I was sitting in an audience at an MLA panel on contingent labor, furiously taking notes when I looked over and saw someone else also taking notes, and while we'd never met, I recognized her from Twitter. That person is Amy Lynch-Biniek, and after the panel, I asked if she wanted to write up what she'd seen and heard and what she thought about what she'd seen and heard because she's been more involved in these issues for a longer period of time than me, and I wanted the best person for the job. Her guest post is below. - JW
Avoiding Groundhog Day on Contingent Labor
By Amy Lynch-Biniek
In The Philosophy of Literary Form, Kenneth Burke asks us to understand academic writing as a conversation, one that “had already begun long before” any of the participants arrived:
You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (pp.110-111)
While we are ardent in teaching our students to “listen in” on the conversations surrounding the topics about which they write, conducting library research, interviews, surveys or fieldwork, I suspect we who are also labor activists in higher education are not adequately practicing what we preach. Or, perhaps more accurately, we are listening in to the conversation directly in front of us, unaware of the related discussions just next door.
That’s how I felt, anyway, when I attended the Modern Language Association Conference this month. MLA is still new and slightly mysterious to me -- I first attended in 2017. As a writing teacher, the Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC) has been my primary professional gathering. As a part of its Labor Caucus, I’ve worked alongside a group of both non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty who regularly present, publish or serve with higher ed’s labor problems in mind. We’ve made some material differences in that organization, affecting policy and resources and increasing the visibility of labor issues. We still have much work to do there, but I’m proud of our beginning.
In contrast, I have long imagined MLA as unfriendly territory, where talk of writing and labor is marginalized. And, to be honest, I still (mostly) feel that way after my third outing in January 2019 -- both subjects were significantly in the minority on the program, odd for a conference for English and language professionals, given that most of those working in the field (if not those attending the conference) are NTT and/or teach composition. But I also found a very savvy and productive group of labor-minded folks doing excellent work, as in the early Saturday session I attended, Conditions & Classes of Academic Employment. (You can read my live-tweet of the session here.) There I heard Veronica Popp detail the union drive at Elmhurst College. Jill Robbins represented an administrative perspective, describing the connections among curriculum, innovation and labor conditions at the University of California. Jennifer Ruth of Portland State argued the need to acknowledge the stakes of and get buy-in from all tiers of instructors. Robyn Schiffman described the challenges of adjuncts at Illinois Valley Community College, who make up 44 percent of the faculty.
As I listened, I was struck, first, not only by how important and useful their work is, but also by its familiarity. This was best explained, I think, by Maria Maisto of the New Faculty Majority, who commented during the Q&A. She noted that many of the labor conversations at MLA echo those at conferences like CCCC and CWPA and in professional organizations like NFM and COCAL. In each body, she observed, there is a cycle in advocacy in which we all collect similar data, make the same arguments, create comparable strategies. Were this done in concert, she suggested, we might make more progress overall. Since advocacy work is voluntary, however, every few years we lose leadership and researchers, welcoming new volunteers who must reinvent the wheel. Were our organizations more robust in funding and resourcing advocacy, she argued, we might not lose momentum so often.
Listening to the panel, I began to see that funding and the nature of volunteerism aren’t the only obstacles. Specifically, I was struck that I had never encountered the speakers’ work before, especially after I googled them and saw histories of advocacy. I’ve made the intersections of labor and pedagogy my scholarly and service agenda for 15 years, and I was ignorant. This is, to be clear, my own failing, rather than a comment on the reach of their work. That is, I find that many of us (it’s not just me, right?), aren’t listening in to the labor conversations beyond whatever conferences we call home. For instance, a search of CCCC programs going back five years suggests the panelists have not presented there. And as I mentioned, I’m very new to MLA -- I first attended in order to learn more about the culture of labor activism in the organization, because I had no real sense of it beyond a few statements by recent MLA presidents. Until very recently, I just wasn’t listening. And that goes both ways. Each time I’ve presented at MLA, I’ve received in response some amount of surprise regarding the labor activism that takes place beyond MLA and the AAUP.
My hope is that those of us who claim labor advocacy among our priorities might do better to listen in to the conversations in neighboring rooms, and perhaps do more to share data and integrate efforts. That work is already underway, good examples being the Center for the Study of Academic Labor out of Colorado State and the CWPA Resource Center. Also promising is the 2019 honoring of badges across the MLA conference and the American Historical Association’s conference -- when we can more easily access each other’s conversations, we can more easily collaborate.
I can’t end this post without acknowledging that the greatest barrier to access and conversation is contingency itself. Attending any major conference is either a significant privilege or a significant financial burden. As a tenured professor, I have both enough funding and enough protection to attend both CCCC and MLA and to critique the system with impunity. I see that as a responsibility to get involved -- it’s why I live-tweet labor sessions and why I have been active in the machinery of each organization. But we need to do better in making sure that the conversation isn’t dominated by, well, people like me. We should work in our organizations and on our campuses to get more funding and protection for the NTT faculty who want to participate and boost the voices of those who do.
To the many good folks I met at MLA: I hope to see you at CCCC sometime. If not, I’ll see you at MLA 2020 in Seattle.
Amy Lynch-Biniek is a professor of composition at Kutztown University and a proud member of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties. In past iterations, she has been a high school teacher and an adjunct instructor. @amylynchbiniek