Wednesday, September 4, 2019
September 4, 2019: Academic Labor: Scholarly Organizations as Advocates
[Usually around this time I’d be sharing Fall Semester Preview posts. I’m on sabbatical, so no teaching for me this Fall; instead I thought I’d connect Labor Day to issues of academic labor this week. Leading up to a special weekend tribute post!]
On how a smaller and a larger scholarly organization can each take part in crucial conversations over academic labor.
As I’ve highlighted in numerous posts across this blog’s nearly 9 (!) years of existence, two of the most consistent elements of my professional career for the last decade have been two regional scholarly organizations: the New England American Studies Association (NEASA) and the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA). As scholarly organizations, both NEASA and NeMLA function first and foremost as communities through which academics can share their work and voices—both of them in their annual scholarly conferences; and NeMLA through other avenues such as its own academic journal, Modern Language Studies (MLS; currently edited by my colleague and friend Laurence Roth). Yet just as every individual academic is implicated in and affected by issues of academic labor (including but not limited to this week’s central focus, adjunctification), so too is every scholarly organization likewise linked to all those issues. And both NEASA and NeMLA offer, in distinct but complementary ways, examples of how scholarly organizations can engage with and help advance those conversations and efforts over labor issues.
NEASA is a smaller organization—the largest annual conference, mine at Plimoth Plantation in 2011, featured about 120 participants; the number of active members at any given time is somewhere in that range as well—and so not one that can necessarily make any kind of national splash when it comes to issues of academic labor (or any others). But when NEASA can do, and indeed I would argue a more vital role for any academic organization than even the sharing of scholarship that I mentioned, is offer community, solidarity, and support for any and all scholars (defined as broadly as possible) who are able to be part of it. The way that NEASA has done so most consistently is through our second annual event, the Colloquium. I created the first Colloquium back in Spring 2011, but at that point it simply offered a more informal space in which folks could share their work; in the years since (and through the efforts of many other folks) it has evolved instead into an opportunity to discuss issues of the profession, of academic labor, of the humanities, and so on. The next one, upcoming at Roxbury Community College on Saturday September 21st, offers us a chance to enlarge that communal conversation to include CC faculty and students even more fully.
NeMLA is a much bigger organization, which partly means that the annual conference becomes even more of a focus (our conferences average something like 1500 participants across four full days, and take a great deal of planning throughout the year from both the NeMLA staff and the Board) but also means that the organization has a more substantial platform through which to advocate for issues like those concerning academic labor. Take for example our Executive Board letter (scroll down to the May 23, 2017 news item) in response to Stony Brook University’s proposed closing of a number of academic programs, an example of the institutional retrenchment that has become all-too common and that demands collective response and engagement from all organizations. But precisely because NeMLA’s annual conference is so sizeable, the conference too can become an important platform for engaging and advocating for these kinds of issues—I was proud that at my presidential conference, in Hartford in 2016, we were able to feature a series of panels on adjunctification and academic labor, and the thread has been carried on throughout our subsequent conferences. Organizations can’t change these frustrating realities, no more than any one of us can; but they can offer both solidarity for all academics and spaces to voice these responses and advocacies, and I’m proud that both NEASA and NeMLA have done so and continue doing so.
Next Labor week post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?