The MLA Cost Project

I just received a dismaying message on Twitter from a reader who reports of a department withdrawing an MLA interview offer because the candidate cannot afford to fly to Vancouver, Canada, stay in an expensive hotel, buy an expensive suit, renew his/her passport, all for a 30-minute initial screening interview. The candidate requested switching to Skype and apparently the interview offer was pulled.

So…instead of (or perhaps in addition to) my usual “hissyfit,” I also thought I would completely bite the idea (from last year) of my friend Karen Kelsky (the PhD Debt Project) and launch The MLA Cost Project. I want to know how much it is really costing you, out of pocket, to attend the 2015 MLA.

So please do me a favor and click on this link to a public and publicly editable (I think? I HOPE?) Google Doc, or this link to a survey-style Google FORM, where you can fill in all the pertinent deets in TOTAL ANONYMITY (both formats go to the same place, and I’m not a scientist and if the IHE troll brigade wants to fuck with my data collection abilities it can give me a social science PhD which I don’t have).

The first line in the Doc is a sample by me, and it’s the hypothetical cost I would be incurring if I hypothetically went this year. My passport is expired, flights from STL are in the $700 range, and obviously I’d have to get a new suit to fit my, erm, ample figure.

Please don’t be afraid to do this — I am (if you can believe it) quite cordial with the MLA leadership and they actively want to know what they can do to make the convention less of a burden to contingent faculty and grad students. I think actually knowing how much it costs is a good first step.

This doc may also help interviewing departments like the one above see the error of their ways, and be willing to swap for Skype.

It may ALSO also — fingers crossed — encourage the MLA to make a new guideline or bylaw that any department interviewing at the convention MUST offer a videoconference or telephone option in the event an interviewee can’t make it to the convention. (A great idea if I do say so myself, and I do).

Obviously I’m not going to be there because a) I am nearing full-term pregnant, and b) I would rather die than ever set foot at that godforsaken gathering of name-tag snobs and flop-sweat covered interviewees ever again. I mean, if you like conferences, then you go, and you do you, and see old friends, and have fun and get drunk, and be great. Just not my thing, and every year around this time I thank my lucky stars that I never have to go again. (This year I am doubly thankful because instead of spending Christmas break miserably prepping for my one interview, I am spending it joyously prepping for the arrival of our baby AND joyously pounding out my book manuscript.)

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31 thoughts on “The MLA Cost Project

  1. This is the second request for more robust support for PTF, so the MLA leadership does “know” what it needs to do! See note from PMLA, below: ****41 of those who applied for the travel grant did not end up using it. Guess why? $300 doesn’t even scratch the surface of the MLA convention costs*****

    MLA
    26 Broadway, 3rd Floor
    NYNY 10004-1789

    Attn: Margaret Ferguson, Roland Greene, Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2014 Officers
    of the MLA; Samer M. Ali, Barbara K.
    Altmann, Debra Ann Castillo, Brian Croxall, Alicia M. de la Torre
    Falzon, Gaurav G. Desai, Donald E. Hall, María Herrera-Sobek,
    Margaret R. Higonnet, Lanisa Kitchiner, Lutz Koepnick, Paula M.
    Krebs, Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, 2014
    Members of the Executive Council of MLA;
    Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA;
    Carol Zuses, Staff Liaison, Executive Council.

    April 12, 2014

    Dear MLA Officers, Staff Liaison, Executive Director and Executive
    Council Members:

    The Radical Caucus writes with concern about the tens of thousands of
    faculty members in Writing, Literature, Foreign Languages and allied
    humanities areas who are effectively barred from participating in the
    annual convention because of their low pay as NTT academics or
    graduate students, and their weak ties to their home institutions and
    to disciplinary organizations. Part-time Faculty, Graduate Student,
    and Non-tenure track faculty generally have little or no access to
    research or travel funds, are not generally paid a livable wage, much
    less a wage that would support conference attendance, and are
    disadvantaged by a host of other structural deficiencies that work
    against their integration into the debates and preoccupations of the
    academic fields in which they received their academic training.

