Wait, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? The Newbie’s Guide to the MLA Insurgency

Yesterday, I came out swinging in favor of a rag-tag band of upstarts–Lee, Sharon, David and Maria (we need to give you guys a name–the Gaggle of Four? The MLA Marauders? Help me?)–who have the gall to think they can be on the ballot of the next Executive Council election of the MLA. My intended audience with that post was current members of the MLA who can actually sign the petition, and as such I didn’t really explain a bunch of things that definitely warrant explaining. Now I’m going to do that! Hooray!

But before I do, this is what His Tenured Rabblerousingness Marc Bousquet had to say about my endorsement (plucked from the obscurity of my comment threads):

I just want it on the record that Schuman said “Please” before launching this fireball. After 25 years in this profession, I remain astonished at how few people are willing to speak basic truths. When literary study finishes becoming a wax museum, Rebecca will have a special, particularly flattering tableau, wielding a keyboard like a Thor-hammer.

Marc, I hope you enjoy this being on every masthead, book jacket, book proposal, bio where I need gravitas, and possibly a new lower back tattoo.

All right, now a quick FAQ for the (mercifully) uninitiated:

Q: What in the everloving fuck is the MLA?

A: The MLA is the Modern Language Association, which is the umbrella professional group for anyone who currently works in the modern (i.e. not ancient) languages and literatures. This includes English (by far its biggest participant), Comp/Rhet and creative writing (although they also have AWP, a whole different beast), the European, Indigenous, East Asian, African & Middle Eastern languages and their literary traditions, some areas of linguistics, etc. The MLA is an independent organization with no official affiliation with any college, university or institution of higher learning in the world, but it has dues-paying members from just about every institution of higher learning in the world. The MLA holds a huge convention every year (in the coldest, most expensive North American city they can find! Just kidding) that has a twofold purpose: To host ninety gazillion panels and roundtable discussions, and for departments hiring in the modern languages to interview job candidates. The vast majority of tenure-track (and other) jobs in the modern languages are advertised by the MLA, on the Jobs Information List, which last year became free and open to the public (hooray!!!), but before then was limited to active members and participating departments. The MLA acts as the Official Voice of the Profession, and sets the Official Tone for what we do (and don’t) think is important–it also has the power to enact rules that punish individuals or departments by barring membership, JIL advertising privileges, or entrance to the convention. It does not have the power to hire, fire or pay anyone anywhere but its own ranks.

Q: Who are the Executive Council and why should I care?

A: Good question! Even if you’re not in the modern languages, you should care. The Executive Council are the leadership of the MLA, and the President is its public voice. They set the tone, mood, agenda and priorities of that year’s MLA cycle, and also have some important power when it comes to both drafting resolutions and enacting them. Right now the MLA, like most professional organizations, is mostly run by eminent tenured scholars who have great reputations in the field and have been successful in it for a long time. There is nothing wrong with this per se, and most of these folks are very nice people who do their best to do what is right–BUT. The fact is that simply by being successful in a field where the norm is now “failure” (gotta work to change that stigma first and foremost, amirite?), i.e. where the majority of modern language scholars are not on the tenure track and never will be, the MLA is currently a poor representation of the field it’s supposed to represent. This can change, though! And if it can change in one professional umbrella organization, it can change in them all. First the MLA, then the AHA, then all twenty-five billion different APAs, then the AAAs, and onward and upward FOREVER HOORAY!

Q: How can this change?!?!?!

A: Excellent question, straw-man me. This can change because the normal way that the MLA elections are done–insiders anoint, I mean nominate their friends and cronies; the membership votes for whoever’s name has the most interesting spelling without giving two flying fucks who they are because they are all the same–is not the only way. There is another way. And this is a way, btw, that the non-elected leadership SUPPORTS if we do it by the book. That way is a petition.

Q: How does the petition process work?!?!?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

A: I’m so glad you asked! It’s a little complicated, but worth it (and yes, it involves a trip to the mailbox). The Four HorseWoMan of the MLApocalypse are allowed to be on the ballot IFF (that’s logic-talk!) a petition with no fewer than 100 legit signatures from active MLA members is on Rosemary’s desk by the First of Julune, I mean July. That’s TUESDAY of NEXT WEEK, motherfuckers! Ack! So what you need to do–IFF you are an MLA member–is electronic-sign this Change.org thing, and then print it out, sign it by hand, and mail it in.

Q: UGH, that sounds like a pain in the ass. DO I HAVE TO?

A: YES! That’s the only way it will count. Rules are rules. We want the Four Amigos on the ballot fair and square. Play by those rules and do it. Now’s your chance to use one of those spiffy new Harvey Milk stamps!

Q: I am not in the Modern Langauges/not a member of MLA, but I want to sign out of solidarity because I support this. Can I?

A: We absolutely appreciate your solidarity and support, but every signature that is not from a current MLA member will be thrown out. Perhaps Marc and I will circulate another more general petition of general support soon, but this one is an official document that is being used for an official purpose, so we need MLA members only, quadruple-please.

