Missing in Action at the MLA: Today's Teachers of Today's Students

December 29, 2009

About 7,400 scholars of literature and language are attending the Modern Language Association convention here this week. Brian Croxall is not one of them.

Mr. Croxall is a visiting assistant professor in the English department at Clemson University. That makes him part of the uncomfortable majority of faculty members who do not have tenure-track jobs. This would have been his fourth MLA meeting in a row. He was scheduled to appear on a panel here on "Today's Students, Today's Teachers: Economics." He also hoped he would be interviewing for jobs.

As we all know, though, it's another gloomy year in the humanities job market, with the MLA's jobs listings down 37 percent from last year. When none of the 41 positions Mr. Croxall applied for produced an interview, he decided he could not afford to attend the MLA this year. Instead he posted his paper on his Web site as it was being read by proxy here in Philadelphia.

Although he wasn't here to deliver it in person, Mr. Croxall's paper may wind up being the conference's most-talked-about presentation. This MLA has produced a lively Twitter stream (hashtag #mla09), which quickly picked up Mr. Croxall's hardscrabble account of life as a contingent faculty member and began retweeting it. One poster described it as "required reading for higher-ed folks." It is a frank and frankly bleak description of just how close to the edge many faculty members live — and what that means not just for their careers and their scholarship but for their students.

Mr. Croxall calculated that attending the MLA would cost him about $400 out of pocket. (He breaks it down in his post.) He writes: "But once it became apparent that I wasn't going to be having any interviews, I could no longer justify the outlay of $400 out of a salary that puts me only $1,210 above the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines. (And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!)"

As Mr. Croxall points out, attending the MLA (or any conference) is not just about interviewing for jobs or having nightcaps with friends. It's a way to plug into new scholarship in one's field and make connections, professional and intellectual, that propel teachers and scholars forward. A panel Mr. Croxall was on last year produced a book-length collaboration among the panelists, who hadn't met before.

"When the majority of faculty (who are, again, contingent faculty) cannot attend the MLA (or any other conference), it results in a faculty that cannot advance, that does not, in other words, appear to be doing the things that would warrant their conversion to the tenure track. Our placement as contingent faculty quickly becomes a self-fulfilling event," Mr. Croxall writes.

As Mr. Croxall explains in some detail, students ultimately pay a price for that situation, too, because they get professors who are overworked and underpaid and not as current in their fields as they want to be.

If the MLA wants an Everyman, Mr. Croxall qualifies. "If we are talking about 'today's teachers,' then more of them look like me — at least in a professional sense — than look like the people who will be on the dais at the Presidential Address," he writes. "And that means that most of the students in America are also taught by people that are like me. In a very real sense, I — and the people situated in a similar professional and economic quandary — are today's teachers of today's students. And for the most part, we're not at the MLA this year."