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The Academy Is Not in Crisis

I feel that I keep deferring my reflections on fellow Innovations blogger Richard Vedder’s work (I hope he’s not offended), but I simply can’t pass up my impressions of last week’s Modern Language Convention, the annual gathering of English and European language professors and graduate students, where the attendees present conference papers and (much more importantly, as everyone knows) where Ph.D. students are interviewed for jobs and assistant professors pitch their book manuscripts to academic-press editors.

First impression: The conference, for the third year in a row, is a shadow of its former self. The humanities are in such poor financial shape that far fewer people can afford to attend. Departments can’t afford to send teams of professors to interview prospective job candidates, so the professors don’t go, nor do the candidates, since tenure-track jobs are scarcer than ever. So the MLA no longer feels like a convention: The main hotel (the J.W. Marriott in Los Angeles) never felt full, elevators were never crowded, coffee-shop lines were oddly short, and seating in the main lobby lounges was never a worry.

Rumor has it that phone interviews, rather than in-person interviews at the convention, are on the rise, so much so that a Ph.D. student in my department (English at Ohio State) suggested we might do well to do mock phone interviews as a way of preparing our job seekers. It sounded like an odd idea to someone like me who has been in the profession for 31 years, but it makes perfect sense in today’s climate: More colleges are opting for phone or teleconference interviews because it’s all they can afford. As a hiring venue, the MLA convention is, I think, teetering on the brink of obsolescence.

Second impression (also the second time I’ve written about it for The Chronicle): In response to the scenario I just described, and to its financial roots, the MLA Program Committee dedicated the first day of the convention (January 6) to “The Academy in Hard Times,” turning that day into a fervent show of solidarity.

The idea that the “academy” is in crisis is patently ridiculous and thus the show of solidarity was nothing more than a joke. The humanities are in very hard times, but postsecondary education in the U.S. is in a state of significant transition. STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are enjoying a funding boom, as are precincts of universities that generate money—business schools, law schools, medical schools, athletic programs. This list doesn’t even account for the continued growth of the for-profit postsecondary education industry, in which the humanities have no role. No amount of commiserating by a collection of literature professors will change that.

For our organization to say that the “academy” is in crisis misleadingly equates the academy with the humanities and exposes us as a collection of narcissists. The humanities are simply not relevant to the contemporary university in the way that they were, say, 60 years ago. So the day of devotion to “The Academy in Hard Times” was based on a totally outmoded concept of the university, a failure to acknowledge the institutional history in which we all play a part.

Third impression: The single most interesting thing about this year’s MLA convention had nothing to do with the MLA. Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-AFT, organized an astonishing “Counter-Conference” held during the afternoon of January 8 (while MLA sessions were going on) at nearby Loyola Law School. Only there did I feel that I was in the real world. AAUP president Cary Nelson gave a tour-de-force 27-point presentation on an assortment of day-to-day things that humanities professors can do to enhance their chances of having their voices heard; Jeffrey Williams spoke eloquently, as always, about the looming crisis of student debt in the U.S.; Christopher Newfield offered a hilarious look forward to 2020, in which students would march on Washington, burn their “student debt cards” and force legislators to fix the way that higher education is funded in the U.S.

The bottom line: The Counter-Conference perfectly reflected what the MLA should do, but is not doing. The whole convention next year in Seattle should be devoted to a broader institutional consideration of the university, and not even necessarily to the place of the humanities in it. So long as literature professors complain that “the academy” is in “hard times” because we’re suffering, we will continue to look like fools.

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