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.