Earlier this year, I sent Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, a direct message via Twitter. In the last couple of years I’ve had the chance to get to know her as we’ve spoken together on panels and as I’ve served on the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology (CIT). In this DM, I suggested that the MLA should host a job fair alongside the academic job interviews that take place at the annual Convention. I followed up with the observation that if the MLA needed to hire someone full-time to implement this strategy, well…I knew a guy.
Her reply came a few days later and not in the way that I expected. Instead of an offer of employment or (as was much more likely) a good-natured jibe about my need to show up to the Convention first, she instead conveyed the news that I had been invited to stand for election to the MLA’s Executive Council. I was both flattered and floored. As noted on the Association’s Governance page, the Executive Council “has fiduciary and administrative responsibility for the association” and works in partnership with the Executive Director and all of the MLA staff to steer the organization according to the concerns of its members, all 27,736 of them [PDF].
As I said, I was completely surprised by the invitation. But at least I already had the beginnings of a candidate statement. Here, then, are the 250 words that I could include in my platform, with some links thrown in to contextualize things:
I am a former adjunct who now works off the tenure track building digital humanities projects and programs. My experience—shared with countless others—suggests that the MLA must lead graduate education reform that includes thoughtful preparation for nonprofessorial employment. The MLA must help its members believe about themselves what we say about our undergraduates: that the study of languages and literatures prepares one for many careers.
On the Executive Council, I will work to introduce something new at the annual convention: a job fair with government and private-sector exhibitors. In so doing, the MLA will put its imprimatur on nonacademic outcomes for graduate training, which will help individual departments institute the changes necessary to reimagine graduate studies.
Concurrent with this expansion of what graduate training means, the MLA should expand how it conceives of its membership. At present, our association is largely composed of those who research and teach modern languages and literatures. We must reframe the organization to represent and advocate for those who have studied these subjects in the past. Those in other career paths need to feel not just welcome but valued as continuing members of the MLA.
Once we expand representation, the MLA will be better able to demonstrate the many outcomes of an education in language and literature because our members will be everywhere. By making visible the many pathways available to those trained in modern languages, we will show the public and ourselves the usefulness of a humanities education.
In the four months since I wrote this statement, I’ve been thrilled to see that the MLA, along with the American Historical Association, is continuing, as a Chronicle headline puts it, to “chip away at [the] taboo of nonacademic careers.” The MLA’s Task Force on Doctoral Study is just one example of such efforts. If elected to the Council, I’ll advocate for the above-mentioned job fair and ever-increasing attention to pathways beyond the professoriate. Making all alternative careers—and not just alternative academic jobs—part of the discourse during graduate study will help those who work outside the academy understand that their work makes sense within the context of the MLA.
But it turns out that 250 words are not enough to adequately capture everything that I would have liked to say about the MLA. The Association must absolutely continue to work for equitable working conditions for all those who work in academe, which includes graduate students and adjuncts. It’s critical to remember that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The MLA must do all that it can—and constantly ask whether it can do more—to change what has become the status quo in higher education. We must also think about those who work alongside faculty. To this end, I’m proud to have worked with the MLA’s CIT to revise the Association’s Guidelines for Information Technology Access and Support for the Modern Languages. These guidelines make it clear that it’s a responsibility of scholars to “recognize academic technology staff members as vital collaborators.”
As a result of my service on the CIT, I will also work to find ways to allow the MLA to make more of its data open. One example of this might be the Job Information List, which was made free to all users this year. There are good reasons why not all MLA resources can be made open in this way, but many kinds of data might be made available for research. The result could be explorations about the history of the profession and scholarship similar to the analysis of PMLA that Ted Underwood and Andrew Goldstone undertook and reported on in December 2012.
I do hope to be elected. I’m excited about continuing to serve the MLA which is a forward-thinking organization with great leadership. So if you’re into people who have gone on record as being very enthusiastic about the Convention, please consider voting for me. I’m interested to respond to any questions you might have for me. Comment here, on Twitter, or on MLA Commons!