    We bring no news to you when we report that 75% of the faculty
    teaching in the United States overall are Contingent, NTT,
    and that 50% of the faculty teaching in the colleges and universities
    of the United States are employed “part-time,” earning a national
    Full-time equivalent average somewhere around $28.000 per year.

    The MLA has taken modest steps in supporting research around the
    problems of contingency and has permitted non-binding resolutions of
    sentiment condemning exploitation of NTT faculty to go forward. A
    travel grant program for NTT and graduate students was
    instituted, awarding a maximum of $300 every three years. However,
    the data on utilization, which I include below, indicates that the sum
    may well be too small to usefully compensate for the low wages and
    lack of research funding
    typically afforded NTT and Graduate students. The income eligibility
    ceiling of $30,000 for NTT faculty makes it unlikely that an
    individual who is poorly enough paid to be eligible would be able to
    come up with the
    additional $1000 to travel to a convention site!

    The Radical Caucus, of which I am a Steering Committee member, is
    concerned with the apartheid-like effect of a stratified
    academic system. We believe that the MLA can contribute in meaningful
    ways to the gradual re-integration of the NTT and Graduate student
    population in English, languages, and allied humanities.

    We would like to propose, then, that the MLA review its dues
    structure, its convention fee structure, and its present level of
    travel support for those faculty members
    effectively erased from “disciplinary conversations” by a
    corporatist model of education. Without a change in the dues/convention
    fees/ travel support for this army of shut-out faculty members, the
    MLA will continue to feed on an ever smaller cadre of the ever more
    privileged, and the disciplinary conversations will be ever more limited.

    It is our belief that the MLA would be enriched, and that the
    literary, professional and disciplinary conversations would be
    vitalized in important, even essential, ways if accessibility to the
    convention for NTT
    faculty and graduate students was improved. In that spirit, we
    would like to propose the following:

    1. Raise the travel grant to $600 for contingent faculty
    2. Revise eligibility for those grants to <50K
    3. Revise eligibility for faculty and graduate students so they can
    access travel grants every year (instead of the current every three
    years)
    4. Commit to finding and arranging low-cost dorm or other housing in
    every convention city.
    5. Provide travel grants by check at the conference instead of 2 months later
    6. Reduce the convention registration fee to $20 for contingent
    faculty and graduate students
    7. Reduce the MLA membership dues for the lower two tiers.
    8. Modify the membership and renewal page to require faculty status
    (T/ TT, NTTFT, PT, GS) for statistical purposes, so that participation
    rates can be monitored and the success of these accessibility efforts
    be determined at some future point.

    We appreciate your consideration of these requests and we look forward
    to participating in an organization more accessible to all of our colleagues in
    English, Foreign Language, and allied humanities fields.

    Margaret Hanzimanolis,
    For the Radical Caucus

    (FRom the PMLA)
    Graduate Student Travel Reimbursement Grants are available each year
    for graduate students. The association allocated funds for up to 300
    awards in 2013. We received 394 applications for travel to the January
    2013 convention; all of the applicants were eligible. (The number of
    eligible applicants for 2013 convention grants was up 14.5% from the
    previous year.) Of the eligible applicants, 273 attended the
    convention and received grants, 27 fewer than we had budgeted for.

    Travel Grants for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members or Unemployed
    Members are also available; the association allocated funds for up to
    100 awards in 2013. We received 106 applications for the January 2013
    convention; all of the applicants were eligible. Since 41 applicants
    did not attend the convention, we awarded a total of 65 grants, 35
    fewer than the budget allowed for.

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  2. Rebecca:

    Wanted to ask if it’s okay to fill in hypothetical figures since I’m not on the market. (I gave up after three years). I will be sure to do this over the weekend.

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    1. Sure but only if you research it like I did. Expedia out the plane fare, research hotels (incl for conference rate), and factor in whether or not your passport is expired. Also put ‘hypothetical’ somewhere at the end if you REALLY want to be awesome about it.

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    2. I get no reimbursal from my program anymore because our funding has been cut so dramatically. This is the case even if I’m delivering a paper. I have therefore stopped going to conferences unless they are within driving distance of where I live. I simply can’t afford it.

