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Will Skype Kill the MLA?

By my count of positions discussed on the essential Academic Jobs Wiki: Seven of forty-three positions in French with “interviews scheduled” were interviewing by Skype and bypassing the MLA convention in Los Angeles this week. (More fools them: The rains are ending and the forecast is lovely.) Five of the seven were tenure track positions. In German three of 27 tenure track and three of 18 nontenurable positions are bypassing MLA. Traditional English literature fields aren’t Skyping much as yet (just one or two in most fields), but among writing specialists at least seven tenure-track jobs of the 150 or so discussed are bypassing MLA.

Given that most MLA cities aren’t as desirable in early January as Los Angeles (Toronto, you know I’m talking about you!), will the cost savings of $5,000 to $10,000 per search lead to more Skyping and less flying of three to seven socially deficient individuals across the country to imprison them in their hotel rooms for most of three days? Um, yeah, duh.

The question is: How far will this trend go? It’s leading in writing and the foreign languages, where money is tightest and allegiance to the MLA is lowest. Let’s say most of the English literature and cultural studies fields follow suit—with spikes during years of conventions scheduled for, say, Philadelphia.

Remember that the profession’s hiring class is aging faster than a horse on crack, and try to imagine the fading appeal of long flights and long days listening to the young folks (“Wah wah wah Zizek blah blah blah three manuscripts under consideration”) followed by toddling over ice-filled sidewalks for stale cheddar soup and an oxidized chardonnay. So much more comfy to tune out in front of your video screen and read your email while pretending to listen.

Indeed: No need to interview at the lousy times chosen by MLA at all. Heck, why not interview at your own convenience? Not six interviews in a row, but three interviews every Friday afternoon in December. Or November. Or January.

So what’s the impact on MLA?  With fields at the leading edge of adoption at 10 percent of interviews already, let’s pick a number for a near-term plateau, a conservative number like 25 percent of all interviews bypassing MLA—probably higher in writing and foreign languages. Let’s say in five years, roughly five hundred interviews might bypass the convention. That’s roughly two thousand interviewers who might not otherwise come, and at least a couple of hundred interviewees, those whose only interviews are Skyped.

MLA’s budget is several million a year, so losing a fraction of convention income isn’t going to bankrupt it. But let’s say conservatively they collect $200 a head per attendee. That’s a hit of almost a half-million a year right there. It’s probably more, because many folks renew their dues just to attend the convention, and there’s the rake from booksellers, some of whom might no longer come, hotel bookings, etc.  And half a million pays five to seven staffers, without whom MLA can offer fewer services, thus diminishing the luster of the whole operation,  making credible eventual future bypassings. Chances are excellent that 50 percent or more of writing jobs alone will bypass MLA, given the deservedly poor reputation of the organization in the field. If I were doing MLA resource allocation, I’d be thinking of a likely half-million dollar hit, and praying that it wasn’t a full million.

This question and others will be discussed at the panel “New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis.” This Thursday January 6, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 406A, L.A. Convention Center. A special session. Presiding: Meredith L. McGill, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick Speakers: Rosemary G. Feal, MLA, Marc Bousquet, Santa Clara Univ., Brian Croxall, Emory Univ., Christopher John Newfield, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara, Marilee Lindemann, Univ. of Maryland, College Park. Format: eight-minute presentations, discussion.

Also see the two offerings by the Division on Teaching as a Profession (yours truly on the executive committee): Deprofessionalized? and Governance Matters.

Deprofessionalized? Friday, 07 January. 8:30–9:45 a.m. Modern Language Association Convention 2011, Los Angeles. Plaza 3, Marriott.

Format: published discussion materials; 5-minute prepared remarks; discussion between panelists and audience.

1. A Split in the PMC? Rising Managers, Falling Professionals.Marc Bousquet, presiding. Tenure and Teaching Intensive Appointments Occupy and Escalate We Work

2. Solidarity v. Professionalism:  Abetting Wayward Labor. Kim Emery, University of Florida. Deprofessionalization requires a more radical solution than re-professionalization. Academic Freedom Requires Constant Vigilance The University and the Undercommons Professionalism as the Basis

3. Precarity, Itinerancy, and Professionalism. Lisa Jeanne Fluet, Boston College. Precarious faculty professionalize themselves without many of the usual compensations. What are You Going to Do With That? The Ph.D. Problem Things I Learned From Grading AP Essays

4. What Rolls Down Hill: ‘Professionalization’ and Graduate Student Administrators. Monica F. Jacobe, Princeton University. Consequences for graduate students who provide or even donate administrative labor. Play Ph.D. Casino! Graduate Students Hearing Voices Higher Exploitation

5. Busting Faculty Labor For Fun and Profit. William Lyne, Western Washington University. Faculty work is being devalued to cut costs, increase profits and reinforce class barriers for students. Power Concedes Nothing Without Demand Public Benefits, Private Costs

6. Internal Stratifications. Jeffrey J. Williams, Carnegie Mellon Univ. As doctors farm out some tasks to nurses, practitioners and physicians’ assistants, the professoriate is shifting some tasks to sub- or tertiary professions. Remaking the University The System of Professions

7. Untitled. Bruce W. Robbins, Columbia University. Secular Vocations

Can’t make the MLA?

Join Barbara Ehrenreich, Cornel West, Dick Ohmann and many others at Left Forum 2011 (March 18-20), Pace University, N.Y.C.

Interested in joining Ohmann for a panel on working in commercialized higher ed? Drop him or Susan O’Malley a line by January 5, 2011. Have an article for Radical Teacher’s issue of the same theme? Send a proposal by May 15, 2011.

Fish Does It Again
It happens roughly once a year, usually around the holidays: Just when you’re sure that you can safely ignore everything under his byline, Stanley Fish takes notice of something worthwhile and doesn’t entirely butcher it: Carvalho and Downing’s very important but absurdly priced Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era. (Yes, Virginia, full disclosure: I have a piece in it. OMG, so does Ward Churchill.) Unquestionably the must-have academic freedom book of the first decade of the millenium—ask your library to buy it.

RIP David Noble

xposted: howtheuniversityworks.com

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