially unpaid, uncompensated time. I was told in so many words "no attendance, no contract," which eventually was softened when I mentioned that I had read my contract and there was no language compelling me to attend.

    Many graduate students are told "If you don't get a TT position, then you have failed." Frankly, many TT professors have no idea what alt-ac careers are available or how to prepare someone to search for employment outside of academe. Other PhD holders face prejudice in hiring. I was once told, "Well, why would you want to work here? There's a university down the street." Yes, university down the street existed, but was not hiring in my field and I did not have enough administrative/secretarial experience to be competitive for the position that was open that was off the tenure track.

    Occupy MLA is to raise awareness. If you don't have access to the Job Information List, you can buy it, sure. But when you're making $2000 per course and maybe getting one or two courses, those "access fees" really start racking up. MLA charges the same for unemployed members through members making $50,000 a year. That's quite a disparity. Someone who qualifies for food stamps is expected to pay membership AND job information list access fees the same as someone who is lower middle class. Is this truly fair?

    I've spent a lot of time looking for work since my contract position ended and I was not rehired. I saw it coming, so I took the opportunity to move in with my partner. I got lied to about what a non-contract, adjunct position would be like. It was a rude awakening.

    If I could afford to go to MLA, I would absolutely have a penny in a badge. It would go nicely with the chip on my shoulder.

    1. I think that charging unemployed members the regular membership fees and especially fees to access job listings is pretty cold hearted. I think the national chemistry organization, ACS, has a reduced set of fees for unemployed members but I'm not sure how they verify that.

    2. I was mistaken. There are differential fees for different incomes; however, these fees do not adjust for cost of living. So, an adjunct making $30,000 in New York City pays the same as an adjunct in the Midwest. Still, it's expensive having to come up with membership dues + access to the Job Information List, if your graduate institution does not let you stay on the roster to use their access.

      Mea culpa, as usual.

  7. Strangely enough, my panel was posted on the "Occupy MLA Guide" which directs occupy MLA'ers which panels to best invest their "temporal capital." I say strangely, because my presentation is pretty myopically invesested in the literary (i. e. seems not to be directly related to the occupy manifesto). However, I am merely a graduate student and am grateful for the publicity. Also, I am not on the job market yet; I have enough existential horrors per semester that I keep my focus on what I can do in the present. Also: I am scared shitless of the job market, and I think charging fees to access the listing will cause a student such as myself undue hardship.

  8. I'm going to the equivalent conference in my field. There is so far as I know no equivalent movement there; but I am not a member of my field's organization, because it costs too bloody much, so I'm not getting the emails. We have all the same problems though, for sure. I have a lot of sympathy with PhDs who have been thrown out of the market because they graduated in the wrong year, and that is absolutely happening. We all know about the job ad from this fall that stated plainly "no PhDs granted before 2008"; it doesn't matter to that institution whether the applicants have kept up with their discipline or not.