Saturday, January 07, 2006
Four things meme and football
Tagged by a blogger improbably named Kinesthesis Breakthrough.
Four Jobs You’ve Had
1. Foot messenger
2. Restaurant cleaner
3. Pizza delivery guy
4. Legal proofreader/ word processor
Four Movies You Could Watch Over and Over
2. Spinal Tap
3. Memento (that’s a joke, son)
4. Mulholland Drive (no, not King Kong—the other Naomi Watts meta-movie)
Four Places You’ve Lived
1. Flushing, Queens
2. Silver Spring, Maryland
3. Charlottesville, Virginia
4. Champaign, Illinois
Four TV Shows You Love to Watch
1. I do not know what a “TV show” is. Does hockey count?
2. Oh yeah, The Daily Show
Four Places You’ve Been on Vacation
1. Seillans, France
2. Siena, Italy
3. Rangeley, Maine
4. Rodanthe, North Carolina
Four Blogs You Visit Daily
3. The Poor Man
4. Kevin Drum (Political Animal)
Four of Your Favorite Foods
1. Grilled Ahi, very rare
2. Sausage and Peppers
3. Lobster rolls
4. New Haven pizza. Modern, Sally’s, or Pepe’s.
Four Places You’d Rather Be
1. New York
4. Under the sea in an octopus’s garden in the shade
Four Albums You Can’t Live Without
1. This Year’s Model – Elvis Costello
2. It’s a Shame About Ray – Lemonheads
3. (About two-thirds of) Mingus Ah Um – Charles Mingus
4. Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks – Brian Eno
Four Vehicles You’ve Owned
1. 1998 Subaru Outback, 2000- ?
2. 1990 Mercury Tracer wagon, 1991-2000
3. 1975 Ford Grenada, 1987-88
4. Used moped purchased in August 1984 and stolen in October 1984
1. Quod She
2. Lance Mannion
3. Gavin M.
4. Shakes’s Sis
My apologies if any of you have already been tagged, like, in the past eight months.
As for football: sorry I didn’t get around to posting my predictions for the Orange and Rose Bowls. Anyway, I predict that both games will be decided by 3 points; that Penn State will prevail in triple overtime after narrowly missing a great chance to dispose of the Seminoles in regulation (congrats to JoePa and the crew for a spectacular year); and that Texas will come back from a double-digit deficit to pull off a stunning upset of the University of Screenwriting and Cinematography. You would have heard it here first—if not for all that pesky MLA stuff.
In the pros: Bucs over Vile Racist Slurs by 10; Jags over Patriots (please oh please) by 4; Panthers, alas, over Giants by 6; Bengals over Steelers in OT.
And oh yeah, today’s my second blogging anniversary.
Friday, January 06, 2006
The re-return of Arbitrary but Fun Friday
Over the break, I took Jamie to see a very weird, postmodern kind of movie. To begin with, the whole movie was about movies—about the spectacle of movies, about the flimflammery of movies, and most of all about the fetishization of the female leads of movies. In fact, the female lead was played by an actress who starts out in the movie as a struggling actress who’s not the female lead but who has dreams of being the female lead. In the course of the film, the actress—one Naomi Watts—offers a convincing version of the wide-eyed ingenue swept up by forces beyond her control; and at the very heart of the film, appropriately enough, she auditions. It’s a dazzling performance—basically, a performance about performance—and it utterly wins over her audience. After Watts’s stunning audition—which nothing up to this point has led us to expect—the very premise of the film changes. Thereafter the film becomes increasingly fantastic, even surreal, and increasingly self-referential at the same time, until it all comes crashing down in the end.
No, I didn’t take Jamie to see King Kong! I’m talking about Mulholland Drive here.
Well, OK, actually it was King Kong.
Now, I’d planned for a while to devote a Fun Friday to King Kong, not least because the movie’s treatment of the original is so bizarre. It’s not really a re-creation, not a homage . . . it’s more like an eerie contextualization- and- slight (deliberate)- misquotation. At moments I felt like I was watching a cross between Billy Bathgate and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. And I wanted to know what you all thought of the various meta- aspects of the film. (One obvious point: this version effectively unmakes the 1976 version with Jessica Lange, both by bypassing it and by refusing to “update” the original.)
But then I learned that while I was busy traveling to MLA, Scott Eric Kaufman beat me to the punch. Damn you, Scott Eric Kaufman! Damn your post, which opens by suggesting that Jackson’s movie “will cause your average academic to explode in hyperventalitory fits about evils like crass capitalism, American imperialism and racialized sexualities.” And damn the nuanced discussion that follows! Damn all the great comments, too!
You know, I just wanted to make a couple of nice formalist points about the film’s staging of film, and inevitably, one of those Valve people drags in all this theoretical/ political/ postcolonial stuff. I really hate it when that happens.
But although I am mightily vexed, I will go ahead and address one of the pertinent questions Scott raises: the question of the “natives.” As I sat through their ululating and their spear-chucking and their eye-rolling, I was moved to wonder—not why we have to sit through this again in 2006, albeit with Jackson’s various attempts to ameliorate (while reveling in) the entire spectacle, but what the hell King Kong was about in the first place. You know, back in 1933. Of course, you can’t ask that question without dragging in Tarzan, which was, after all, one of the most popular English-language narratives of the entire twentieth century (over fifty film versions can’t be wrong!). Racism and colonialism, check. “Modern” primitivism, check. Imperilled white women, check. Inchoate fears about evolution, check. Overwhelming fear (ultimately assuaged, and with a vengeance, shall we say) that white Westerners are so “civilized” that they couldn’t hack it in prehistoric times (see, e.g., Professor Porter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original), check. And, having checked all that, check also the fact that the latest Disney Tarzan simply excised Africans altogether, figuring there’s just no way to touch the subject at all. (Now if only future Disney movies would excise Phil Collins from the soundtrack! No way to touch that subject, either.) Now, then, to Scott’s questions:
Then I asked myself the difficult questions those who will condemn the film outright will never ask:
What else could he have done? Created an ostensibly uninhabited island actually peopled by a race of “white” “natives”? How would they have gotten there? Proto-European imperialism anyone?
