On Using Digital Words, Creating Communities
A draft of my upcoming MLA talk for the roundtable, Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia.
This is a draft of my talk for the “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia” roundtable (Friday, 10 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., Erie, Sheraton Chicago). I will also be speaking at the “Making Digital Counterpublics” roundtable (Saturday, 11 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Arkansas, Sheraton Chicago). I have also been elected to serve on the executive for the discussion group for Part-Time Faculty. Because of a last minute cancelation, I’m stepping in to talk about social media during the Defining the Moment, Defining the Momentum: Perspectives on the Language of Employment Status roundtable (Saturday, 11 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., Indiana-Iowa, Chicago Marriott). I hope to see some of you in Chicago!
We are, the participants at the MLA, lovers of words. Words from scores of different languages, expressed in different styles, wielded in a myriad of ways. Words that inspire, words that provoke, words that expose our vulnerability, but also words that weave us together in ways that can empower us.
My original title was how we could band together in the face of the coming apocalypse, but really, it is already here, we are already in it, living it, dealing with it. Words, in many cases, have failed us, not because we haven't used the words, but because they have, it seems, made no difference. My argument here today is that words *have* in fact made a difference.
It is difficult for me to talk about this history with any sort of objectivity, because I have been, in varying degrees, involved in its making. To be able to speak here, to you, today, at the MLA, is a testament to that. This history is as much a personal one as it is one of not just a discipline, but of higher education more generally.
I started my PhD in Comparative Literature in 2001. I had been contributed to friend's website, a blog before we knew it was a blog, but was...strongly advised to give it up, lest I appear unserious as a scholar and academic. There wasn't much out there for a graduate student to read; some anonymous first-person job stories that appeared in the Chronicle and, of course, William Pannapacker, who was known then as Thomas H. Benton. I didn't know anyone else who read him, and while I think we all did, no one would admit it. I unfortunately didn’t know about The Invisible Adjunct blog, and if any of my peers were reading it, they weren’t saying so publicly. Blogs were still verboten; Pannapacker got a pass because he wrote for the “legitimate” outlet, CHE. When his piece, "So You Want To Go To Grad School" came out in 2003, our department had been dismantled, and I was beginning to see the light in his writing. The comments, however, were rarely so kind. Here was someone speaking out, and few wanted to listen, or admit out loud that he was right.
I left a tenure-track job in 2009, moving across the country so my husband could accept a better one of his own. I was disillusioned, frustrated, and fed up. We had done everything "right": accepted positions "anywhere", published, gone to prestigious conferences, etc. And we were broke, having to pay for most of our expenses for these "right" decisions on our own. That year, I still went to the MLA, but someone, more importantly, did not. Brian Croxall's piece, "The Absent Presence" was a significant moment. Many of us saw ourselves in Brian's words, his absence certainly more significant than if he had been there. Many of us were inspired and emboldened by his candid and brave words.
When I really got online in early 2010, I found other who had been speaking out, writing and writing and writing about the things that I (and certainly many others) had been thinking, feeling, noting silently, apart from one another, too afraid of ruining our fleeting chances at a tenure-track job. Mark Bousquet's concept of psychic wages within higher education, along with is blog at How The University Works and the old Brainstorm blog at IHE pushed me to think about the reasons why smart, motivated people like me would agree to abject working conditions. And there were the ones who were speaking up, as themselves, about leaving academia. Amanda Krauss, aka Worst Professor Ever, now Tech in Translation, wrote passionately about why she left her tenured position in philosophy, as herself, as did Audrey Watters and others. But there were few, if any adjuncts writing under their own names, speaking out against what was happening in higher education. And who could blame them? The comments on CHE and elsewhere for posts about the realities facing modern academia were just as bad as they had always been. "Henry Adams," another writer for CHE, chose to keep his anonymity for that reason, among others.
In 2009, my blog moved to Insidehighered. I got into an argument with then-incoming president Michael Bérubé about the priorities of the MLA (I thought it should be adjuncts; he thought it should be academic freedom. I argued that one is a direct result of the other and he, apparently, agreed). This, I saw, was the power of being a part of something, not just the conversation, but part of a community of people who supported me, and I supported them in return.
That was December 2011.
In January 2012, I was invited to attend the first New Faculty Majority Summit, along with Brian Croxall, Josh Boldt, John A Casey Jr., and others to provide social media coverage for the event devoted to adjunct faculty issues. After the conference, we all got together and talked about what concrete things we could really do to help adjuncts, immediately, given our experience with social media. We knew that most adjuncts were still afraid, and needed a safe place to speak out, get support, and know that they were not alone. We also struggled with the question of getting accurate information and then disseminating it. Many of us were involved in local, grass-roots efforts to improve the conditions of adjuncts and other non-TT faculty where we lived and worked, but how could we connect our efforts, our collective numbers and strength? Soon after that conference, Josh launched The Adjunct Project, and the rest is history. The response was overwhelming. We now had data on working conditions and salaries from the people who knew best: the adjuncts themselves. And allowing people to submit anonymously in a simple Google Document was perfect. There was clearly an appetite for this kind of work, and Josh came up with an idea to harness it.
Fast-forward one year. At the invitation of now-President Bérubé, Josh and others were invited to speak at the MLA about their work and issues facing contingent faculty. Almost at the same time, Occupy MLA was preparing to reveal themselves as being an elaborate piece of Netprov, one that I had found myself fairly heavily involved in. It had started in 2011, in the time leading up to that year's MLA, claiming to be a group Twitter account made up of anonymous and disgruntled graduate students and adjuncts. They faded away and then were revived in time for the 2013 MLA. Their anger and frustration were palpable, their situations so familiar, which is perhaps why so many people, myself included, believed it to be real. Or maybe I just wanted it to be real. How easy it was to RT their more incendiary statements, hiding behind their handle, rather than have the words appear by my face, by our faces. I was personally devastated to learn that it was, in the end, a hoax.
Except of course for the conversations that followed. Was this, really, the best we could do when I came to protesting the systemic treatment of adjuncts and graduate students, particularly those of us whose disciplines were included under the Modern Languages umbrella? If there is one thing that I have noticed in the aftermath, it's that more adjuncts are speaking up and speaking out, as themselves. We are writing our realities into the conversation, as ourselves, speaking for ourselves. We also support one another, and do our best to protect one another, too.
This year continues to be a watershed year for the issues of adjuncts, for better and for worse. It was the year of Thesis Hatement and the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko. Rebecca Schuman is not the first person to pen a venom-filled "I Quit" piece, nor was Margaret Mary the first to die from being an adjunct, but they both received national attention, along with the expected backlash. But neither woman went away quietly. And generations of aspiring academics, graduate students, and adjuncts, found their voices. And when the story of UCR and the last-minute job interview notifications broke, the comment tide had turned; most of the comments rightfully criticized the English department and supported Schuman (I don't think Tenured Radical ever saw it coming). A crowdsourcing campaign (there is still time to give!) was started to help fund those graduate students and adjuncts that may have been called at the last moment to interview.
I've watched and I've participated in this happening. I've become a small part of this larger community of adjuncts who are struggling with the decision to stay or go, to survive, to suffer, and everything in between. I have seen the shift, the change in the conversation, as more and more adjuncts have spoken out, and more and more tenured faculty have started to listen. This is a brief and incomplete, wholly biased history. But it is important to note, to study, for those of us who study the stuff of words. We have yet to change the system, but I know we have changed individual lives and individual minds for the better. With words, though community.
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