Boston — Michael Bérubé’s address at this year’s Modern Language Association convention was one of a handful of times that I felt some real solidarity in the profession against the exploitation of the majority of our students and colleagues…
So hearing Bérubé as the president of the MLA call out higher education for more than 40 years of exploitation was a watershed moment for me, and, I am sure, many others in that packed ballroom: the first time I remember seeing an MLA president receive a standing ovation. I kept thinking of Jesse Jackson crying during Barack Obama’s presidential acceptance speech in 2008.
“What if the Adjuncts Shrugged?” William Pannapacker
I have to acknowledge this as a real watershed moment. Michael Bérubé’s MLA presidency and now this speech shows that the graduate student labor movement has gone from fighting the MLA to taking it over. I was around for some of that (here’s a piece I wrote about our efforts in 1998) although I was also never as fully enthusiastic about it as some of my friends and colleagues. Professional organizations have very limited powers.
In many ways, it seemed then– and now– that the MLA is largely a venue for the minority of guilty-minded tenured professors to bemoan the labor exploitation of the majority of their colleagues and then go home to their SUV’s and giant houses and job security and cats named Trotsky. I don’t want to appear as cynical as that might sound, but while I admire Bérubé and Neslon and the like, they swam in a vast sea of academic indifference.
That indifference, as the article says, has ment that most of us who were in graduate school in the 1990’s ended up outside of the tenure system without job security or much pay or health insurance. Bérubé’s speech suggests how far we have come, but as the article also points out the victory will have little practical effect. The MLA is finally on the right side of history, but it cannot provide the organizations we need to re-make higher education.