I asked myself precisely these questions, and I do have a suggestion. The next time a movie takes us to a tiny primitive island populated by feral natives, it should be a tiny Caribbean island where terrifying savages like Kenneth Lay, Dennis Kozlowski and Bernard Ebbers live in squalid luxury, draining the pensions of workers in civilized countries. They will worship strange and brutal gods, like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, and they will perform hundreds of human sacrifices while feasting on the flesh of widows and orphans.
That would be scary as shit. Worse than chanting aborigines, worse than a giant ape, even worse than seeing someone eaten alive by humongous worms. And definitely too terrifying for younger viewers.
Thursday, January 05, 2006
MLA post-mortem: the NYU emergency resolution debacle, part two
I’ll start by lifting the remarks of my friend and former colleague Cary Nelson out of the comments section of the previous post, and letting him kick things off here:
When the MLA Executive Council agreed to make a statement supporting the NYU grad employees before—after kicking and screaming—they accepted my argument that it was unnecessary to give the NYU administration a chance to reply because the administration had already explained its anti-union policy and tried to justify it in public. In other words, MLA was not commenting on mute events. Both sides had repeatedly elaborated their positions in print. That is one rational model for a context in which emergency resolutions are acceptable—in which both parties have articulated their positions. It should have worked for the Del Assembly this December.
Ah, I do miss Cary. And I regret that our periods of service on the Executive Council overlapped by only one year, 2002. “MLA was not commenting on mute events”: quite true. The proposers of the NYU emergency resolution were saying more or less the same thing when they pointed to NYU President John Sexton’s November 28 email and said, “here’s NYU’s response, folks. You don’t need anything more than this; here’s Sexton himself, in his own words, threatening union members with loss of stipends.”
But there are two important differences between the speech act Cary persuaded the EC to perform, and the speech act contemplated (but never carried out) by the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee last month. One: the EC was not operating by means of the resolution process, which is, as many have noted, cumbersome and still under construction. In a roundabout way, Cary reinforces my point (thanks, m’fren’!) about why it’s easier to bring urgent matters to the EC, even if it involves some kicking and screaming on the part of individual Council members. The EC can make a statement about an issue—with regard to the crisis at NYU, or with regard to graduate employees in general—simply by discussing it around the table and voting in favor, and then asking one or two of its members to draft the statement. That’s what we did in our February 2004 meeting, when we opposed HR 3077, which called for a Federal “advisory board” (made up entirely of political appointees) that would have the power to oversee all Title VI international studies programs (and even, in the original language of the bill, to investigate the “activities” of individual grant recipients, whatever “activities” might mean). Which brings me to number two: the EC was not dealing, as was the DAOC, with a specific set of charges brought before them by one party to a labor dispute. It was, instead, making a statement of general principle, which is actually an easier thing to do. To repeat a point from yesterday’s post, the fact that I believe those charges are true is irrelevant to the procedure called for by the MLA constitution, namely, the determination of whether those charges merit a response from the party so charged.
However, having said all that, I return to something else I said yesterday, namely: I believe the first resolution, which spoke of the NYU administration’s threats and reprisals, was the kind of thing that merited a response (I’ll say plenty more about that in a moment, when I get to Cynthia Young’s argument about Yale in 1995-96). But the revised resolution, which simply noted that NYU had recognized and then de-recognized the union and that there was now a strike in progress, and asked the MLA to reaffirm the right of graduate students to form unions, seemed to me to be stating facts about which there could be no meaningful dispute. Other people disagreed with me, in good faith, believing that at minimum NYU might be asked why it de-recognized the union and whether it recognized the strike as a strike as a result. But I thought that because the resolution narrated the recent history of the dispute at NYU without touching on the question of threats of reprisal, there wasn’t anything substantive for NYU to reply to. In that case, then, I would agree completely with Cary that the MLA was not commenting on mute events, and that it would be appropriate to say something like, “there is a strike at NYU. It is a distinctive strike, in that it involves a union that was once recognized but now is not. The MLA supports graduate student unionization and urges all universities to bargain with graduate employee organizations in good faith.”
Now let me deal with two meta-issues that frame this entire thing. First: why take this matter to the Delegate Assembly at all? Second: if such matters are to be brought before the Delegate Assembly, how can we avoid another procedural train wreck like this one?
First question first. As I’ve argued before, the strategy of taking urgent matters to the EC has some advantages, insofar as the EC meets three times a year (in two-day sessions) whereas the DA meets only once a year for an afternoon. Furthermore, if it’s an issue about which the EC is not in session but is unanimous (as was the case with the Cuban scholars’ visas and the University of Southern Mississippi in 2004), then the only delay in a collective EC response involves the length of time it takes for Council members to reply to email. And—I’m going to put this one in boldface italics, because it is apparently so little-known—any MLA member can ask the EC to put an item on the EC’s meeting agenda. The item won’t necessarily appear on the agenda, if it turns out that it falls under another committee’s purview: for example, last year someone contacted me and asked the EC to address the growing problem of unethical job offers, one version of which involves asking candidates to propose their starting salaries and then making the offer contingent on a successful salary proposal. (I have now heard of four different universities engaging in this. You can see, I imagine, that it amounts to a competitive low-bidding system for academic positions.) The MLA staff suggested that this one be referred to the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities rather than the EC, and that’s where it is right now. But it is simply not true that the EC is some kind of remote Council of Elders who can only be addressed by very august MLA members who have slaughtered a chicken before appearing in our presence. If you want the EC to take up a question, all you gotta do is ask.
However, as Bill Mullen (and others) have argued, this strategy has its down side. Procedurally, it bypasses the Delegate Assembly, which is the larger and more representative body; and politically, it prevents issues from being debated in public on the floor of the DA (where they can be covered by Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education and anyone else who wants to subject him- or herself to a four- or five-hour meeting in a hotel ballroom). Time and again over the last two years, people have said to me, “it’s all very well and good that the EC did these things, but we never knew about it.” This always makes me sigh. “Sigh,” I sigh, “we report these things in the MLA newsletter, and of course the minutes of the EC meetings are available in PMLA.” Don’t get me started on how many MLA members actually read the announcements in the newsletter or the EC minutes in PMLA. Suffice it to say that when we announced our pony giveaway program in fall 2003, we only had two takers. (No, there wasn’t really a pony giveaway program. But somebody ought to announce one in the newsletter this year, just to see if anyone’s paying attention.) And then there’s the argument—as one person phrased it at the 2004 convention—that it’s all very well and good for the EC to write to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to protest the denial of visas to Cuban scholars, but it’s not as if Secretary Powell ever wrote back, or reversed his position as a result of our protest. “Ah, well then,” I thought at the time. “If it’s effectiveness you want on that score, then DA resolutions and EC actions are in a dead heat. No Cabinet official has ever replied to either one.” Actually, I found that argument especially astonishing for another reason: overwhelmingly, the reason people bring resolutions and motions before the DA is not to build support for their enactment into federal law, but to ask their disciplinary organization, the Modern Language Association, to go on record as being for or against X. No expects the DA to pass a resolution calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act (which we did in 2003) and then go out and repeal the Patriot Act. It seems unreasonable to expect that the EC would be any more effective on that front.
