#alt-ac · #post-ac · transition

Being Alt-Ac at the MLA

Due to my excellent negotiation skills, I got most of last week off to go hang out at the 2014 Modern Language Association Conference in Chicago, an experience that was rather different from the last time I attended. (Hot tip: administrative jobs sometimes have major vacation restrictions. I’m technically prohibited from taking any time off between mid-August and March. Also, the apartment I stayed in last time didn’t flood. January really can be the Monday of months.) I was still considering the tenure-track the last time I attended, and I spent most of my time at panels on literature and theory. The chair of my panel was interviewing, and it was hard not to pick up on what Karen Kelsky calls “the pervasive emotional buzz of desperation.” I went to the same mock interview session that Kelsky critiques here, and started to realize just how much I never wanted to do an academic interview. (I think it was the trick questions designed to ferret out if you ever intended to procreate that squicked me out the most. My uterus is none of your damn business! And also, yes, because admitting a desire to have a kid doesn’t make me a bad alt/academic.)

This time around, I happily spent my time at panels and workshops on graduate reform/professional development/careers, which the MLA convention arguably does better than it does literary studies. (It is, at times, painfully obvious that many of the non-job seeking presenters write their papers on the plane, or are too busy catching up with old friends to contribute much to the intellectual success of the conference.) While the AHA is arguably doing the best job of addressing these issues head on (“No More Plan B,” anyone?), the issues facing graduate students (and post-docs, and adjuncts) were front and centre at the MLA, as was the acknowledgement that pretending everything is hunky dory just doesn’t cut it. Some examples:

  • Russell Berman’s panel on PhD reform was alternately heartening and disappointing, with some programs doing exciting things with comp structure, others creating new PhD programs that sound like the same old. 
  • The report on the AHA’s post-PhD tracking data means that we now better know where PhDs are ending up, and therefore what they might need as students, and we have a sense of the wide alumni networks that we need to figure out how to access. 
  • Conversely, the continued drive to open new PhD programs (and the refusal to reduce enrollment targets, either on the part of universities, or in the case of my province, on the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities) means that the vast gap between number of PhDs graduating and the number of academic jobs isn’t closing anytime soon. The debate over this issue was one of the most interesting of the conference.
  • The advice provided to PhDs interested in post- and alt-ac career options was sage, practical, and heartening. (The session didn’t get its own hashtag, but Katina Rogers’ tweets from January 10 provide a nice summary. [Update: the panel Storify can be found here.]) And I’m at a point where I’m okay with going up to people and telling them that they should talk to me about being a speaker at their next event. MLA 2015, anyone?
  • The panel that I spoke on and that my friend Daniel organized about dissertations beyond the proto-monograph was really well attended, particularly for a grad student only panel. And despite some of us saying fairly radical things (Let’s write comic books instead of dissertations! Let’s scrap the dissertation altogether!), those in attendance–which included members of the MLA task-force on doctoral reform–were willing to entertain all sorts of suggestions in the name of making the dissertation useful beyond the tenure-track and more adaptable to the vagaries of our individual projects.  

My takeaways from the MLA, while many, centred on two things. One, it’s heartening that despite the assumption that large and influential organizations like the MLA tend to be slow and reluctant to change, the MLA as an organization (if not always its individual members) is actively recognizing, and working to address, the issues facing its graduate members both before and after defending. Two, despite my worries that I was distancing myself from my academic persona by taking an alt-ac job, and despite my concern that I’d feel as though the MLA (and academic conferences more generally) were no longer for me, that turned out not to be the case. I can be both alternate and academic, often at the same time. As academe continues to wisen up to the fact that it is made up of a far more diverse group of people than just academics, it makes room for those of us occupying liminal, or multiple, positions. And that, as someone who loves academic inquiry but not the idea of being an academic, is a welcome realization.