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  3. I’m not in an MLA field, but in an AHA field and this is SO necessary. I am a visitor at a rich R1 and people in the department here have no idea how much this all costs because they all just cover it with their research accounts or get paid by the department when they are on a search committee. Two years ago, for example, AHA was in NOLA and my flights alone cost me almost $800 (fortunately, I was able to piggy back on someone else’s hotel room who was on a search committee and got it covered by their school). Some people here tried to get the department to switch to Skype interviews and you would have thought they proposed slaughtering babies as part of the interview process. . . only one person was convinced by the economic argument. I don’t know why I am still amazed by the narrow mindedness of academia. . . .

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    1. it’s actually worse than that. Faculty can only get their conference travel funded by research money if they are doing something research-related at the conference: ie, they organized or got invited on to a panel, the submitted panel was accepted and put on the program, etc. So for faculty who are not making these kinds of efforts (or interesting enough to be invited by others who are doing the legwork of panel organizing), a search committee junket is their ONLY way to get conference travel costs covered (also, sometimes, “graduate student recruitment” aieeee can be used to justify their travel / attendance, if they set up and sit at a table at such a forum, if one is offered at the conference). Both of these kinds of activities are for reasons everyone here understands well morally compromised, but exactly the kind of faculty who neither do research nor pay attention to academic hiring trends cling to both wit’ a fierceness. I am guessing the person who got dumped for asking to Skype instead of interview in person was dumped to make room for another in-person interviewee, a series of in-person interviewees being necessary to justify the disbursement of funds by the hiring university to underwrite faculty flights, hotel stays, per diems, and so on. A lot of public shaming needs to happen around these practices, because the current rhetoric around them within particular institutions is so often this sort of put-upon air of “oh my god, I am SO busy, I have to go to the [insert conference here] and rush around importantly interviewing and recruiting, my sacrifices for the good of academia are woefully under-recognized, big showy sigh…” The space for that needs to become airless.

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    2. I really, really can’t figure out why people think academia is so progressive and so liberal. Last year, when I went to the flagship conference in my field, I stayed in a motel a couple miles away from the conference and took public transportation to and fro. I found the best rate possible on Kayak. I *brought my own food*–trail mix, dried fruit, etc–to avoid paying to go out to eat. And I went to a consignment store to buy the clothing I wore for my presentation.

      And yet I ended up about $900 out of pocket from my flight and motel expenses because grad students in my program are no longer subsidized to go to conferences due to budget cuts.

      Can I ask the commentariat here a very naive question? What, exactly, is one supposed to get out of it other than the opportunity to add a line to one’s CV and play at being a “serious scholar”? Can anyone give a concrete example of a clear benefit–other than a job interview–that has come out of going to a conference?

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      1. Having been to four, I can definitively say: Trauma, debt, and little else. Unless you’re giving a paper or you really want to be there to see friends, it’s not worth it to go, in any way.

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  4. Thank you for doing this project. Over the past few months I have applied for jobs that say they’re interviewing at MLA only to hope that I don’t get any calls from those places so I don’t have to ask the Skype question. Let’s make this even more real: it would cost me three months of student loan payments in order to go to MLA. How about you?

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  5. Sigh. In the past year I complained about the ridiculous, elitist interview process to a friend of mine, a respected LABOR historian. S/he was not sympathetic to the message of economic discrimination/unfairness of spending $1,200 for a preliminary interview, especially when one earns 10/20k a year. I froze. We are still excellent friends but my opinion of him/her has changed in some profound ways. I could not, still cannot, believe that disconnect.

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      1. Outrageous, clueless BS about the need to meet “face to face.” Worst is I know she doesn’t make that much as prof (but has Ivy training mentality). I’m going to be seeing hir (thanks for the new pronoun, wasn’t familiar!) soonish and will check in-get the feeling hi’s come to her senses given subsequent conversations & host of general academic kerfuffles over past year.

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      2. If the need to meet face to face is that significant for the committee/department, then they can and should PAY for it.

        As an example, I recently had a first round interview (I’m staff, not faculty) where the search committee wanted to do the initial 50 minute “hotel interviews” over two days with candidates coming in one after the other. Essentially, this was the administrative equivalent of the MLA, without a conference attached.