But I agree that public debate is to be valued as a good in itself, particularly when it involves matters that affect the entire profession. That’s one of the reasons the DAOC enacted yet another reform, the “open discussion” period of the DA meeting. This year we set two topics for discussion: one, service expectations, and two, contingent labor. Next year we’ve proposed (get this!) “activism and the MLA,” and the DAOC will take suggestions for the other topic.
And this brings me to Cynthia Young’s argument that DA actions on resolutions don’t really have to wait (as I’d claimed) eight to eleven months to have an effect. Though she didn’t use these words, Young argued that DA actions can have a powerful perlocutionary effect in and of themselves, and she pointed to the 1995 DA vote censuring the Yale administration for its response to the GESO grade strike. Speaking on the DA floor, she said—and I won’t quote her directly, for fear of getting the exact phrasing wrong—that she vividly remembers Yale professor Peter Brooks running up and down the aisles of the DA ten years ago, trying to stop the passage of the emergency resolution on Yale, so don’t even try to claim that these votes don’t take effect for another year or so.
She was right, of course. The 1995 vote was bitter and dramatic, and Yale fought it—kicking and screaming, one might say. It marked a kind of watershed for the MLA, especially since the organization was still reeling from the previous year’s disastrous Bennington vote, and many people in the association believed we had no business taking action in response to crises at individual institutions. I thought about Cynthia’s remark the rest of the evening of December 29, not least because she was one of the leaders of that strike, and Cary and I worked with GESO from afar in those days. And much later in the evening, after I’d dined with Janet and some friends and then stopped by Walter Benn Michaels’s party in honor of Jerry Graff’s election to the post of MLA second vice president (which means he’ll serve as president in 2008), it finally occurred to me why people—but especially union organizers and their supporters—invest so much hope in the Delegate Assembly meeting. The 1995 Yale vote was something like the MLA’s version of the Tennis Court Oath: it not only rebuked Yale specifically (at the time, administrators were threatening to expel strikers from their graduate programs, and especially dedicated faculty members were turning in their own teaching assistants for disciplinary hearings, as Sara Suleri-Goodyear did with Cynthia Young herself) but served notice to the entire ancien régime that the MLA would, from this point on, take a far more active stance with regard to labor issues in the profession. Before 1995, nothing; after 1995, thanks chiefly to the Graduate Student Caucus (led by Marc Bousquet) and Cary Nelson, a series of resolutions culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1999, when the organization passed almost a dozen resolutions and motions on academic labor, from a resolution supporting the “right of all academic employees—full- and part-time faculty members, graduate employees, and support staff—to engage in collective bargaining” to a motion asking the MLA to conduct a comprehensive survey of wages throughout the profession and to issue a report (which was completed during Cary’s tenure on the Council, as he helped to finish the job he and the GSC began in 1999) recommending, among other things, minimum per-course wages for part-time faculty.
But the 1995 vote had other consequences, as well. Most immediately, it led the MLA to publish a twelve-page booklet written by four Yale faculty members, and to distribute the booklet the entire membership in February 1996. Four months later, I wrote an essay for Social Text in response to that booklet (and to the Yale crisis more generally), and if you’ll forgive my quoting myself at length, here’s what I thought at the time (speaking, of course, only for myself on this one):
If ever an institutional crisis demanded the attention of professional organizations like the MLA, this is it. But the MLA’s response to the strike at Yale has been somewhat less than encouraging. Six weeks after the Delegate Assembly passed the resolution censuring Yale in December 1995, the MLA conducted its mass mailing of the letters of Homans, Patterson et al., introducing its twelve-page document with the words, “we write to initiate a new procedure” (1). The chief purpose of the mailing was to circulate to the MLA membership the views of Yale faculty opposed to GESO, the grade strike, and the resolution. No views sympathetic to GESO were included. In subsequent communications, the rationale for the mailing became clear: the GESO forces had had their say during the MLA convention, and, according to Margaret Homans, Yale faculty had not been able to respond sufficiently to the resolution at the time it was proposed: “if the MLA sees itself as representing and honoring diversity of opinion,” Homans wrote, “the process by which the resolution was pushed through gives the lie to that claim” (10). (Homans and Brooks were both present at the Delegate Assembly, though Homans’ letter does not indicate as much.) The MLA staff dutifully investigated the charges that the resolution had been improperly introduced, and found, in the words of executive director Phyllis Franklin, that “the assembly’s action was valid” (1). So much for Homans’ precarious sense of proper procedure. Nevertheless, the mailing itself quite clearly seems to accept Homans’ charge that “diversity of opinion” was not honored at the convention; no other explanation will account for the MLA’s curious decision not to seek opinions sympathetic to GESO for the purposes of the mailing. As a result, the claims of Yale faculty were allowed to stand utterly uncontested—including Homans’ unsubstantiated and grossly misleading “procedural” complaints that “the most basic standards of evidence were not adhered to in the formulation of the resolution” (regarding the status of faculty as “replacement workers") and that “the resolution violates several of legal counsel’s criteria for acceptable resolutions: it is factually erroneous, slanderous, and personally motivated” (10).
(The full essay is available in .pdf form right here, and hey, while we’re revisiting the 1995-96 Yale strike, I can’t help reminding my friends at the Baffler that this was the essay their magazine called “wildly misguided,” full of “blindspots” that testify to the “notorious academic misapprehension of ‘real world’ relations of power,” in the course of accusing me and other pro-union faculty and graduate students of writing for the special Social Text issue on Yale partly in order to pad our résumés. No fooling! As if I somehow enhanced my chances of being hired at Yale with that essay. Suffice it to say that the Baffler has had better moments. As have I: my response to the Baffler essay was so thoroughly pissed off that it wound up being probably the least rhetorically effective thing I’ve ever written.)
