Occupying MLA

[This is a guest post by Mark C. Marino and Rob Wittig, the writers behind @occupymla. Mark teaches at the University of Southern California, and Rob teaches at University of Minnesota Duluth, both as non-tenure-track faculty. You can find out more about each of them via their websites -- and -- or follow them on Twitter: @markcmarino, @Netprov_RobWit, & @occupymla).]

@occupymla: In our list of demands, only the Oxford comma divides us!

@occupymla: Do not let the hiring committees tell you the value of your scholarship. Join us!

What Was Occupy MLA?

On November 8, 2011, a new sect of the Occupy movement appeared. Actually, the movement had appeared just a day earlier, first mentioned when @markcmarino was describing a speech he was giving in his candidacy for a Modern Language Association (MLA) committee. In the fictional Tweet, Mark said his speech was interrupted by the protest of a group that called themselves “Occupy MLA.” A few minutes later, that Tweet was deleted, a new Twitter account (@occupymla, #omla) launched, and the netprov (networked improv narrative) titled Occupy MLA was born.

What began on a whim soon grew into something more. Mark invited Rob’s collaboration and from a univocal Twitter feed evolved three distinct character voices sharing the account, Tweeting slogans, interacting with other Twitter users and arguing among themselves in public. Occupy MLA’s comic infighting highlighted complexities in issues affecting non-tenure track (NTT) and other contingent faculty and allowed us to distill three characters with vivid attitudes exemplary of what we were reading in the public debate over higher ed and in the fragmented Occupy Wall Street movement. The basic tragicomedy of the meme was the absurdity of occupying a professional organization like the MLA; adjuncts at scattered institutions share very real frustrations but have no one real venue to occupy.

The stormy interactions drew out the characters’ backstories — three flavors of NTT suffering. Like our models Addison and Steele with their cartoonish Mr. Spectator and his companions in the Spectator Club, our intention with the characters was to put the “b” back in subtle. We drew from our own adjunct/NTT experience and let Charles, Hazel, and John go to the limits of disaffection and marginalization.

The Tweets continued and Inside Higher Ed noted the group in an article. Others started following the Twitter feed. As Occupy MLA developed a following, it also began to take on a more serious agenda, which in turn led to more followers, while it championed new leaders. All-in-all Occupy MLA would be covered by Inside Higher Ed (here and here), the Chronicle of Higher Education (here and here), and even the New York Times.

Occupy MLA had two goals:

  1. to encourage a discussion of the plight of NTT faculty that could only happen under the mask of anonymity (because of the very vulnerability of NTT employment), and
  2. to explore the use of new media in the creation of literary fiction.

It seemed to us that if there ever was a group that needed the first and could understand the second, it was the Modern Language Association.

What was Occupy MLA? Hoax, activist performance, activist fiction — it was called all of these things and more in the wake of the revelation of its authorship at a reading of electronic literature at the MLA13 convention. We think of Occupy MLA as “netprov,” a form we have been developing for the past few years, creatively and critically, as part of our work in the field of electronic literature. Netprov creates stories that are networked, collaborative, and improvised in real time.

The Twamatis Personae and the Story Arcs

  • @ChangerCharles (Charles) the elder statesman, thought of himself as the leader of OMLA and was its Achilles’ heel. His style was ornate and magisterial.
  • @CompHaze (Hazel) embodied the plight of the early-career adjunct. Her signature Twitter style eschewed apostrophes.
  • @Juanahang (John), impulsive, easygoing and ebullient, was the voice behind the t-shirt contest and <hug> an adjunct day.

In both years, the bulk of @occupymla Tweets consisted of encouraging slogans related to adjunct issues and reTweets of, or links to, others writing well about them. The slogans, however, grew from the particular moment’s drama of these three characters.

In 2011, Occupy MLA’s original tagline for the account — “Take hold of your alt-ac job advice & place it squarely in your variorum. TENURE TRACK NOW” — drew Charles into a tussle with the burgeoning altac community. Mark and Rob are ardent supporters of #altac paths but wanted our characters to perform the profound emotional disappointment of an age when tenure seems to be an endangered species and in which degree-granting institutions are certifying far more PhDs than the specific market can bear.

Hazel exulted over an interview appointment at the 2012 meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA12). Many followed her as she bought a tailored suit wildly above her price range just for the opportunity. Charles’ pride and jealousy drove him to expose Hazel’s identity as a member of Occupy MLA, costing her the interview. John abandoned academia altogether for a job copy-writing, then cooking at a hip restaurant. Charles would go on to lose his own adjunct job as well as his family. Administrative had disrupted their coalition. Occupy MLA unraveled.

In 2012 the untimely demise of a professor at his old institution recalled John to academia on favorable terms. Given the safety net of the restaurant job, John exuberantly re-opened the @occupymla account. Charles objected, then joined. Occupy MLA developed a website to articulate their platform ( Hazel was led on by #profdarcy, who then passed her over for an interview on a permanent position, in the wake of which she, too rejoined the movement. Charles tried desperately to get his family back while working in a job marking papers for a course at a for-profit, online university. John celebrated the irony of being asked — he, an emergency substitute adjunct — to go to MLA13 in Boston to conduct interviews. The piece continued right into the time of the MLA13 convention, offering the powers-that-be a penny for their thoughts on the adjunct situation, asking sympathizers to put a penny in their convention badges to show solidarity, and drumming the refrain “Join us!”

What we hope made Occupy MLA a netprov in the literary tradition instead of a one-dimensional Twitter joke (à la — don’t hit us! — @ADJUNCTHULK) is that the slogans grew out of the dreams of the three characters. As Mark said in his presentation during the e-lit reading, the heart of the piece is the story of Charles. Yes, he is arrogant, prickly, proud but he has a very innocent dream: to teach students to love Chrétien de Troyes and medieval romances.

The Reception

Some readers understood Occupy MLA was a work of the imagination, and some did not. Mark and Rob worried about this endlessly, strategizing how to keep the project fun and feisty — in the liminal zone of naturalistic parody and mockumentary — but not hurt those who interacted with the account. This is the dilemma of experimental literary forms at the beginning of their life cycles (just like the eighteenth century). We took our best guess. We hypothesized that the cartoonishness of the character voices would eventually tip readers off to the fiction and, in fact, throughout the fifteen months many Twittizens loudly called out the group as a mere creation. In the end we decided to take off the mask and level the creative playing field. We apologize to anyone who felt misused. Let that be a lesson to us.

Did Occupy MLA achieve its goals? In the past two years, the Modern Language Association’s advocacy of adjunct rights has been increasingly powerful. Occupy MLA as a meme floated through the Tweetstream during the President’s address, and some have claimed OMLA as a movement independent of the group. Do we take credit for this foregrounding? No. Do we feel the crisis that Occupy MLA addressed is the crisis of the moment? Yes.

Was it literature? To our delight, the Twitter aftermath contained solid literary criticism about character, voice, plot, our writing of women, et cetera. After decades of campaigning for electronic literature to be viewed as literature, this thoughtful response feels like a huge victory, and the points are well taken. As the second MLA e-lit exhibit has proven, digitally born poetry and narratives are now an accepted part of literary study. We think netprov is literature — collaborative and participatory literature. We did the best we could.

Come, help netprov be better! Join us!

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