Yesterday, I spoke on two of the panels for the Modern Language Association Convention's series, "The Academy in Hard Times." The first was Marilee Lindemann's panel, "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis." Lindemann types for the excellent Roxie's World blog on academic crises and on culture, and spoke about the use of animation tools and of comedy in getting the word out . Rosemary Feal also spoke. The executive director of the MLA and who, among many other achievements, has brought Twitter to the MLA and tweets as MLAConvention. Marc Bousquet was there, author of How the University Works and a consistently important voice on the economic and labor politics of the profession. He also spoke about new tools for teaching and communicating to the wider world like Xtrannormal, reminding us that So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities? has been watched a million times, or 10 times the number of faculty and graduate students teaching in the US, UK, and Canada combined.
Also speaking was Brian Croxall, prominent tweeter and blogger at ProfHacker and on his own page. Having become nationally known more or less overnight for his explanation -- Absent Presence --of why he couldn't afford to go the MLA convention in 2009 to deliver his paper. Read the post for an excellent overview of the financial plight of a large percentage of jobmarket candidates. , Brian described the features of social networking that make it valuable, and at one point remarked that "Twitter was the best thing that ever happened to my career." "Hard times" in the title means among other things the ongoingly terrible job market in English and foreign languages not to mention History, and the job market continues of course to have a monopoly on access to professional employment. But Brian's comment recalls that online publishing, blogging, and tweeting have destroyed the profession's monopoly over professional visibility.
During questions, an audience member asked a version of Jason B. Jones' blog question, "To what extent [are we social network activists] ironically complicit in worsening the working conditions of academics? Does encouraging work on productivity bespeak an ideology of scientific labor management?" (maybe it was Jason Jones who asked it).This prompted me to give them a one-person round of a applause and say that in fact in the last five years you have transformed the discussion about adjuncting, the job market, the content of the profession, professional passivity in relation to financial decisions, and a whole range of other issues. Has the MLA been more transformed by insurgent views in the blogosphere than by the 1960s revolts that made the MLA more representative if its actual political spectrum than ever before? My guess is yes. Amidst the bleakness this is some very good news. And the news is just beginning.
Next was the MLA's panel "The Academy in Hard Times." Speaking besides myself were Barbara Bowen, head of the Professional Staff Congress, AFT Local 2334; Reed Way Dasenbrock, provost at the Univ. of Hawai‘i, Mānoa; Monica F. Jacobe at Princeton Univ.; Gary Rhoades, American Assn. of Univ. Professors, and Richard Yarborough of the English Department at UCLA. I finally broke down and started using my Twitter account during the session to broadcast not only the good points but the covergence around several themes. Reed and Gary discussed the structural subsidies that unfairly impoverish humanities disciplines while shortchanging undergraduates. Barbara and Monica talked about the parallels between hard times inside and outside the academy, suggesting the relevance of our own efforts to change the economics and employement practices of the academy to the rest of the economy. Michael Bérubé, the panel chair, noted that declining humanities enrollments is a complete myth, and documents it in his MLA blog entry. Richard Yarborough used the ongoing crisis in African American underenrollment at UCLA to call for much more pointed attention to the racial dyanamic underlying the disinvestment in public higher education in California. The decline in share of personal income going to higher ed in California is shocking (it's fallen by half in 20 years), and it coincides exactly with the shift in California's younger population to minority majority status. Gary summarized this by saying universities are ignoring the fastest growing portions of their markets. In discussion, concerns about the anti-intellecualism of the general public and ongoing decline were met with impressively confident calls to do outreach to the huge number of people who care about educational quality, and who don't like workplace exploitation so much either. Polls we've discussed here before suggest these people are in a large majority, and they can be more easily brought into the discussion by the kind of real-time communication now taking place at the MLA and on multiple blogs near year.
I argued on both panels that we need to play to win. In the second, I travelled ahead in time 10 years to offer, "The View from 2020: How Universities Came Back." The piece shows how we learned in the 2000s that a broken American funding model for higher education sent higher ed into a devolutionary cycle, and then how, in the 2010s, three pivotal events turned the spinning wheel around. I've posted the talk here, and will add the slides in between sessions later on.