        Could this have been done just as readily with a series of Skype interviews? Yes. Would it have been cheaper? God, yes. Would it have been simpler for the candidates? Can I get a “hallelujah!” here?

        Since this was the hiring institution’s preference, that’s what the candidates had to do. BUT. The university paid for the hotel room and is reimbursing for travel expenses incurred.

        And that’s really the issue with initial interviews–departmental habit, tradition, and preference are masquerading as requirement, with the cost borne by the applicant. In olden times (ie, the 1970s/80s), everyone (not sure this is historically accurate, but it was taken as truth) was assumed to be going to the conference ANYWAY. Therefore, it came to be viewed as expedient (not to mention a cost-savings) for departments just to do their interviewing at the annual association gathering. Fast-forward 40 years, and we have the technology to remove thousands of dollars of unnecessary expense for ALL parties. And we don’t do it. Are you really going to glean anything more significant from a 40 minute in-person interview vs. videoconference? Speaking as someone who helps people to interview more effectively, I doubt it.

        As for the argument that in-person is better because video interviewing is awkward and unnatural, what does that make wobbling around on the edge of a hotel bed while being grilled by a panel of academics? Just because it’s usual and customary doesn’t mean that it’s not also awkward and unnatural.

        Anyone who complains that higher ed is too progressive ought to examine the pace of institutional change, starting with hiring practices.

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  6. Last year, I spent $1,500 that I didn’t have to interview at MLA in Chicago. The process of waiting outside of an hotel room is uncomfortable. Truly, it’s an odd setting. I can’t say that the expense was worth the experience as none of the conference sessions interested me. I was told that I had to go to get the interview. It truly puts us between a rock and a hard place. Needless to say, my PhD and I are teaching high school and adjuncting at a local college because I can’t afford to redo this process. Not where I thought I’d be but paying the bills. Sadly, the knowledge I have and my research interests are wasting away under layers of bureaucracy that are the ridiculousness of public k12 and community college education.

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  7. Last year, my department ran 3 searches, one of which I chaired. For complicated (boring) reasons, it wouldn’t have been possible for 2 of the 3 committees to interview at MLA anyway, so I was off the hook from having to argue to the department that we wouldn’t go–for exactly these reasons. One of the arguments I’ve heard repeatedly is that Skype and other remote technologies can crash and disrupt interviews. True. And of the 7 people we interviewed not-at-MLA, 4 had technical problems, 3 of those 4 were invited to campus, and we hired one of them. Clearly it was a huge disadvantage.

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  8. Curious – as I’m not in the MLA area – but would anyone go to these conferences if it wasn’t for the interviews? By anyone, I mean tenured faculty and those on search committees, as well as those being interviewed. Just get the feeling that the interviews would guarantee people attending. No interviews, no conference?

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  9. I think Kathleen’s comment above is perceptive, and brings to mind a larger issue. Aside from the MLA issue, what legitimate reason is there for interviewing everyone at such an early phase? In the UK, we don’t interview people until they reach the 5-person ‘shortlist’, all of whom are transported, fed, and housed at university expense for the interview (and yes, have Skyped a shortlisted candidate who was in California and who actually got the postdoc). The process seems to work well enough. Also, at least at the university where I was involved in the process, no candidate made it to the shortlist and interviews without their peer-reviewed articles actually being read by a member of the committee, a feature dreaded by searchers, but which actually produced meaningful interviews.

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  10. I think the cost in time, as well as money, is important to consider. For example, the college where I’m currently teaching is in session in January, and is far away from Vancouver. So I have to spend thirty hours or so in transit, missing three days of instructional time, for a total of one hour of interview time. I’m no economist, but this doesn’t strike me as reasonable.