Now, I happen to think the Yale booklet presented anti-GESO faculty in quite a poor light, and may paradoxically have helped to win passage of the emergency resolution when it eventually went out to the full membership for a vote later in 1996 (the vote in favor, when it was finally taken, was overwhelming). But the immediate point is this: the 1995 Delegate Assembly vote did, in fact, precipitate a crisis in the MLA, and the pro-Yale booklet was the association’s first response (a “new procedure,” indeed). And perhaps that stunning DA vote has served as the model for pro-union MLA action ever since: you want to snap people to attention, you want to get administrators up and running, you bring an emergency resolution to the floor of the Delegate Assembly. That’s just how it’s done. Perhaps that’s what was going on with the 2001 Yale resolution as well, the one that was withdrawn by its proposers after the Delegate Assembly had approved it—which, as I mentioned yesterday, was one of the things that led the EC and the DAOC to conclude that the emergency resolution process simply had to be remedied so as to allow named parties to reply to charges brought against them.
So, at long last, what is to be done? Two things, I think.
If I’m right that the 1995 Yale vote serves as a model for what people wanted this year in response to the NYU strike, and that the strategy of asking the EC for action is deemed inadequate partly for that reason, then union members and their supporters should get in touch with the DAOC as far in advance of the convention as possible. The list of members is right here, though of course you should note that everyone whose term concluded in 2005 (including mine) is no longer on the committee (the list will be updated to reflect recent elections). The timing of the NYU strike (like that of the Yale strike) was unfortunate for MLA procedures, because it began two weeks after the October meeting of the EC and DAOC, and could only be addressed by means of an emergency resolution. The trick in such cases, then, lies in getting resolution proposers and DAOC members (with the advice of the parliamentarian, who, by the way, is quite rigorous and unflinchingly fair) to hammer out language that will make it to the DA floor without—and I can’t stress this part strongly enough—having to be redrafted on the fly at the convention itself. Again, I apologize to GSOC for suggesting resolution language that would have put the MLA in the position of voting on whether to reaffirm previous actions. I think that prohibition came as news to most members of the DAOC, actually, but still, we could have avoided that impasse with a little more lead time.
Alternatively (this is still thing one), proposers could have drafted a statement in support of GSOC in advance of the strike, before the MLA’s October 1 deadline for resolutions. (Or, for that matter, proposers could have come up with a motion calling on the MLA to censure NYU. What’s the difference between a resolution and a motion, you ask? Good question! A resolution is an expression of sentiment; a motion calls on the MLA to do something. Resolutions are limited to one hundred words in length; motions aren’t.) Although such a resolution obviously wouldn’t have had the chance to address President Sexton’s November 28 email (with all it entailed), it could have asked the MLA to support the right of GSOC to bargain collectively with NYU despite the NLRB’s 2004 ruling; after all, the MLA is already on record, in Motion 2004-1, as being opposed to the NLRB ruling and committed to reversing it. My point is simply that as matters now stand, an emergency resolution offered to the DAOC at the Open Hearing, 24 hours before the DA meeting, has by far the least likely chance of getting the job done. The more lead time you give us, the more options we’ll (and you’ll) have.
The second thing is a bit broader. As I suggested yesterday, the jury is still out on the question of whether emergency resolutions can name individuals and institutions in such a way that a response is required and can be submitted to the DAOC so as to give the DAOC time to ask for such a response. As it is now written, the amended MLA constitution clearly implies that if the DAOC determines that a response is required, the resolution is out of order; it doesn’t say, although it conceivably could, that if a response is required, the DAOC should allow the party two weeks’ (or more, or less) time for a response. The result is that we have some members who believe (again, in good faith) that emergency resolutions should never be able to name individual parties, and some members who believe that the MLA should be able to name individual parties if those parties are given the opportunity to represent their positions to the DA. The DAOC (and the EC, and the MLA in general) needs to decide which way to go on this, and I imagine it would be useful for them to hear from MLA members who have opinions on the subject. I’ll start: I think the MLA should not permit resolutions (of the ordinary or emergency variety) to be brought to the DA that involve specific allegations against parties who have not been given the chance to address those allegations. But I believe that the recent amendment to the constitution was not intended to prevent the Delegate Assembly from responding to all institutional crises that occur between October 1 and December 28; in NYU’s case, since the MLA is already on record in support of unionization, it should be possible in principle for the MLA’s elected representatives to say so in the public forum of the Assembly. It therefore seems to me that the “named party” amendment should be further amended to allow the DAOC to request a response from a named party within two weeks or so, if, say, an emergency resolution comes in by December 1.
Just my opinion.
Beyond that, it seems to me that the association needs to consider the question of precisely what kind of “named parties” we can respond to in any forum. NYU and Yale labor disputes are one thing; allegations about the conversion of multi-year contracts to shorter-term contracts at UC-Davis are quite another. Despite the fact that I oppose such conversions, I can tell you that I spent two months of my life trying to figure out whether Davis was doing what that resolution (in all its various incarnations) said it was doing (including calling the AAUP to determine the legal status of a specific claim made by a committee writing on a related matter), and was unable to. I’ve since come to the conclusion that the MLA just doesn’t have the investigative apparatus it needs for such things. We can issue ethical guidelines and statements of principle, and we can protest when universities are in clear violation of these things (as Southern Mississippi was), but with the UC-Davis thing (and a couple of others I won’t mention), it seems to me that what resolution proposers really want is something like the AAUP censure mechanism, which is something that disciplinary organizations are often particularly ill-equipped to wield. On that front, look forward to my upcoming post on the AAUP, perhaps early next week. And in the meantime, join the AAUP.
