Labor & Work-Life Issues

Anguish Trumps Activism at the MLA

January 06, 2012

The talk here during the first days of the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association was largely about the plight of the humanities (as they're taught today), the new establishment (of the digital humanities), and future directions of language, literature and learning. But some scholars kept the concerns of the end of last year's Occupy Higher Education movement alive with their focus on the problems of students with high debts, faculty and staff with little say over their working conditions, adjuncts who cannot make a living wage, and cuts in programs that affect students and faculty.

While December's talk of an Occupy the MLA movement hadn't materialized by halfway through the convention, a call for a "fight for public education" raised the rallying cry of protest.

According to speakers at a session on the public university here, not enough of their peers have listening.

Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, likened higher education's attitude toward the plight of public universities to the public's misunderstanding of income inequality: Most people—faculty included—have no idea of the scale of the problem. "We don't understand the nature our problem in higher education. We are the problem," he said.

Even an issue that has recently received wide attention, like student debt, was a scandal long before the public—and educators—became concerned, said Jeffrey J. Williams, a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's shameful we didn't see this problem before," he said.

In like fashion, Robert Samuels, a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California at Los Angeles, traced the decline of state revenues and the privatization of many functions of public universities to the 1980s. If that trend is to be stopped, he said, faculty are going to have to be much better informed about budget and financial processes of the university than they are at present. "We need transparency in the budget process," he urged.

Mr. Bousquet ticked off the problems of public higher education: faculty who "are treated with contempt by administrators"; undergraduates who are working so much outside class, they can't function in it; students who fail to graduate; faculty, graduate students, and staff working under unfair labor conditions. Too often, he said, solutions are proposed from the top, for those at the top.

"We need to fix higher education not for elites, but for the benefit of the community-college dropout," he said.

That, he added, would benefit everyone. Consider the problems of higher education from that perspective: too much work outside of class, too little preparation before college, too many poorly prepared instructors who are working too hard, a curriculum that is too narrow and vocational. "Fix those problems, and you fix issues all the way up," Mr. Bousquet said.

Consider student debt. From the perspective of a middle-class student, free tuition looks pretty good. But from the perspective of a poor student, it might not be enough, Mr. Bousquet pointed out. An income subsidy might make much more sense.

To Jason B. Jones, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, the issue no one is looking at is that while public universities might be losing state support, most are actually seeing modest revenue gains; they just don't want to spend them on faculty or undergraduate education. It's a matter of priorities. Mr. Jones offered some practical strategies—including networking with other disciplines, parents, and the media, and serving on governance committees—to try and bring the issue of priorities into the open.

For Mr. Samuels, the key factor that everyone needs to understand is that large classes, graduate-student labor, bureaucratic creep as the administrative costs of chasing grants mount, and faculty time wasted in seeking and tailoring those grants to the needs of industry all mean that "since universities no longer concentrate on quality education, they can no longer contain costs." That is what transparency in financial matters would reveal, he said.

For his part, Mr. Williams called on his colleagues to see that "student debt is a policy. It's not just something that happened to us." Whatever solutions people favor—for example, the recent petition asking signers to promise not to pay their debts (which Mr. Williams doesn't like, because he said it's unfair to those who do pay) or some form of free education (which he does like)—he called on his colleagues to become more engaged with just how debt affects the lives of their students.

Occupy the MLA? No. Keep some of Occupy Higher Education's issues alive here in Seattle? For a few hours, at least.