Playing Mozart on the Titanic

January 4, 2010

Scattered through the Modern Language Association’s 2009 convention were telling sessions devoted to the state of higher education. Compelling testimony was offered in small and sometimes crowded rooms about the loss of long-term central features of the discipline, from foreign language study to graduate student support to tenure track jobs for new Ph.D.'s. In many respects, the MLA’s annual meeting is more responsive to higher education’s grave crisis than the other humanities and social science disciplines that should also be part of the conversation, from anthropology to classics to history and sociology. There are simply more MLA sessions dealing with such issues than there are at other disciplinary meetings. Yet there was also throughout the MLA convention a strong sense of irrelevant business as usual, in the form of innumerable sessions devoted to traditional scholarship. There is a certain poignancy to the orchestra playing Mozart while the Titanic slips beneath the waves: We who are about to die salute our traditional high cultural commitments.

Of course we should sustain the values and the ongoing research that make humanities disciplines what they are. But the point is that the ship does not have to go down. There is action to be taken, work to be done, organizing and educating to do when faculty members and graduate students come together from around the country. Disciplinary organizations thus need to revise their priorities to confront what is proving to be a multi-year recession in higher education. As I argue in No University Is an Island, the recession is prompting destructive changes in governance, faculty status, and educational mission that will long outlast the current crisis. Because MLA’s members are already talking about these matters in scattered ways, it is time for the organization to take the lead in revising the format of its annual meeting to address the state of higher education -- and prepare its members to be effective agents -- in a much more focused, visible, and productive way. Then perhaps other disciplines will follow.

A generation ago, when the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus sought to reform the organization, it circulated several posters at annual meetings. Most telling, I thought, was a photograph of the Titanic, captioned “Are you enjoying your assistant-ship?” It was no easy task back then convincing the average tenured MLA member that the large waves towering over our lifeboats would not be good for surfing. Now the average college teacher is no longer eligible for tenure, and the good ship humanities is already partly under water.

The MLA’s response to a changing profession was to increase the number and variety of sessions, to give convention space to both fantasy and reality. The MLA would cease to be exclusively a platform for privilege. The organization would become a big tent. Unfortunately, the big tent is looking more like a shroud. The humanities are drowning. It is time to rethink the annual meeting to make it serve a threatened profession’s needs.

Until we can secure the future of higher education, we need to be substantially focused on money and power. That, I would argue, should be the theme of the 2010 annual meeting, and the structure of the meeting should be revised to reflect that focus. Instead of simply offering incoherent variety, the MLA should emphasize large meetings on the current crisis and its implications. And I do not mean simply paper presentations, telling as local testimony can be.

Disciplinary organizations need to offer substantial training sessions -- typically running several hours each and perhaps returning for additional sessions over two or three days -- that teach their members the fundamentals of financial analysis and strategies for organizing resistance. The AAUP, for example, teaches summer workshops each year that show faculty members the difference between budgets, which are fundamentally planning documents riddled with assumptions, and financial statements, which report actual expenditures for the previous year. We work not with hypothetical budgets but with examples from a dozen universities. Attendees learn that there are virtually always pots of money not listed on a university budget at all. A budget, MLA members will benefit from learning, is essentially a narrative. It can and should be deconstructed. I expect the AAUP would be willing and able to conduct such training sessions at disciplinary meetings. Indeed we already have the PowerPoint presentations and detailed handouts we would need. We have faculty members who specialize in analyzing university finances ready to serve the MLA and other disciplinary organizations.

The AAUP could also join with the AFT and the NEA to offer workshops in the fundamentals of collective bargaining, explaining how faculty and graduate employees at a given school can create a union that meets their distinctive institutional needs and embodies their core values. We can stage scenarios that give faculty members and graduate student activists experience in negotiating contracts. And the MLA should schedule large sessions that help faculty in places where collective bargaining is impossible, to recognize that organizing to have influence over budget decisions and institutional priorities is also possible without a union. The organization should also invite the California Faculty Association to conduct a large workshop on ways to reach out to students, parents, alumni, and other citizens and rebuild public support for higher education. CFA has been running a terrific campaign toward that end. The point is to empower faculty members to be the equals, not the victims, of campus administrators.

I am urging an annual MLA meeting that promotes not only literary studies but also material empowerment, that equips the members of the profession with the skills they need to preserve an appropriate environment for teaching and research. If the MLA takes the lead in reshaping its annual meeting this way, other disciplines will follow.

Bio

Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors. He has been an MLA member for 40 years. His new book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, has just been published by New York University Press.

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