One penultimate point: back to the role of the MLA Executive Council. I was repeatedly asked, during the convention, why anyone should have to ask the EC to take action. If the association already supports unionization, and there is a labor dispute involving unionization, shouldn’t the MLA simply have an immediate response? Shouldn’t the EC take it upon itself to issue a letter of some kind to NYU, as it did to Colin Powell? The only answer I have to this, aside from “well, yes, ideally,” is that Council members are human, and most of them are pretty busy humans. Even when we took unilateral action (with regard to the Senate, the State Department, and Southern Miss), we did so because concerned members had brought those matters to our attention. And while I apologize personally for not responding more actively to the NYU strike, I don’t want to see an issue this important degenerate into mutual incomprehension. There was a bit of back-and-forth at the convention, consisting partly of “well, you never asked” and “but you never offered” (that was the angry mode) and partly of “I’m sorry we didn’t offer” and “I’m sorry we didn’t ask” (that was the conciliatory mode). In the future, while I think it would be great for the EC to act on its own in response to academic labor disputes, I think it’s best for everyone to operate on the assumption that interested parties should bring such disputes to the Council’s attention.
And finally, for any of you who might have wondered why this humble blog would have been taken over by 9000 words on MLA protocols and procedures: I do beg your pardon for the extraordinary dryness and prolixity of these past two days. But the MLA is a large organization (with over 30,000 members), and it contains many of my friends, some of whom are still on the DAOC and EC, and some of whom are active supporters of GSOC at NYU. Because I’ve just completed my four-year team on the DAOC and EC, and because that term ended so badly, I thought I’d offer these two posts as a form of institutional memory and as suggestions for fixing what didn’t work. At the very least, I hope I’ve answered Scott Kaufman’s question as to why I would have made time to meet with him and John Holbo and Amardeep Singh after the Delegate Assembly adjourned: for quite apart from the fact that I was looking forward to meeting fellow bloggers for all the bloggy reasons Scott suggests, it was a very welcome break from a great deal of MLA business as usual.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
MLA post-mortem: the NYU emergency resolution debacle, part one
I’m going to assume that anyone who’s willing to follow this very long narrative already knows something about the graduate student strike at NYU, but for those of you who don’t, here’s GSOC’s main page, and here are three extensive blog discussions of the strike, one at Brian Leiter’s place and two on Crooked Timber (note that NYU faculty themselves have contributed to those discussions). The back story is this: spurred by a pro-labor NLRB ruling in 2000, NYU recognized GSOC and negotiated the first contract with the union in 2002. Then in July 2004, the NLRB, freshly restocked with Bush appointees, reversed itself in a 3-2 party-line vote, holding that graduate students at private universities do not have the right to unionize. NYU has since de-recognized GSOC. On November 9 of this year, GSOC went out on strike. In response, in a November 28 email, NYU President John Sexton threatened striking students with the loss of their spring semester stipends (basically, with the loss of their jobs) if they did not return to work by December 5; he further threatened students that if they returned to work but then participated in a work action in the spring, they would lose two semesters of support. From Sexton’s email (the full copy of which can be found on the History News Network, along with Jesse Lemisch’s searing reply):
For those graduate assistants who resume teaching and other assistantship assignments by Monday, December 5th (or the first class meeting thereafter) at the assigned times and places, and who fulfill all assigned responsibilities for the remainder of the semester, including grading, there will be no consequences. These GAs will be eligible for teaching and other assignments by the department for the spring semester. This amnesty represents a balance between our respect for the principled positions of those choosing to strike and our obligation to undergraduates, who have a right to complete their semester’s work and experience no disruption in their courses next semester.
Because we take both responsibilities seriously, graduate assistants who do not resume their duties by December 5 or the first scheduled teaching assignment thereafter—while experiencing no consequences for this semester—will for the spring semester lose their stipend and their eligibility to teach.
For those graduate assistants who return by December 5th and accept a teaching assignment for the spring, this acceptance comes with the commitment to meet their responsibilities without interruption throughout the spring semester. Absences not approved by the dean will result in suspension from assistantship assignments and loss of stipend for the following two consecutive semesters. Graduating students will be assessed comparably.
Sexton has since postponed that December 5 ultimatum, but you get the drift: this policy would effectively establish a blacklist in which students involved in the strike will not be re-hired once the strike is over. If the 2000 NLRB ruling were still in place, it would be illegal. As it is, it is merely, in my humble opinion, unethical.
(And speaking of unethical: check out the NYU faculty letter of protest over Sexton’s authorization of surveillance of NYU faculty and student email. There should be no doubt about the hard-line nature of NYU’s response to this crisis.)
Now here’s where the MLA comes in. The MLA is already on record in support of graduate student unionization (at both public and private universities), having passed Motion 1999-11 five years ago (you can also check out a similar action, Resolution 1999-3, here). So you might think (as apparently many people thought) it would be a simple matter for the MLA to reaffirm that position and condemn the NYU administration for its refusal to negotiate with GSOC and for its threats of reprisal against strikers.
It turns out it’s not a simple matter at all, because during my period of service on the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee and the Executive Council (2002-05), we proposed—and the Delegate Assembly overwhelmingly approved—an important revision to the MLA Constitution regarding “emergency resolutions.”
Here’s what that means. In the past, ordinary resolutions and motions had to arrive in the MLA office by October 15, accompanied by the signatures of ten MLA members as well as “documented background information.” Well, you wouldn’t think an association of literature and language scholars would use language as sloppy as “documented background information,” but you’d be wrong. And as a result, resolutions would come in accompanied by pretty much anything. In October 2002, for instance, we dealt with a resolution condemning UC-Davis for allegedly converting multi-year non-tenure-track positions into one- and two-year positions while claiming to convert them to tenure-track positions in accordance with MLA recommendations. But because the resolution also condemned “similar practices elsewhere,” the proposers provided us with a sheaf of material that had nothing to do with Davis. It turned out, over the course of two weary months during which the members of the DAOC and I did little else other than comb through new reams of “documented background material” sent to us by the proposers, that it was damn near impossible to find out what the hell was going on at Davis unless someone managed to steal administrators’ spreadsheets. But we on the DAOC agreed that if in fact a university was doing X while claiming to be doing Y and citing the MLA in support, we should make every effort to bring the issue to the floor of the Delegate Assembly, and then, once the 2002 convention was over, we would get around to the larger task of trying to fix the resolution-proposing process. The Davis resolution, by the way, was rewritten many times between October and December 2002, and I vividly recall drafting a “final” version of it just hours before it went to the floor, with the advice of its proposers. Right up until the last minute, it was unclear whether the resolution would demand that Davis re-hire the person(s) allegedly fired, or that Davis terminate its multi-year contracts and convert them to tenure-track positions, or that Davis preserve them and allow multi-year faculty to undergo a sixth-year review for longer contracts, or what. The resolution passed after much energetic and confused debate on the floor—a debate that included people on one-year and multi-year contracts as well as Davis’s dean herself, who insisted that the resolution was factually wrong. Many people who voted in favor of it admitted openly that they did not have enough information to determine whether their vote was justified, and sure enough, the following February, the Executive Council found that the resolution was erroneous, but also found that the Delegate Assembly was right to ask the EC to issue guidelines on the ethical treatment of non-tenure-track faculty across the board. So we did. They were drafted by Domna Stanton, Rosemarie Scullion, and myself, and approved by the EC at our October 2003 meeting. Those guidelines are available here.
