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An MLA Story
January 15, 2014 - 8:48pm

It is late December 2007. I am attending my first MLA Conference in Chicago, with the hopes of finding a job. I have a number of promising interviews lined up, and I am filled with hope. 2007 has been a good year for me (completed and defended the dissertation, had my first child, successfully teaching various classes in a relatively well-paying adjunct position), and the number of interviews I have received is the icing on the cake for me. My husband and daughter have accompanied me, in part for moral support, in part because I am still breastfeeding. My department, even though I am an adjunct, is funding a part of my trip. The rest goes on credit cards, on the seemingly reasonable gamble that I will get a job that will allow me to eventually pay off this trip. An investment, a necessity of the nature of the profession.

We stay at a non-conference hotel, using a new site that gives you a reduced rate, but requiring that you pay in advance. We receive word from the site that our stay may be “disrupted” for vague reasons, and it is too late for us to rebook anywhere else, so we keep our plans as they are. Turns out, the “disruption” consists of striking hotel workers who picket the front of the hotel. It is easy to walk quickly past the strikers, head down against the Chicago winter cold and wind. More disruptive is my daughter who is confused by the time change and cold weather, causing me to stay up all night before my day with two job interviews.

While the MLA interviews were not successful, I was offered a tenure-track job that academic job cycle. We packed up and moved across the country, on our own dime, with the hopes of starting my academic career, proving stability for my growing family (I was pregnant again) and the career I had been dreaming of for year. I literally never gave those striking hotel workers another thought.

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I am now on the tenure-track, having moved across the country, my husband quitting his job, and two months in, I have yet to be paid. I am not an official employee of the university, so I am also uninsured and pregnant. Our credit cards are maxed out from our move and the MLA trip and the other conferences I attend, all the things I am told I need to do to be an academic. I pray every day that my daughter doesn’t get sick, that nothing goes wrong with the pregnancy. I talk to our faculty union who are essentially powerless in the face of the bureaucracy. Don’t worry, I’m told, you’ll get paid eventually. I do, but the interest rates keep compounding, and I gain an alarming amount of weight during the pregnancy, in part, I am sure, because of the stress.

But even once I get paid, the tenure-track job is a disappointment. I learn first-hand how service departments like English are forced to “do more with less” as our overloaded Freshman Writing courses now have the additional burden of our school accreditation hopes, expressed through new and onerous assessment requirements that we had no say in creating. My veteran colleagues were as blind-sided as I was when it was announced at the faculty convocation that English was now the “cornerstone” of our new assessment plan. Then there was the meeting with the (male from the sciences) director of the assessment committee who berated my department (large, mostly female) for being unable to come up with a ready list of things we need, even when we told him that we didn’t need more things, we needed more people: people to teach, people to help assess, people to help administer. Well, that was impossible, he said, but I can get you just about anything else. How about a new photocopier?

When my husband was offered a relatively better tenure-track job in an even more geographically isolated area, we looked at all of our options (including living apart) and decided to go further into debt and move again. At least this time, we started getting paid on time, but the position that was promised me didn’t materialize, but would I agree to teach a course or two for $2000? We were in debt and living on one not-so-great salary. My student loans were calling. We couldn’t afford childcare. We were in a new place where we knew no one. I did it, and it took its toll on the family, trying to make ends meet, as well as my husband’s demanding job. So I refused for the next semester. And now I was unemployed, too. 

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I have worked very hard on keeping up my research during this time. I study Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière.  I read his book, La Chair du Maitre (roughly translated as The Master’s Flesh), which takes place in Port-au-Prince during Bébé Doc’s reign. It is a group of interconnected short-stories of people trying live and survive during this time, as well as the people from the North who come down to visit this place looking for “paradise.” It was well-received, but largely forgotten. Myself, I remember reading the book, enjoying it, but remember nothing particular of it.

Later, some of the stories (the ones that focus on older, wealthier white women coming to Haiti to find sexual satisfaction) are turned into a movie, and Laferriere rewrites the book, shifting the focus (Vers le Sud/Heading South). The cover is now the face of an older white woman, and the back of a young black man. I am fascinated in the shift in the critical reception, with people now writing essay upon essay about the book that was ignored earlier. I am researching his rewriting, and start reading critical studies that include his work in larger pieces on people who work at resorts and hotels, the emotional labor that is demanded of them. I know that the racial politics are not the same, but the theorizing of emotional labor speaks to me as a contingent faculty member, awakening in me a kind of internal solidarity. Although I still don’t remember ignoring the hotel workers on strike, I am a lot nicer to the staff when I stay at a hotel.

Not much, I know. Problematic, agreed. But it is something that perhaps I might have only learned through literature. All analogies are imperfect. So I learn it imperfectly, as much learning happens.

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We come now to the MLA in Chicago, this time in 2014. I arrive late on the first day of the conference, not because I couldn’t afford the extra night at a hotel, but because it was my son’s birthday, a birthday that I have missed in previous years because of conferences or other post-Christmas travel. This year, the timing works, and so I stay home to celebrate with my family. And instead of going straight to the conference, I attend the final panel of the MLA Subconference. As one of the speakers talks about our divided selves as educators, I feel it acutely in that moment: wanting to be at this panel, while also wanting to be at my colleague’s “academic” panels at the main conference; wishing I could have attended the entire subconference, but also not wanting to miss my son’s birthday, again.

We heard about the work done to organize and unionize food service workers, in part in university cafeterias, how one worker was fired for his work, but the organization he was working with found his another job. Who would find adjuncts other jobs if we were fired (let go, terminated, choose your euphemism)? How do adjuncts organize when we don’t work in the same physical space, at the same time, rarely, if ever? How do we create a community on-the-ground, as well as allies, that will allow us to fight for better work conditions and pay? And can we create solidarity with other low-paid workers on our campus and community, working together for meaningful change?

After the panel, which took place near the hotel that I stayed 2007, I walked past the hotel with someone on the panel. We had a drink at the bar there. I mentioned the fact that I had stayed there all those years ago, and suddenly the memory of the striking workers came rushing back to me. I was too ashamed of myself to mention that fact, sitting with a tireless advocate for workers rights that I had been so indifferent towards that year, and in many years that followed. Me, who would not think to empathize with hotel service workers had it not been for a rewritten novel. Me, who later will be called a “rock star” for contingent faculty issues. Me. My divided self.

Our divided selves. We are more like other low-wage workers, but we have trouble seeing this because our privilege and education tells us we are different, for better and for worse. So when few came to the panel on part-time faculty, I understand. I get the anger geared towards me for the tweet, and I get the anger that was placed back to those who were angry at me. People weren’t at the MLA to talk about these issues, they were at the MLA to meet with friends, get a job, learn about what’s going on in their field, share their work and research, get feedback, and get away from their own individual challenges that are taking place on the ground at their university. Contingent and part-time faculty issues? Not on the agenda, not on their radar, not by choice

I tell this entire story here because it has taken me years, since even before that day in 2007, to get to where I am now, here, in my advocacy and action, no matter how small or limited it might be or seem. From the feedback and support I’ve received online and in person over the past week, I know that what I am doing matters. What more can be done? And what’s stopping me, or us? That’s something I want to explore in some posts here in this space. But for me, it started in Chicago, although I didn’t know it then.

Maybe these posts will be a start for you.

 

 

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