The Annual MLA Disaster

John Sutherland

  • The Modern Language Association of America: Program for the 109th Convention, Vol. 108, No. 6
    November 1993
  • The Modern Language Association: Job Information List

At the 1992 MLA convention in New York there were some 12,000 registered and paid-up members in attendance. It is, one is told, the largest function of its kind in North America – and gatherings of professors don’t come bigger elsewhere. Certainly not in Britain, where the MLA’s anaemic cousin, UTE (the University Teachers of English conference), counts itself lucky to get attendance in three figures. The MLA, with a current enrolment of 31,500, was not always as big. Just 40 people came to the first convention in 1883, out of a total membership of 126. Attendance progressively increased, from one thousand in 1930 to five thousand in 1959. Then, with the explosion of higher education, it leapt to 12,300 in 1966, at which level it has stabilised, although there will be a few less this year at Toronto – an oddly colonial choice of location for a national rally.

The growth of the MLA has been a triumph for the association and a disaster for the profession it represents. Not least, the convention is an annual public relations fiasco. Every year American newspapers run their ‘Weird MLA’ article. This year the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Toronto Globe and Mail will seize on Panel 688, ‘Lesbian and Gay Studies: Conflicting Desires’, which features as its third speaker Gregory W. Bredbeck of the University of California Riverside and his rousing talk ‘Fuck Your Gender’. If gender-fucking is too heavy there are scores of other papers with which to amaze the outside world: ‘Star Power: or, How to (De)Flower the Rectal Brain: the Increments and Excrements of “Influence” in Dorian Gray and Edward II’ (this, incidentally, is what passes for Wildean wit at the MLA); ‘Teledildonics: Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson’; or the terser, but sublimely opaque ‘Autophagy and the Logic of the Absolute Fragment’.

These titles will have been solemnly approved by an MLA committee. The same committee has also given its stamp of approval to a quantity of worthy scholarly panels, but most glamour attaches to the politically controversial and theoretically advanced items. Professor Bredbeck’s address will be packed and applauded. There is no more telling statistic in the 1993 Program than the 70 sessions devoted to ‘Literary Criticism and Theory’ (by far the largest category) and the puny six devoted to ‘Research and Bibliography’, of which two take as their subject the chronically depressed status of bibliography in the profession. You won’t get a job, promotion or respect at the MLA by editing works of literature any more. Even more degraded than bibliography is undergraduate teaching of the traditional kind. The three talks sponsored by the National Council of Teachers in a panel called ‘Teaching and the MLA’ depict a profession in headlong flight from the old-fashioned business of the classroom. 1. ‘Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Jazz Modalities and Teaching: “Where Narrative Has Not Been Before” ’; 2. ‘Adventures in Cyberspace: Blurring the Boundaries of Teaching and Research’; 3. ‘Ludic Feminism, Critique-al-Pedagogy, and the Everyday’. God help the students subjected to critique-al-pedagogy, whatever that may be.

Say ‘convention’ in 1993, and most Americans will think of the naval rape-in at Tailhook – an orgy on a Roman scale. The excesses of MLA are not those of the flesh. Per capita there must be fewer sperm expended and less alcohol ingested than at any other American convention not specifically for the old, religious or differently abled. The convention always takes place from 27 to 30 December, while the rest of the country recovers from one gluttony and girds itself for another. Primarily, the date is chosen for reasons of economy – you can get four-star hotel accommodation at budget prices. But emotionally this interval suits the MLA’s grim seriousness.

British visitors will admire the MLA’s mechanical efficiency. A central bureaucracy in New York handles practical arrangements and interpenetrating mazes of committees, panels, ‘divisions’, balance competing interests. The 1993 Program offers 738 multispeaker meetings. Laid end to end, the two thousand-odd talks would extend into March. During working days the turn of the hour is like the changing of factory shifts in Lang’s Metropolis as regiments of labelled attendees troop from one room to another. There is, of course, more trooping to some destinations than others. Stanley Fish, Elaine Showalter or Hillis Miller can fill a ballroom. Other speakers (particularly those consigned to unsocial hours) will address half-empty partitioned areas the size of broom cupboards. Time for all but keynote speakers is strictly rationed – usually to 20 minutes and sometimes less. There is good reason for the Warholian limit: in order for expenses to be paid by your institution it helps (and may indeed be required) for your name to be on the printed programme as a speaker. Schedules have to be packed like Tokyo subway trains to get everyone in.