What does this have to do with NYU? Eventually, everything. But first, one more story from the fateful year of 2001-02: in the 2001 convention, the Delegate Assembly passed an emergency resolution condemning Yale’s academic labor practices. But you never saw that resolution, folks, because the proposers themselves withdrew it after its passage in December 2001, explaining that they had not been authorized by the local to submit it in the first place. Cary Nelson, who had helped bring the resolution to the floor, angrily let it be known that he would not be working with those proposers again (since they had inaccurately represented themselves as acting with GESO’s approval), and the Executive Council decided that as long as we were addressing the resolution process, it was time to fix the whole emergency-resolution process as well. The Yale screwup was not the first; seven years earlier, the DA had passed a resolution on Bennington that just happened to contain patently false information (for example, that Bennington had “swept away all structures of faculty governance”), and Bennington promptly sued the MLA. So, taking a deep breath, the EC charged the DAOC with reforming the whole damn thing. And since I was one of the two EC members who also served on the DAOC, I was one of the liaisons for much of the communications between the two bodies.
So, then, here’s what we did. We proposed that the deadline for ordinary motions and resolutions be moved to October 1, so that the MLA staff would have ample time to get in touch with the proposers about possible problems before the DAOC convened in the last week of October. We asked that resolutions be accompanied not by “documented background material” but by “material that provides evidence in support of the resolutions’ claims” (duh!—but seriously, it was really something to watch people like Judith Butler and Anthony Appiah bend their formidable interpretive skills to fixing a foolish procedural hole where the rain got in). And, most importantly (for our present purposes), we proposed that all resolutions submitted after October 1
shall not name individuals or institutions in such a way that, in the determination of the committee [i.e., the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee], a response from the named party must be sought.
At the time, we weren’t thinking of things like the NYU strike; we were simply trying to fix a string of messes stretching from Bennington in 1994 to Yale in 2001, in which emergency resolutions were put into the hands of delegates who had no advance knowledge of the resolutions (because they were introduced at the Open Hearing on Resolutions, 24 hours before the Assembly convenes) and no reliable way of determining the merits of the resolutions’ claims.
Now the NYU story begins. Three weeks ago I heard from Steve Thomas, a graduate student here at Penn State (with whom I often talk about academic labor issues), that the Radical Caucus of the MLA was going to bring an emergency resolution on NYU to the open hearing. I told Steve what I’d said on the floor of the Delegate Assembly the previous year: the DA is just not a very good rapid-response mechanism. It meets for four or five hours in December, it votes on resolutions, it sends those votes to the Executive Council, the Council vets them to make sure they’re not libelous, tortious, or erroneous (and to make sure they fall within the mission of the organization), and then the MLA puts them to a full vote of the membership. That takes anywhere from eight to eleven months in all. The idea of introducing an “emergency resolution” that will eventually, in November 2006, urge NYU to negotiate in good faith with GSOC seemed to me a less than ideally efficient way to go. Far better, as I’d said at the 2004 convention, to write to the Executive Council directly, and ask them to uphold the organization’s previous (and unambiguous) support of graduate students’ right to organize and bargain collectively. The EC isn’t ideal, either; while it can respond on a dime if it conducts a unanimous e-mail vote, it can’t act when it’s not in session unless it is unanimous. Still, in recent years the EC has fired off timely letters of protest to the U.S. Senate (regarding a proposed provision in the reauthorization of the 1958 Higher Education Act), the U.S. State Department (regarding the denial of visas to visiting Cuban scholars) and to the administration of the University of Southern Mississippi (regarding unilateral and illegal reprisals taken against two faculty members). I told Steve that although I believed the EC would be supportive of GSOC, as I was, I couldn’t predict that it would be unanimous, so I understood the desire to have the issue addressed by the DA in December, before the next EC meeting in late February 2006. But if the emergency resolution made any claims about what NYU had done, was doing, or might threaten to do, I could assure him that the DAOC would determine that those claims merited a response from the NYU administration, however odious or pettifogging that response might be.
We had only one exchange with the resolution’s proposers before the convention. The acting chair of the DAOC, Michelle Massé, advised the proposers about the “named party” problem, and suggested, as a model, a far more innocuous resolution asking NYU to negotiate in good faith, along the lines of the relatively innocuous Resolution 2003-2 we passed in 2004 with regard to Yale:
Be it resolved that the Modern Language Association recommend that all members of the Yale community concerned with the question of union representation of graduate student teaching assistants take steps toward finding common ground for dialogue and establishing an atmosphere of mutual respect, and
Be it further resolved that the MLA urge the parties to find a mutually acceptable forum for reaching some understanding about conduct that members of the Yale community regard as a genuine threat to their freedom of expression. That forum could be the NLRB if all parties so agreed, or it could be another forum approved by the parties.
This resolution was brought forward by pro-union people at Yale, and if you look at it very, very closely you can see, in that second paragraph, that it’s a response to allegations that Yale faculty and administrators were threatening reprisals against students active in the union movement (that’s the “some understanding about conduct” bit). But the resolution is very thin warm milk indeed, so the suggestion that this might serve as a substitute resolution on NYU didn’t go anywhere. I’ll get back to that below.
