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From the President

An Agenda for These Times

Reprinted from the Summer 2009 MLA Newsletter

Soon after my election to the second vice presidency in 2006, I was caught up short the first time someone asked about my "agenda" for 2009. The wish list in my election statement included several ambitious goals: develop or update professional standards and guidelines, assess the impact of new technologies on teaching and scholarship, work on expanding membership and forging programmatic connections with K–12 educators, defend the humanities. Distilling concrete initiatives from those long-term goals, I realized, would not be simple. A president's agenda has to be mapped onto the ongoing agendas established by our governing bodies; it also has to be adjusted and prioritized in relation to the real-world circumstances in which the association seeks to carry out its mission. Since 2006, I have come to believe that a reckoning with the vexed issue of faculty staffing trends is the dominant challenge for our organization and profession today. Here's why.

Recent MLA reports show how the undergraduate population has grown significantly over the last ten to fifteen years, while the number of tenure-track faculty positions has hardly increased at all: instructional needs have been met by hiring more and more non-tenure-track teachers on a part-time or full-time contingent basis.1 Roughly two-thirds of the teaching in English and other modern language departments is done by non-tenure-track faculty members; a strong concentration of these teachers are in first- and second-year courses. Although first- and second-year students tend to do best when they can have personal contacts with professors who know them as individuals, they have little chance of getting this support when most or all of their instructors are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. As they go through the process of choosing a major, these same students often lack regular access to the seasoned senior faculty members whose teaching is informed by ongoing research and professional development. I am not concerned here with the quality or dedication of non-tenure-track faculty members. In most circumstances, these colleagues bring excellent qualifications and a strong sense of educational purpose to their work. But the steadily increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty members in contingent positions has bad consequences for educators as well as for students. As we have all known for a very long time, many part-time faculty members have to piece together their careers by juggling courses at two or more colleges at the same time. Facing low salaries, meager benefits, little job security, and difficult working conditions, they are often left isolated and inadequately informed about the curricular goals in the departments in which they teach. They sometimes end up with little or no time to work with students outside class, to develop professional relationships with colleagues, or to play constructive roles in the institution.

In many places, laudable efforts to professionalize institutional policies and practices for faculty members off the tenure track have established an intermediate tier consisting of full-time contingent faculty members who hold renewable multiyear contracts. While these faculty members have more job security than part-time or short-term instructors, they are still far more vulnerable to cutbacks than colleagues on the tenure track, typically have heavier teaching loads than their tenure-track counterparts, and usually play limited roles in student advising and curriculum planning. Compared with the opportunities for professional development and institutional advancement of tenure-track faculty members, theirs are scant; their lot is to live with the frustration and resentment inherent in second-class academic citizenship.

Meanwhile, as tenured and tenure-track faculty members become less numerous in relation to the overall teaching staff, they take on disproportionate responsibilities in the areas of administration, faculty governance, and the myriad other forms of service demanded in today's colleges and universities. Tenured humanities faculty members are increasingly a discomfited elite, caught up in awkward relationships with their less-privileged colleagues, with undergraduate majors they meet in advanced courses, with graduate students who will be facing a forbidding job market, and with administrators who represent the faculty's activity primarily in budgetary terms. Little wonder that in many institutions the governing influence of the tenured faculty has waned along with its importance in the undergraduate teaching mission.

In May 2002, MLA President Stephen Greenblatt sent a letter to the membership (www.mla.org/scholarly_pub) urging us to face up to the crisis in academic publishing that threatened both young scholars and small fields with the loss of a professional resource essential for their survival. "Many factors are involved here," he wrote, "but the core of the problem . . . is systemic, structural, and at base economic." The staffing crisis is also a structural and systemic problem that has developed over decades. While this problem obviously intersects with elements of the still-unresolved publishing crisis, the dimensions of the staffing crisis are far broader, and the structure at issue, that of a professoriat built around tenure as the decisive working condition and career goal, appears to be even more intractable. Owing to the current economic meltdown, which dramatizes the precariousness of staff and nontenured faculty positions in academia and which threatens not just university presses or individual departments but entire colleges and universities, the urgency of this crisis may turn out to be unprecedented.

In the absence of concerted action by the leaders of our colleges and universities, we cannot expect a structural, systemic response at the national level, nor can we aspire to a one-size-fits-all solution. But as colleges and universities of all types struggle to preserve their values and standards with dramatically diminished resources, we need to come together on our campuses as a unified community of teachers and scholars determined to transcend the divide between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members. We need to begin transforming our understanding of the faculty hierarchy into one that treats the full teaching corps as a collegial collective in which the participants share an entitlement to basic rights, including a decent wage and benefits package, appropriate working conditions (meaning, at minimum, dedicated office space and access to a computer, a telephone, duplicating services, and teaching tools suited to the courses assigned), support for professional development, some measure of job security, the protections of due process, and the guarantee of academic freedom. Placed in such a context, tenure eligibility would be a function of scholarly and professional achievement and, by guaranteeing for a significant portion of the faculty the possibility of pursuing indefinitely the highest level of scholarship and teaching, would serve to ensure the institution's commitment to the long-term, disinterested pursuit of knowledge and to insulate the academic enterprise against the vicissitudes of market forces and the shortsightedness of careerist views of higher education.

The Executive Council will continue to address the issue by convening groups within and beyond the MLA to propose and, where feasible, to implement appropriate corrective actions. For individual faculty members and scholars, for academic departments and programs, and for ad hoc groups of humanities teachers, the MLA has sought to make the task of pursuing enlightened institutional staffing policies less daunting than it might seem at first glance. The Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit, now available through our home page, brings together a set of reports and guidelines on faculty workload and staffing norms developed by the association since the 1990s. Armed with these facts and figures, buttressed by goals and guidelines endorsed by the largest professional association of humanities scholars in the country, we can begin to do the hard work of describing the situation in our own institutions; comparing it with the situation on the national level; confronting administrations with the facts, needs, and relevant standards; and educating the public at the local and state level. On behalf of our organization, which aims to influence federal policy and promote humanistic inquiry in higher education, let me urge you to tell us at MLA headquarters about your concerns and the efforts that faculty members are pursuing on your campus. The more activity we can report, the stronger our position will be as we press for progress on the national level.

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Note

1. The MLA reports "Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English," "The Demography of the Faculty," and "Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World" can be accessed through the new Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit on the MLA home page.
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Catherine Porter
2009 MLA President Catherine Porter
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