Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice!

This one is short and sweet... but covers some important issues in higher ed.
~Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:

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

Unsolicited Advice:


This article suggests that a shadow conference at the MLA that allows for free entry, free food and drink, and the free expression of ideas will somehow affect the real conference going on next door in Chicago's MLA conference. That somehow this Slamdance will affect Sundance's staid rules and guidelines.

It will be a lot of grad students and fearful recent PhDs eating as much as they can before returning to the line of silverbacks waiting to interview them back at the real conference.

It will be the group of Occupy Protesters before they go back to school, work, or mom and dad's house.

It will be the Sundance audience that sneaks away to Slamdance before returning to nominate Sundance movies for an Oscar.

So: no.


(Even if I wish they could, even as much as I wish Occupy were more of a force, even as I enjoyed myself at Slamdance that once year I scored tickets to it through my better-connected brother)


  1. Those most intimately involved in the MLA would do well to pay attention to the Subconference, for the same reason that many people read Schuman's article. If the article and the Subconference didn't matter, then people would completely ignore them. But people do pay attention, largely because they're afraid. Many people want to hedge their bets, because they see that even maestros are jumping ship. Higher education in 2023 will be quite different from what it was in 2003.

    Things do change. Fifty years ago, the national champion college football team had no black players. Not only did it not have any black players, but the most powerful people were saying "over my dead body" would there ever be black players. Now the majority of the players on that team are black and the coach is black. And he's paid $5,000,000 per year more than most people who read CM.

    Things will change, indeed. Whether or not the Subconference (or Schuman's article) is the cause or the effect of the change, who knows?

    1. Agreed, but I think I'd like this example/analogy better if we were talking about African Americans in named chairs at institutions that wouldn't have admitted their grandfathers (well, their African-American grandfathers; I'm not talking about the Thurmond family). I'm not sure being a football player these days is much of a prize (though being a coach is, admittedly, lucrative). The dream of being a pro athlete (even for many pro athletes) strikes me as more a tool of oppression (albeit perhaps an accidental one). Or maybe I've just been spending to much time reading University Diaries

  2. I wouldn't give a simple "no" here so readily, Monkey. The winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is the largest annual meeting of professional astronomers on Earth. Typically, 2000-3000 people attend. This is impressive, since there are only about 7000 professional astronomers in the U.S., with a comparable number in Europe and maybe half as many elsewhere, mostly in Asia. (Hookups at AAS meetings are a bad idea: it leads to inbreeding, idiot children, and more astronomers, as if the planet needed them.)

    In the '90s, the AAS didn't do a great job of accommodating vegetarians at the conference banquet. How expensive the banquets were getting was annoying many people. The banquet at the 1995 meeting was particularly bad. It was held at Old Tucson, a movie set for making Western movies, outside of Tucson, Arizona. They charged $50 for a buffet consisting of those old cowboy favorites: ribs, bacon, biscuits, and beans. (No "Blazing Saddles" jokes, Bubba.)

    A good friend who is a vegetarian (and now works for NASA) decided he was tired of going to the banquet and getting only a salad, or less. He started e-mailing other friends, pointing out that for $50, a person could get a pretty good meal in town. So, he wrote, at the next winter AAS meeting, why don't we organize an alternative banquet?

    Out of the blue, he got unsolicited e-mail from the Executive Office of the AAS. It had a surprisingly stern tone, pointing out that the banquet was for solidarity among AAS members, and decrying the damage that splinter groups could cause, etc.

    That put us rabble-rousers in our place. With our tails between our legs, we did attend the banquet at the next winter meeting of the AAS, which was held in San Antonio. To our delight, they served a Mexican buffet---from which, a vegetarian could assemble a pretty good meal, we had to admit.

  3. I didn't mean to suggest that counter-movements are not going to achieve anything. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to suggest that holding up a towel is no way to prevent a wave from crashing on a shore.

    I just think this alternative conference is too little and too isolated to solve the enormous structural problems facing academia today. The very real problems they identify do not come from a single centralize power. Rather, it is the combination of external forces, independent institutions, a strangle-hold market, and the idea of viewing the student-as-customer. There are so many more influences causing the problems they highlight in academia today, that one single counter-cultural conferences will not "change the higher ed world."

    I'm glad to see the conversation happening, though, which is why I posted it here.

  4. I, too, am glad to see the alternative conference happening, and especially grateful for Marc Bousquet's efforts (while also being aware that Schuman's rather extreme approach helps make him seem more reasonable and middle-of-the-road; it takes all kinds to make a movement). Whether it will make a difference, I don't know. I suspect that MLA disciplines will move toward Skype rather than convention interviews in the near future, and that that, in turn, will require some rethinking/remaking of the conference (because fewer people will come), but I'm not sure any of that will get at the root of the problem. Among other things, I'm mindful that MLA/ADE guidelines for treatment of adjuncts, and for course loads for teachers of writing-intensive classes, have been widely honored in the breach for as long as I've been paying attention to them (getting close to 3 decades, as a grad school classmate recently reminded me). The MLA does wield some real power when it comes to the citation style associated with the association's name, but in more substantive matters, I'm afraid it's a toothless tiger (even more so than the AAUP). Still, doing something beats doing nothing (as long as it doesn't persuade a bunch of ABDs and recent Ph.D.s to hang in there and adjunct for a few years, rather than exploring alternative employment).


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