Presidential Footnote

The other day via the trackback notifications here, I learned that MLA President (or I guess now past President?) Michael Bérubé mentioned one of my previous blog post in his recent 2013 Presidential Address, though he doesn’t quote me per se. Hey, I’ll take whatever attention I can get.

I agree with just about everything Bérubé says until the last four paragraphs of his speech– that’s where he mentions me, and I’ll get to that in a moment. The rest of the speech seems kind of melancholy though.  Don’t get me wrong– it’s well-written (albeit a bit wandering) and thoughtful and smart; it just seems like kind of a bummer. He speaks about the often repeated problem of graduate students in English literature falling out of love of reading and the difficulties of persuading anyone outside of “the humanities” to agree that “the humanities” is worth something, etc.  He writes “Time and and again this year, I have asked myself: how did we get ourselves into this?” with this being the reality that folks like those at the Modern Language Association have to now lobby business and government to convince them what they do matters.  Of course, fields like composition and rhetoric have always had to justify themselves to other stakeholders, but that’s another matter.

He also speaks at different points about the Adjunct Project web site, which was/is an interesting crowd-sourced project started by Josh Boldt which shares information on literally thousands of adjunct (e.g. part-time) teaching positions in lots of different fields. It started more or less as a Google spreadsheet and it has become a site/service sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education.  I’m not sure what to make of that. I suspect that the CHE can do a better job hosting this and far be it from me to suggest Boldt shouldn’t get something from CHE as a blogger and/or organizer, but it does feel odd that this grass roots effort has been taken over by something that’s more corporate.

Anyway, I get mentioned near the end of Bérubé’s speech:

Early this year I witnessed a particularly debilitating example of how this works. In response to the publicity generated by Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project, a rhetoric and composition specialist replied that it was odd for the MLA to be promoting wage recommendations for contingent faculty members, because we have never been all that interested in the teaching of writing. It seemed to me at the time a complete non sequitur, because our wage recommendations don’t stipulate what anyone might be teaching in any realm of language or literature.

That’s me! That’s me!

But to be clear, I wasn’t criticizing Boldt’s project at all. Rather, as I think my February blog post makes clear, I was responding to a post that Bérubé made on Crooked Timber— really, I was responding to a response to a comment that Bérubé made to my comment on that post (if that’s confusing enough).  In his post, Bérubé was talking about all the stuff that MLA was going to be doing in 2012 in the name of adjunct labor and he mentioned Boldt.  And while I think the MLA effort is problematic for a bunch of different reasons, I think Boldt’s project makes sense, which is probably one of the reasons why it has caught on a lot more than the MLA’s efforts.

Anyway, as I said back then, it is admirable that MLA has decided to give the issue of adjunct labor attention, but these issues have been a major topic of concern amongst the CCCCs crowd for decades. And the reason why the CCCCs crowd has been talking about all of this for so long is because most of the adjunct labor in English departments teaches first year writing.

Bérubé goes on:

We simply think that everyone in the business should be paid a minimum of $6,920 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course. Our critics have derided this as hopelessly unrealistic, and this critic was no exception; he said we might as well wish for ponies while we were at it. When I replied that I didn’t see what any of this had to do with the teaching of writing, I was reminded that introductory writing courses fall on the extreme end of the low-wage spectrum, and that the MLA has historically ignored those courses, which is one reason why the National Council of Teachers of English was founded. I granted the point, of course, but could not refrain from noting that the NCTE was founded in 1911, and that perhaps, in the interest of better working conditions for all our colleagues, it would be best to bury that century-old hatchet.

First off, I stand by my “might as well wish for a pony” analogy as both accurate and funny enough to be included in an MLA speech. I think everyone should be paid as fairly as possible (adjuncts included), but this kind of money simply does not square with the “supply and demand” functions of the market. It would be nice if this weren’t the case, but that’s the reality of the matter. And simply wishing that everyone was paid $7000 a section is sort of like, well, you know….

Second, as came up in that February 2012 blog post in my original post and the comments, what I would like MLA (and NCTE, for that matter) to do is try to address the problem by encouraging writing departments to change their hiring practices and by speaking more specifically to would-be part-timers.  First year writing programs ought to hire part-time instructors who have training and experience in composition and rhetoric, not literature PhDs who taught some comp while they were graduate students. My colleagues in literature maintain this practice in hiring part-timers to teach literature; why shouldn’t we do the same?

And by speaking more specifically to would-be part-timers, I mean we should do more to persuade those “road warrior” instructors that teaching part-time at several different institutions is a bad bad idea. So many adjuncts are exploited because they allow themselves to be exploited. Part-time teaching should be for people who only want to/need to work part time and not for folks who were unable   to get full-time work teaching in the first place.

As for the burying of the hatchet: it isn’t as simple as that. Bérubé writes this in his next paragraph:

But of course the point remains that although the object of this association is to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects, as our constitution says, we have generally been understood to be more interested in literature than in language. Many of our colleagues in rhetoric and writing don’t see the MLA as their organization, and neither do many creative writers. There is no natural reason for this; we should be reading our mission broadly and inclusively.

First off, I think Bérubé is severely over-estimating the “broad and inclusive” appeal of the MLA convention to those who are concerned with language but who do not study literature. There are many reasons I haven’t been back to the MLA convention in a dozen or so years, but one reason is because the last time I looked there was literally nothing I was interested in attending, and this out of hundreds of sessions. The last time I looked, there were maybe a 15 sessions having to do with composition and rhetoric and maybe a half-dozen on technical writing; everything else was one flavor or another of literature. Which is fine, by the way– there aren’t a lot of lit sessions at the CCCCs either– but don’t claim that MLA is a “broad and inclusive” conference when it demonstrably is not.

Though I might give it another try in January 2014 because it’s in Chicago and because I am told there has been a lot more about “digital humanities” lately, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Second, I think Bérubé (and a lot of other people in literature) are not understanding that composition and rhetoric folks and writing studies folks are increasingly moving away from “English” and “literature” departments. This has been going on for a long time in terms of the nature of what we think is worthy of study, the methodologies we use to study things, and increasingly, even the departments we are in.

In a way, literature and comp/rhet are sort of like a dysfunctional couple that has grown apart and then sort of broken up. Only the break-up was never officially announced and literature, who was the one in the relationship who was clearly in charge and made all the decisions, is now is in denial that there’s anything really that wrong.  At the same time, comp/rhet is on to other things and seeing other people.

5 thoughts on “Presidential Footnote”

  1. I find curious Bérubé’s decision to refer to you generically as a “rhetoric and composition specialist” rather than giving your name in his address. He uses plenty of other names in the piece (almost all of this citations get referenced directly in the speech), so stylistic explanations tend not to hold up. Your name is plainly enough available to him, after all, and it seems like using your name would be both appropriate and helpful. Of course, naming you in the speech itself would have also represented the exchange as dialogue between individuals, right?, whereas invoking the hazier cover of a “rhetoric and composition specialist” frames the exchange as one with greater magnitude, as if it’s a conversation between MLA and all of rhet/comp.

    1. Yeah, I don’t want to make too much of it. It does seem kind of, well, rude to me, especially in light of what he says he’s calling for in this “let’s just all come together” sort of pitch. But maybe he just wasn’t thinking like that or along those lines at all.

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