I’m writing this on Inauguration Day. Although I missed hearing the speech live, I did catch a stream of it a little later on, and I was struck by how, in a relatively short speech, the President managed to remind us of the needs of those who have too often been left out of “we, the people” — women who do not earn equal pay, homosexuals who do not enjoy equal rights, immigrants who are not afforded equal protection. It was a liberal speech in the best sense of the word, a speech open to possibility and progress, and while I could, as always, wish it had gone farther, I was glad I had a chance to read and hear it.
It reminded me of another presidential speech that I missed earlier this month — Michael Bérubé’s presidential address at the MLA. The president of the MLA does not, of course, command such a bully pulpit as the President of the United States, and I’m sure we’re all glad that the Modern Language Association is not the Commander in Chief. Usually my attitude towards the MLA is, in fact, one of grudging acceptance — I prefer their citation standard to others, I’m glad they publish a job list, and I’m especially glad when I don’t have to go to the convention, which has too often interrupted my winter break.
So when, some weeks later, I read Michael Bérubé’s address, I was surprised to find myself almost sorry (but only almost) to have missed the convention. (Let’s face it: even if I’d been there I might have missed the speech, just as even if I’d been in Washington today it’s unlikely I’d have heard the address in person.) I found the speech liberal in the best sense, too — generous, open, and of course characteristic of the liberal arts, as it should be. In his speech Bérubé takes us on a sort of circular journey, through his sojourns in Washington for various lobbying efforts—including, most depressingly, Humanities Advocacy Day — through his adolescent love of reading (which included, to my very great pleasure, several wonderful children’s and Young Adult novels), into a discussion of the pleasure and utility of the professional study of the humanities and back to where he started, which is with working conditions for adjunct faculty members.
I mention this in relation to today’s Inaugural Address because I was struck by the way both men used their privilege to speak of and for those with less of it. And to focus on the way that those who may look or sound like them — who may be, for example, college faculty members, who may be African American or white or educated or professional — may still be missing some basic privileges that others, seemingly in the same position, enjoy. Contingent faculty members, GLBT Americans, immigrants, women — many of these people may look as if they belong (although they may also not). But there are insidious ways in which they are reminded from day to day that they do not belong, there are legal and illegal ways in which they are discriminated against — and both of these addresses remind us that there is still work to be done.
There is still work to be done, as President Obama’s speech reminded us, to alleviate abject poverty, global warming, and violence, as well. But sometimes on college campuses we forget that we are not all equally privileged, even among the ranks of the faculty. Contingent faculty — and I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have had only one year of part-time work before attaining my current position — deserve better pay, better benefits, and the respect that we afford any faculty member. Thank you, Mr. President, for reminding us — and for working so hard for our colleagues.