So, then, at the Open Hearing on Resolutions on December 28, a resolution was introduced by the Radical Caucus. It spoke of NYU taking punitive actions toward striking students, and it spoke of the administration’s threats of future reprisals, and it demanded that NYU recognize GSOC and negotiate a contract with the union. “I hate to say this,” I said at the hearing, hating to say it, “and I hate to ventriloquize a position with which I have no sympathy, but NYU would surely counter that these are not ‘reprisals.’ They would probably say they’re simply not financially supporting students who refuse to do their jobs, even though you and I agree that this effectively constitutes a blacklist.” The proposers, in response, referenced Sexton’s November 28 email. Fair enough; I agreed, as did much of the committee, that NYU was in fact threatening students with reprisals, and that the Radical Caucus resolution said true things. But the question at issue was whether NYU should be allowed a response to this resolution—regardless of whether the administration wanted to contest the terms of the resolution, or whether it simply wanted to say, “hell yeah, we’ll fire their union asses.” I also mentioned that, based on my reading of Brian Leiter’s blog, the administration as well as the faculty opponents of the strike would perhaps want to advance the claims they’d made about the grievance process with regard to the assignment of teaching assistants. To that, a member of GSOC replied that the union had quite explicitly taken all current grievance issues off the table for negotiation of the next contract, but that the administration had refused to negotiate anyway. “That’s extremely helpful information,” I replied. “But you see what we’re getting into here. This is why we would require a response from the named institution: so that the delegates can weigh the claims of the parties involved.” To that, Bill Mullen of Purdue asked what we meant by “response,” and whether NYU should be permitted an endless series of responses to every GSOC claim. It was a good question—one that the MLA will, I think, have to revisit. (We have already addressed the question of who constitutes a “named party,” to the effect that if a resolution says, “the United States government is making it more difficult for international scholars to work in the U.S.,” we do not actually need to get a response from the United States government.) At the time, the DAOC said simply that NYU should be apprised of the existence of the resolution and given an opportunity for a statement. Nothing more: we were not inviting NYU to an extended debate. Indeed, as one person pointed out, the constitution doesn’t require us to get a response—it merely requires us to ask for one. Clearly, we couldn’t do that between 1 pm on December 28 and 1 pm on December 29. But we might have done it between December 5 and December 29, had we the chance.
But this speaks to a larger question about the newly-amended MLA Constitution: right now, all it says is that emergency resolutions “shall not name individuals or institutions in such a way that, in the determination of the committee, a response from the named party must be sought.” It doesn’t say that the committee can determine that a response must be sought, and then should go seek it—say, within a two-week period. That would give the MLA some way of bringing emergency resolutions to the floor in such cases, even when an individual or institution is named (and called out of its name). The idea behind this amendment was to prevent resolutions from coming to the floor at the last minute and making claims about a party who had no chance to reply; it was not to prevent all emergency resolutions from naming parties. At least that’s not what I was thinking, back in 2002 when this revision process started.
So I asked the proposers, and members of GSOC in attendance at the open hearing, if they would agree to this: a drastic revision of the resolution that would allow it to clear the “response” bar, and that would simply ask the MLA to reaffirm Motion 1999-11 as well as Motion 2004-1, which read, in part,
Whereas the Modern Language Association has approved resolutions asserting that graduate students working for pay are employees (1999-2); has endorsed their right, along with that of other part-time faculty members, to bargain collectively (1999-3); has “encourage[d] its members and all those employed in teaching and research in the modern languages and literature, to unionize. . .” (Motion 1999-11)
That, I thought, would get the resolution to the floor, and though it would be severely watered down, it would be enough to allow debate; meanwhile, GSOC could contact the Executive Council and ask for a more forceful and specific statement in February.
Before I move to the closed DAOC meeting, one more piece of MLA procedural arcana. I did not have a vote in this process, because I was elected to the EC from the DA in 2001, and according to the Delegate Assembly bylaws, “each Delegate Assembly member who has been elected to the Executive Council in accordance with bylaw 4.B will automatically serve on the Organizing Committee as a voting member in the second and third years of his or her term on the council and as a nonvoting member in the first and fourth years of his or her council term.” Don’t even ask me why the hell anyone drafted this thing. It reads to me like “the DA-EC member shall write with his or her right hand in even-numbered years, and with his or her left hand in odd-numbered years.” Anyway, I imagined that as a nonvoting member in my fourth year of service, I could serve as some kind of facilitator between the proposers and the DAOC. In retrospect, this was a bit of overreaching on my part, and I apologize for it.
And the result of my “facilitating” was that the proposers took some of my (and some of the committee’s) advice, and rewrote the resolution so that it spoke merely of the fact that NYU had recognized and then de-recognized the union; it noted that the union was on strike; and it asked the MLA to reaffirm its earlier positions and urge all university administrations to bargain with graduate student unions in good faith. Now the question was before us: does this require a response from NYU?
In our closed DAOC session we spent over an hour on this question, and (if you’re still with me this far) you can imagine why: because it goes to the heart of the issue of whether the MLA Constitution now forbids any emergency resolutions that name individual parties. My own position was that the constitution does not do this; it forbids only those resolutions that, in the determination of the committee, require a response from named parties. I was then asked: in all honesty, Michael, do you believe this resolution requires a response? And I replied: I believe there is no question that the original resolution required a response from NYU. I do not believe this one does. (Even as a nonvoting member, I could still participate in debate.)
The debate, you’ll note, was not about the strike; so far as I could tell, just about everyone in the room believed that the MLA, since it is already on record in support of graduate student unions, should be able to respond in some way to the strike at NYU. The question, instead, was the procedural one of whether this was the way the MLA should respond, via a Delegate Assembly vote, and thus whether the revised emergency resolution merited a response from NYU. When, next day at the DA, Michelle Massé referred to “a prolonged, intense and deeply divisive discussion” in the DAOC meeting, that’s what she was referring to. Some members believed in good faith that NYU should have the chance to respond to this milder resolution, and some members disagreed in good faith. And the committee deadlocked.
And then, as if this weren’t enough, the parliamentarian advised the committee that Robert’s Rules of Order forbid organizations from voting to reaffirm previous actions. (Apparently this injunction is on page 110.) This struck me like a two by four, since, of course, I had suggested that a resolution to reaffirm 1999-11 would be completely unproblematic. In fact, I thought that 2004-1 had basically done the same thing. But no: 2004-1 cited Resolutions 1999-2 and 1999-3, and Motion 1999-11, but did not ask the MLA to reaffirm them. “Well, Jesus H. Christ in triple overtime,” I thought. “Who knew?” So even if the committee were to decide that it did not need to request a reply from NYU, there was the distinct possibility that the resolution would simply be ruled out of order. The rationale is this: if you ask an organization to reaffirm a past action and it fails to do so, it effectively invalidates the past action, or at least throws it into confusion. You know, folks, I said, we really are on the last page of the playbook here. And I do wish I’d known enough to avoid that page altogether.