Democratising the programme so that a multitude can speak is one of the ways in which the MLA has enlarged its constituency and maximised registered attendance at the conventions – the Association’s lifeblood. The decision to go for growth was taken by the executive in 1968: ‘Faced with its constant expansion in size and activity,’ they reported, ‘the MLA cannot realistically escape its responsibilities by a nostalgic quest for the serene and intellectually exclusive annual meetings of the distant past.’ There followed a quadrupling of the speaker slots over the next few years. And as a further part of its break with nostalgia, the convention platform was politicised. Causes with no natural connection with literary study (gay rights, Chicanoismo, environmentalism) were given equal status with traditional academic fields (Shakespeare, George Eliot), and encouraged to mix. At the same period in the late Sixties the American profession embarked on its long love affair with theory. Democratisation, politicisation and theorisation of the programme have been brilliantly successful in maximising the MLA’s influence and installing it at the centre of the profession.

The MLA has cemented its centrality by monopolising the machinery of what used to be called ‘faculty exchange’ and is now called ‘hiring’ (or, informally, ‘the meat market’). This year there are some six hundred ‘definite or possible positions’ on offer in the MLA’s Job Information List, which will generate more than five thousand interviews at the convention. That the bulk of interviews should take place under its aegis is important to the Association, first because it ensures thousands of attendances at the convention; secondly, because hiring takes place in a framework of values and procedures laid down by the MLA. Insidiously, the judgments of the interviewers are conditioned by the ‘subject’ as it is defined in the talk going on around them as they ask their questions.

It is easy to spot the candidates: they are usually soberly-suited, have neat haircuts, and carry business-like folders. The already-tenured are free to be sloppy. The MLA offers a telling catalogue of Dos and Don’ts in the Joblist which certify its role as professional arbiter. Interviewers are instructed not to: ‘Interview more than one candidate at a time. Conduct the major portion of the interview during a meal. Ask questions about age. Ask about marital status. Ask about children. Ask about religion. Ask about national origin. Display boredom. Doodle.’ Interviewees are warned not to: ‘Slouch. Mumble. Use terms such as “you know”, “like”, etc. Chew gum during the interview. Let yourself be intimidated.’

Candidates may be unintimidated but they are apprehensive. The Joblist is unprecedentedly thin. There are some two thousand new doctorates and a backlog from the last three lean years. This year’s job offerings are 45 per cent down on 1988-9, and even lower than the previous depression trough, 1982-3. California, in most years the biggest employer in the country, is offering only thirty-five or so definite positions. Of these, four are at the senior level (which means a rolling search over several years). Fourteen are in ‘Rhetoric’, ‘Composition’ or ‘Creative Writing’ – which is one up from latrine cleaning for research-oriented candidates. And ten are (discreetly) earmarked for ‘minorities’ – candidates with skills in African-American, Chicano/a, post-colonial, Native American or multicultural literatures. The doctoral candidates graduating from a single English department such as UCLA’s could fill every open job on offer in the State.

Compared to their British counterparts, candidates are formidably well equipped for the struggle. They attend MLA clinics on resumé preparation, building a CV, ‘selling yourself’ and mock interviews. The first session is ‘A Preconvention Workshop for Job-Seekers: the Job Search in English’. Big graduate schools send coaches to the convention – senior faculty who psych up their students and lobby for them. The shortage of jobs means that candidates apply for everything, which means up to five hundred dossiers for any one position. It also means a downward pressure, as brilliant and desperate Ivy League graduates compete for any job anywhere, hoping to write themselves into a better position over time.