Q: I don’t want your weird Four Elements to win. I think the MLA is great like it is. Fuck you!

A: Great! That’s totally your right. However–I still think you should sign the petition, and then simply vote for your preferred candidates during the election. Can you think of any reason whatsoever the ballot shouldn’t be as diverse and robust as possible? I can’t either! So even if you DON’T want the 4-Live Crew to win, please consider supporting the nomination-by-petition, which returns some democracy to a process that largely lacks it.

Q: Fair enough. So. Why would anyone NOT want to sign this?

A: Fun question. Two reasons: One, they or their BFFFFs are already on the ballot. Two: They are petrified at having their names associated with anything that even attempts to subvert the status quo, lest it harm their job-market prospects, tenure or promotion case, etc. Think I’m being paranoid? I’ll show you paranoid. I get an email A WEEK from a reader in a panic asking me to remove their comments from my blog. Why? Because their username is “kind of recognizable” or because they might somehow be found out by someone someday. People in academia legit believe that their superiors spend their busy-ass days combing through my blog, looking for Divergents. Thus, many academics are simply terrified to publicly challenge the status quo in any way. So everyone signing this petition has to be just the tiniest, teensiest, miniscule-est bit brave, because their actual real names will be in public.

Q: Can I join MLA just to sign this and vote later?

A: SURE! It costs money, though, so it’s not something I can truly encourage to my adjunct and unemployed friends who are struggling. There are different dues categories for different income levels. Sign up at the level of your academic income if you’re an academic (that is, I make about $50K a year all-told now–but my academic income is about $18K), minus travel expenses if you have any for academic travel. If you’re not an academic and have legit interest in the modern languauges and literatures, you’re also welcome to join, but you should use your regular income as a guide (so you gainfully-employed folks are going to have to pony up and I can’t really recommend that in unblemished conscience).

All right, that’s all I can think of for now, but if you have any more questions, please ask them in the comments and I will do my best to answer, or point them toward someone who knows the answer.

20 thoughts on “Wait, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? The Newbie’s Guide to the MLA Insurgency

  1. I’d like to petition that the mailing requirements for this petition disenfranchise members of the MLA in Canada. C’mon people, Tuesday July 2 is Canada Day! Which means everything is closed Monday AND Tuesday. So even if I could afford the 20 bucks to overnight my signed petition there (which as a contingent I can’t, but I probably would anyway because hell, this is important–more important than throwing job applications into the money-sucking postal void), it wouldn’t get there til Wednesday. Harumph. I signed online but suppose it will be discounted.

    Ok Americans, keep the de facto exclusion of your Canadian counterparts in mind and vote extra hard.


    • Such a good observation, expat! I’m in rural Quebec myself. HOWEVER: the physical sig needs to arrive by July 10. So regular, or plain expedited should do it. And we’ll contest any disqualification of timely-posted followups from overseas. Furthermore, I think the DA can fix this by motion. No constitutional change required, since the const doesn’t bar e-signatures–only the MLA staff does, by construing an unrelated document and by virtue of a “custom” they established.


  2. Rebecca: I’m so glad I visited your blog over the weekend because I read about Marc Bousquet’s change.org petition, signed it, and mailed it off yesterday. I’m puzzled why Carol Zuses insists on having people mail in physical copies. Something far easier would be having us enter our MLA membership #s on a website as proof of support. Oh, well, I want this petition to succeed so whatever it takes.


    • Also, OMG — Marc Bousquet posting on your blog. He’s my hero! I remember reading How the University Works and seething with fury at the state of our discipline.


      • Actually this makes perfect sense from a status quo standpoint. Making it hard for NTT faculty/grad students/under-employed postdocs to show their support keeps the MLA a cosy club for the ‘Neiman Marxists’ who have no idea or interest in how many of us live on subsistence-level wages while they continue mailing out copies of (pretentious) “The Profession.” I was very proud to put my real name, membership #, and my (last remaining) postage stamp on the letter. I’ll do it as many times as necessary to make sure we have fair representation on the MLA. If this is the only good thing my MLA membership has done for me this year, I’m very pleased.

        (I’m still fan-girling at Bousquet actually posting on this blog!)


      • I think it also has to do with fear. I think they fear that a bunch of outspoken rabble-rousers are going to take over and burn the place down. This is ridiculous and unfounded. Lee, Sharon, David and Maria are all VERY reasonable people, nominated by us for their bravery, yes, but also because they have a demonstrated ability to be “professional,” respectful, and get things done. I think it’s a lot of projection on the status quo’s part–if THEY had been marginalized and ignored and treated like invisible shoe-dirt for years and then finally got a modicum of power, they might–in the words of that brilliant KITH skit, go MAD with it. But the A-Team will not do that. They want to be on the EC because they want to get to work. They want to roll up their sleeves and help the profession. And I just want them to be on the ballot.


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