I have to end this post sometime or I’ll break the Internets, so I’ll leave for tomorrow some of the most salient arguments that were made on the floor of the DA—like Bill Mullen’s argument that the strategy of appealing directly to the EC effectively performs an end run around the DA, which is by far the larger and more representative body, and Cynthia Young’s argument that my argument above—about how DA resolutions are slow-moving devices that don’t take effect for almost a year—is pretty much nonsense. (My apologies to Cynthia if I’ve misremembered the exact term she used. Her counterargument was that the 1995 DA vote to censure Yale during the GESO grade strike that year had had an immediate and palpable effect on that dispute, and Yale anti-union faculty accordingly fought against its passage tooth and nail. That happens to be true so far as it goes, but that vote, laudable as it was, had other consequences as well; anti-union faculty did not stop fighting it once the DA adjourned.) And then I’ll make some suggestions, for what they’re worth, about how the MLA and proposers of resolutions can fix a process that clearly still needs further fixing.
In the meantime, until tomorrow, I want to point out something that may not, after all, be altogether obvious. The MLA has a rep of being one of the more “radical” scholarly organizations in the business, no doubt partly because most of its resolutions in recent years have been drafted by the Radical Caucus, whose work tends to differ in tone and substance from that of the Moderate Caucus, the Revanchist Caucus, and the Quietist Caucus. (No, there aren’t really such groups.) But when it comes to drafting resolutions that condemn or censure or upbraid individual institutions, the MLA is a mere novice, and we’re still figuring out how to do it. (Some members, for that matter, don’t believe we should do it at all; for some it’s a matter of principle, and for some it’s the pragmatic consideration that we don’t have the legal or investigative tools we would need for things like the UC-Davis resolution.) The 1994 Bennington resolution was the MLA’s very first attempt to address a specific university, and it was badly botched. We’ve been trying to de-botch ever since. Still, GSOC and its supporters are quite right to say that MLA resolutions on unionization are meaningless if the MLA won’t back them up in specific instances. I personally would have preferred that GSOC appeal to the Executive Council immediately (back in early November), and then get in touch ASAP with the DAOC to see whether we could, in concert (and with timely advice from the parliamentarian!) draft something that could be brought to the DA floor, either by clearing the named-party hurdle or by requesting a response from NYU in advance. And I admit that I should have said so to GSOC and the Radical Caucus a month ago, but I flat out dropped the ball on this front while I was tending to the more local matter of forming Penn State’s AAUP chapter (and finishing up my overdue book manuscripts too). For that, my sincere apologies to all concerned.
And please, while you’re waiting for the thrilling conclusion to this tale, contribute generously to the GSOC Strike Hardship Fund. Thanks.
Tuesday, January 03, 2006
OK, so I just shipped off the copiedited ms. to Norton. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? is now that much closer to publication, and I am this much closer to collapsing with a thud. To those of iou who are still awaiting the definitive recap and analisis of the New Iork Universiti Emergenci Resolution Debacle at the MLA (and it is a veri tangled mess of a stori, from which I hope we can figure out wais of avoiding such train wrecks in the future), I promise I will begin posting on the subject tomorrow—and it mai take two or three installments. In the meantime, mi 2006 is off to a great start!! We’re looking at well over two thousand dollars in car repairs, or maibe we’re looking at getting another car. We have to figure that out pronto. Then we can figure out how best to schedule Nick’s and Jamie’s doctor appointments, which we can’t do iet since we have onli the one car. Then I can begin putting together mi sillabus and attending to certain other departmental business that will occupi me for the rest of Januari.
And did I mention that mi legendarili crummi laptop, which has been breaking down with increasing frequenci in recent weeks, has now lost one of its keis? Guess which one and win a fabulous New Iear’s Eve Parti for 2007!
Monday, January 02, 2006
Back home and already behind
Happy New Year, everyone. I’ve decided, for now, to cave in to Christian pressure and agree to call this year “2006,” though you and I know the truth.
Janet and I attended the Modern Language Association convention in Washington, DC from December 27-30, and we got back to State College late on the 30th. It was a milestone conference for us, not because of anything about the conference itself but because Nick took care of Jamie for four straight days, driving him home from Connecticut to Pennsylvania (along with Lucy the Dog) and then being a good big brother despite getting the Cold that Was Going Around, and despite the fact that, shall we say, Nick’s sleeping habits and Jamie’s are usually out of sync by six to eight hours.
If you want some sense of what I was doing with my time in Washington, you can check here and here (it was as if all my waking hours on December 29 were covered by Inside Higher Ed—and wow, what a severe wingnut infestation in the comments on that first article!) . I’ll post my own report on the MLA later this week; it’s not very gossipy and it won’t say anything about the panels I attended (only two), because I spent most of my time working with the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee, and I have a front-row report (for those of you who are interested) on why the issue of the NYU graduate student strike didn’t make it to the Delegate Assembly floor.
While we were at the MLA, Nick called and told us that as he was driving Jamie to the movies, the Subaru (the snow car) began to overheat and smoke. That was bad. We told him to use the Passat for now, even though it’s not very good in snow. When we got back, we discovered that the Subaru was completely out of oil and antifreeze, and the Passat’s front tires were badly worn. So far, then, 2006 has been the Year of Overdue Car Maintenance. For Janet, anyway. I came home to find a big surprise on the doorstep: the copyedited version of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, with a cover letter asking me to read through the manuscript, respond to all editorial queries, check all the urls in footnotes for broken links, and double-check all the quoted passages for accuracy.
And to return the thing by January 3.
So I’ve been in manic copyediting mode since New Year’s Eve, taking only a few hours’ break on the Eve for traditional Eve activities. Just the way to start the new year! No oil in the car and a 350-page ms. festooned with dozens of orange and pink stickies asking me to rephrase here, resolve an ambiguity there, and provide a full reference in the other place.
I’ll be back when this monster is done. And then I’ll start preparing my first-ever course on disability studies!