I can’t be bothered to demand that MLA abolish itself

by zunguzungu

I like the MLA and I enjoy job interviews; I like seeing old friends, and meeting new ones, and I enjoy talking about job interviews with them. Complaining about the MLA is always a good bonding experience, and commiserating over our depressing collective and individual future is something that brings together my class of precarious graduate students. If I am offered an academic position, I will look forward, each year, to joining with new and old friends in some forsaken strip-mall convention center and finding new problems to commiserate over. But if MLA collapses into the dustbin of institutional history, I might be  first in line to throw a shovelful of dirt on the casket.

“Disruption” is usually a code word for privatization, after all, or its stalking horse: when we anticipate “disrupting the classroom,” what we look forward to will be a mode of pedagogy that is cheaper and more profitable, and almost certainly worse for the students involved. I’ve made this case elsewhere, so I won’t rehearse it here. But it’s a fate I want to avoid because it will be worse for those involved.  In the sense by which education is a good thing, I believe it will become a worse thing.

“Disrupting” the MLA, by contrast, will take a thing which is terrible, by many standards, and make it… well, how much worse? I’m really not sure. MLA and its convention have value. I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing my friends, I’ve been at some great panels (amid the many stinkers), and if I get a job at a school where I’ve interviewed, I will certainly be glad that I did. Going there gets me excited about the profession, and I do value that. But I have also paid through the nose for that value. When you make $15k a year, and your future employment prospects are murky, it’s pretty hard to drop a thousand dollars on plane tickets, hotels, overpriced food, and all the other hidden costs that are involved. One must buy a nice suit so you look like you deserve the job that will allow you to pay for that suit, and nine out of ten people who buy that suit and interview for that job, will not get it. They will simply pay to look like they deserve a job that does not exist for them.

I’ve been lucky; generous friends and family have shielded me from having to pay a full price I’m not sure how I would afford. But most people do pay that full price. And at the most basic level, MLA exists because of the money that job candidates spend as a category, this money that many or most simply cannot afford. Those job candidates fill the hotel rooms that feed the convention’s profit margin, directly subsidizing the ability of the convention center and participating hotels to give MLA a rate that it can afford to pay. Your dues are not nothing—and even paying the reduced graduate student rate is a kick in the teeth—but the cost of the hotel rooms is where the Sheraton gets the money it needs to profitably host the conference. Every lazy tenured professor that gets up and delivers a paper they’ve barely written and hardly prepared—and I’ve seen quite a few in my time—is able to do that because of all the hotel bills that subsidize the convention.

What would happen to the MLA if every single search committee switched to Skype interviews? I am opposed to online education—in at least many of its potential forms—because I think it will be cheaper *and* worse. But would universal Skype interviews be worse enough to justify not absolving all future job candidates of the debt they will accrue applying for jobs they won’t get? It’s a little cheaper for the search committee, and that cheapness would come at the cost of the ability to ascertain whether candidates had achieved appropriate levels of personal hygiene, dress, and conversational grace. It would also impede their ability to judge the things you can judge about a person when you have a spirited and high-stakes conversation about literature, pedagogy, and themselves. These are not nothings. These are somethings. But they are very expensive somethings. And if every job search doesn’t require ten candidates to fly to MLA and stay in an expensive hotel room—if every job search instead conducts the first set of interviews over Skype—they will, collectively, save nine out of ten job candidates the many hundreds of dollars that those job candidates would have spent on a job they wouldn’t have gotten. That’s a lot of un-bought plane tickets and un-bought hotel rooms, a lot of suits un-purchased and un-laundered, and a great many graduate students, adjuncts, and postdocs who can instead spend money on things like rent, food, and not being in debt.

This would have to be a decision that was made collectively, of course; if half the universities conduct Skype interviews and half of them do it the old-fashioned way, a two-tiered hiring process takes shape, a new hierarchy of academic respectability (though is it new? Maybe we’re already there). It might become a point of pride for schools that can afford it to conduct interviews at MLA, and people who can’t afford those interviews won’t apply for those jobs, won’t also wander into cutting edge panels, network with new friends, etc. Moreover, if it isn’t system-wide, it’s more of a savings for the interviewer than the interviewee. A friend was told by a hiring committee that they had switched to Skype interviews to save money for job candidates; he did the Skype interview with them, and then he flew to MLA to do his other interviews—his fourth year on the market—and saved exactly zero dollars on the ticket he had bought and the room he had reserved months ago.

I’m not going to go around calling for a collective switch to Skype interviews, because “calling for” a huge change in a profession I haven’t managed to join—yet? or am I wrong to pretend that I haven’t joined?—is sot of an absurd rhetorical position to assume. And others have made such calls before, and will in the future. But I am in the part of my career where I still pay an arm and a leg and receive a few trinkets in exchange, so I enjoy the trinkets while my attention is drawn to the arm and the leg, and then grumble about it. If I advance to a position where my school flies me to a new city each year and pays my hotel bill, I imagine I’ll probably enjoy the good parts and endure the unpleasant parts (like interviewing a dozen job candidates in a cramped hotel room). But I wonder if I’ll also forget who pays that cost in my place, were I to acquire the position from which I could theoretically call for change? Or would I just enjoy being on the top half of the pile? If I had some kind of voice in the MLA, would I call for its abolition? I won’t waste my breath on having an opinion here; I’m just enjoying having a good grumble. As someone once put it—who was that guy again?—institutions are usually not very interested in solving problems that will make themselves unnecessary. And maybe next year will be the year I’ll register early enough to get the early registration rate.