It may be a vain hope. Pessimists suspect the whole profession is being radically restructured. The 1990-3 depression is different from that in the early Eighties, which was followed by a hiring boom. In 1982, post-secondary institutions did not need new humanities faculty because of all the young hirings they had made in the early Seventies. Today, there should be numerous vacancies arising from end-of-career retirement, but some 50 per cent of public, four-year institutions are currently imposing a hiring freeze on full-time faculty members, with a concurrent reduction in courses offered, and increase in class size. Five years ago, projections were that with the mass retirement of faculty hired in the Sixties, and the growth in the college-age population, there would be another boom extending into the next century. Instead, there has been downsizing, the end of mandatory retirement, increased productivity (larger classes), a resort to technological fixes such as teleteaching and a wholesale switch to non-tenure-track appointments. These ‘freeway teachers’ are contracted for the semester at per-course rates. They are typically not expected to do research, they have little autonomy as to what or how they teach, they enjoy no long-term security, and are excluded from a whole range of desirable career-enhancing benefits (sabbatical leave, subsidised attendance at the MLA conference etc). They are cheap, biddable and disposable. They may well hold jobs simultaneously at several institutions. Administrators like them, the MLA sees them as a major threat – not least because they owe no allegiance to the Association. The Joblist carries a denunciatory ‘Statement on the Use of Part-Time Faculty’ which concludes: ‘In the face of present conditions and concern about the decline in quality of humanities programs, the MLA urges college and university administrators to make new and concerted efforts to eliminate the excessive use of part-time teachers.’

No such effort is visible this year. Tenure has been abolished in the UK for ideological reasons; in America, it is being whittled away on economic grounds. In the future what may well emerge is an oligarchical nucleus at the centre of an educational apparatus all of whose hard and dirty work (teaching, specifically) is undertaken by disgruntled hired help. The MLA bears primary responsibility for this mess. The Association has huge coercive power over its junior members, whom it forms in its image. It has no power whatsoever over its members’ employers, many of whom openly despise what the MLA stands for and regard it as politically mischievous. Nor does the MLA have friends in high places. Newspapers regard it as a joke, where they do not blame it for loosing the worst excesses of political correctness into American life. There is not a politician of note who would consider it anything other than a liability to agree to address the convention. Big as it is, the MLA cannot survive without good external relations. And it has fatally compromised its standing with the men and women who run colleges – trustees, presidents and deans. None of these parties are invited to, or are welcome at, the convention. In general, college administrators are wary of professors who can discourse on gender fucking, rectal brains, critique-al-pedagogy or autophagy. They are reluctant to give life-long berths to research-oriented scholars who see it as the acme of their career never to grade another freshman paper. What colleges want, and what parents who pay up to $20,000 a year in fees want, and what the MLA resolutely does not supply, are dedicated teachers willing to teach a generally acceptable syllabus in a generally acceptable way.

Presidents of the MLA hold office for a year. There are three appropriately distinguished candidates standing for the post this year: Stephen Greenblatt, Sandra Gilbert and Marjorie Perloff. Their policy declarations make interesting reading. Each accepts there is a crisis – although they disagree as to whether the crisis lies within or outside the profession. Greenblatt echoes Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ He holds the consolingly historicist view that when good times come back so will the jobs. For Gilbert ‘the MLA must insist on the centrality of literary studies despite pressure for downsizing and retrenchment.’ But what does ‘insistence’ mean? No one outside the convention is listening to the MLA. It is not a trade union, nor a Washington lobby but a distrusted professional organisation. Perloff more shrewdly advocates that the MLA put its own house in order and ‘counter the latent “US centrism” of the Nineties by promoting the study of languages, literatures and cultures beyond our national borders’. Perloff’s curricular prescription represents the best hope for the Association: but what it really needs is a President Gorbachev. A leader prepared to dismantle the MLA’s monolithic (and nowadays dubiously democratic) structure and abolish the convention in its present form.