This year was to be my fourth year attending MLA in a row. I spoke in 2006, interviewed in 2007, spoke and interviewed in 2008, and had hoped to speak and interview this year as well. When the interviews did not materialize, I made the difficult decision to not attend the convention given the financial realities of being an adjunct faculty member. I regretted not having the chance to speak–especially on a panel titled “Today’s Teachers, Today’s Students: Economics”–but the panel chair volunteered to deliver my paper in absentia.
So as my panel is happening in Philadelphia, I decided to simultaneously publish my comments that are being read at this moment.
The Absent Presence: Today’s Faculty
I’m sorry that I can’t be delivering these comments in person, and I thank Prof. Cavanagh for her willingness to read them on my behalf. Hearing talks delivered by the person who did not write them is only slightly better than having to be the person who is reading a talk she didn’t write, so I’ll be brief. At the same time, however, I can think of no more appropriate way for me to give a talk in a panel titled “Today’s Students, Today’s Teachers: Economics” than in this manner.
After all, I’m not a tenure-track faculty member, and the truth of the matter is that I simply cannot afford to come to this year’s MLA. I know that we as a profession are increasingly aware of the less than ideal conditions under which contingent faculty members (and graduate students) labor while providing more than half of the instruction that undergraduates receive across the nation, a fact that The Chronicle of Higher Education (see articles from December 2008 and May 2009, as just two such examples) and other publications have reported on throughout the last twelve months. If we are talking about “today’s teachers,” then more of them look like me—at least in a professional sense—than look like the people who will be on the dais at the Presidential Address later on this evening. And that means that most of the students in America are also taught by people that are like me. In a very real sense, I—and the people situated in a similar professional and economic quandary—are today’s teachers of today’s students. And for the most part, we’re not at the MLA this year.
Again, I’m not at the MLA this year because it’s not economically feasible. I had hoped to be here for job interviews—as well as to speak as a member of this panel discussion. This was my third year on the job market, and I applied to every job in North America that I was even remotely qualified for: all 41 of them. Unfortunately, I did not receive any interviews, despite having added two articles accepted by peer-reviewed journals, five new classes, and several new awards and honors to my vita. According to my records, applying to those 41 jobs cost me $257.54. I was prepared to pay the additional expenses of attending the MLA ($125 for registration, $279.20 for a plane ticket, approximately $180.00 for lodging with a roommate at a total of $584.20) out of pocket so that I could have a chance of getting one of those 41 jobs.  I was even luckier than most faculty (remember, most of today’s faculty are contingent) in that my institution was willing to provide me with $200 support to attend conferences throughout the academic year. But once it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be having any interviews, I could no longer justify the outlay of $400.00 out of a salary that puts me only $1,210 above the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines.  (And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!)
I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this dilemma of not attending this year’s convention due to finances and the anemic job market. After all, as The New York Times reported on 17 December, the number of listings in the MLA’s Job Information List was down 37% from 2008’s numbers, the sharpest decline since MLA started tracking job ads in 1974. It’s not like 2008 was a banner year, however. The listings a year ago were down 26% from what they had been in 2007. Landing a job in the professoriate has been difficult for well more than this decade, but the recent economic crisis has necessitated (or allowed, if we’re feeling cynical) administrators trimming budgets so that less and less tenure-track faculty are hired. What this means is that more and more contingent faculty are employed to teach the increasing number of students who are matriculating at the nation’s universities. So…perhaps it’s not that employment is going down for humanists with the PhD. Rather, it is sustainable employment that is evaporating. (I’m looking at you, California.) After all, the demand for contingent faculty labor will probably rise sharply as the number of students enrolling in colleges rises due to the nation’s recent economic crisis. And since we can’t expect other schools to be as generous as mine with travel funds to contingent faculty, there should be less and less faculty members at the MLA in the future because less and less of the nation’s faculty will be able to afford to get here.
“But”—the administrators say—“the MLA is only a conference, one where people read papers at each other. What difference does it make whether you attend or not?” Such questions are of course misleading since it’s not as if my department is willing to give me more money to travel to other conferences instead of the MLA. So the problem of not being able to afford to attend the MLA is really the problem of attending any conference, other than a hyper-local one. And attending conferences is critical for one’s scholarship since it allows one to hear the latest research in one’s field. I especially appreciate how large the MLA is since I can find opportunities to attend panels that represent the full 150 years of American literature that my research covers. Attending this conference (or others) keeps me abreast of the latest scholarship and helps me produce scholarship that pushes the state of my fields forward. As one of today’s teachers, attending conferences helps me be more prepared to teach today’s students these new developments, preparing them to be more effective readers of literature, whether they are English or biostatistics majors. Moreover, it is at conferences that I am most likely to have the opportunity to meet with old and new colleagues whose work intersects most closely with my own. Schools only need so many Shakespeare scholars; not so the MLA! Yet attending conferences isn’t just about seeing old friends; the relationships formed with colleagues at conferences again help us produce scholarship. For just one example, the panel that I spoke on last year has resulted in a book-length collaboration among the four panelists, none of whom had met previously. When the majority of faculty (who are, again, contingent faculty) cannot attend the MLA (or any other conference), it results in a faculty that cannot advance, that does not, in other words, appear to be doing the things that would warrant their conversion to the tenure track. Our placement as contingent faculty quickly becomes a self-fulfilling event.
But having a faculty majority comprised of contingent faculty means a lot more than just conferences being less and less attended. In my case, it means that my students cannot easily meet with me for office hours since contingent faculty don’t really have offices. It means that they do not get effective, personal mentoring because I have too many students. It means that I cannot give the small and frequent assignments that I believe teach them more than a “3-paper class” because I do not have time to grade 90 students’ small and frequent assignments. It means that the courses they can take from me will not be updated as frequently as I think is ideal because I will be spending all of my spare time looking for more secure employment—or working a part-time job. In other words, when we short-change (pun-intended) today’s teachers (the majority of us who are, finally and for the last time, contingent and not present at this year’s MLA), we simultaneously short-change today’s students. And those students will be that much less likely to become literature professors in the future. Why should they? It’s not currently a sustainable profession; but even more so, they will have had that many less chances to have those interactions with teachers that leads to today’s students wanting to become tomorrow’s teachers.
 The profession as a whole needs to find a better method for interviewing candidates. One that does not burden those who are already at the bottom of the ladder with additional expenses.  Fun facts: In 2007, I applied to XX jobs at a cost of $270.07. In 2008, I applied to XX jobs at a cost of $313.19. Both of these figures do not include the costs of attending MLA. In three years on the job market (2007, 2008, and 2009), I have received 3 MLA interviews and 0 campus interviews.