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  11. I would like to share with you, my esteemed colleagues, what interviewing *can* be like in the corporate, non-academic world. While I’ve been engaging in the living hell of what all of us know (the tedious applications, the long waits, praying for interview invitations, the slog of hoping those invitations escalate to on-site interviews, etc.), the following real-life thing happened to my husband:

    He was peacefully working away at his programming job. He received an invitation from a recruiter via LinkedIn to send his resume to several tech companies. He shrugged and said “sure, why not?” After glancing over his resume for a few minutes, he emailed it to the recruiter. That one lone document was received and evaluated by companies without any hassling of my husband. Several contacted him by phone and they chatted for a while about his skills, experience, and desires (!) in a work place. Several invited him to fly to California–on their dime, including hotel, flight, rental car–for in-person interviews. The job offer he accepted–he had several to choose from–besides being very generous, was also rather life-affirming: you see, my husband was hired by Apple, despite having no iOS programming experience at all. The hiring department assured him that he would do just fine: they found him to be flexible and creative and he had a good work history. That was honestly sufficient for them.

    Compare this to the academic search. It’s painfully obvious how inefficient, economically wasteful, and emotionally cruel the entire thing is. No, search committee: you DO NOT need three sample syllabi for courses you have no intention of ever offering. No, search committee: you DO NOT need a 10-minute video of me teaching. And most saliently: no, search committee, you DO NOT need to meet me in-person in Vancouver at *my* expense when two of you clearly haven’t properly read that portfolio I painstakingly compiled just for your posting.

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    1. Yesterday my husband and I were eating breakfast at Whole Foods, and a guy was having a job interview at the table next to us. In the time it took us to eat our hot-bar hash browns, the guy was given a screening interview, seen by a manager, OK’d for hiring, and hired on the spot. Now I am not down with WF’s libertarian man-child ways, but the applicant seemed to really want the job. And he walked in to that store without a job and walked out with one. My husband and I pretended not to hear b/c, you know, privacy, but I actually teared up. I have never witnessed someone interview for and then get a job before. It was pretty awesome. Good for that guy.

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  12. I was on a search committee last year for my department at a medium-sized Master’s-level state university. We had 320 applicants and after a difficult weeding out process (because the vast majority were excellent applicants), we interviewed 13 at the MLA and 2 back home via Skype. I think the Skype interviews put those candidates at a disadvantage, because the technology stood in the way of the informal conversation that ideally results during a face to face interview. Over the summer, I once again participated in a quick search–this time for a one-year visiting–and we conducted all interviews by phone, except for one with a candidate who was in Europe, where Skyping was easier than a conference call. We made an offer based on these interviews, since we didn’t have time or money for an on-campus. After my own very expensive three years on the market in the late 90s, I was already convinced that the process was stupid, and now from the other end I can agree that it’s still stupid and even more expensive. Skype and phone interviews seem like a perfectly legitimate way to go. If we avoid the conference interviews altogether, no one will be put at a disadvantage. I think my department may very well be moving in this direction. This year, we’re hiring for another line and the committee is conducting six conference and six Skype interviews, and I’m anxious to see how it all turns out.

    As to the other question about what conferences are good for, for me, the MLA is good for nothing but the job search and for seeing grad school friends who teach in other subspecialties. There’s very little of interest for someone in my sub-specialty, so I always go to my national conference, a regional conference, and the occasional international conference (which means I don’t go to the national one that year). As a grad student I found them useful for professionalization–delivering papers, practice in answering questions in a public setting, and finding out about developments and publications in my field. As a professor, I love them because they give me a chance to try out my scholarly projects and get feedback, discuss teaching with colleagues at other institutions, and generally network and build friendships. I always come back feeling renewed and reinvigorated with new ideas for my students and my department, and that, I think, is the ideal outcome of attending a conference.

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  13. My husband is a scientist and, over the years, I’ve gained insight into hiring processes in his science field, which make literature, languages, and history look extremely cruel. Basically they do what David in the UK mentions above: narrow to four or five from initial screening of documents, and then invite all of those to campus and cover all of their costs. Sometimes there is an initial phone or Skype interview to get a longer list down to four or five, but that obviously doesn’t burden the candidate.

    I’ve spent thousands going to MLA over the years, and I am about to do it again–but we have decided that this is the last year either of us will go on the academic job market. Once I’ve got my costs outlined, I will certainly contribute to this project. Thank you, Rebecca.

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