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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On getting our act together

Last week, I wrote two very long posts about my recent adventures on the MLA’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee.  This week, I have two followup posts.  Fortunately for all concerned, neither of them are very long.

Over the past five years I’ve learned that people propose all kinds of things to the MLA.  Not just resolutions about withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and not just motions in support of graduate student employees and part-time professors, but also resolutions about events and disputes at individual institutions.  The very first resolution I came across, in fact, asked the MLA to condemn an incident at a college during which campus security allegedly overreacted to something or other.  When I read that one I wondered to myself, “who writes to the Modern Language Association about something like this?  This is like calling your local public library to complain about the potholes on your street.  Yes, surely something should be done, but the library, for all its immeasurable value as a public institution, does not have a pothole-filling team at the ready.”

If I sound a bit put out by proposed resolutions like this, well, there’s a reason.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve spoken to colleagues about assaults on academe, from the PC days of the late 1980s and early 1990s right through last month, only to hear them tell me they plan to draft a motion and get their disciplinary association to take a strong stand for or against X.  “That’s all very well and good,” I usually say, “but does your disciplinary association have a legal wing?  Does it have an investigative apparatus?  Does it censure institutions for violations of academic freedom and due process?” Well, no, people say.  Disciplinary organizations aren’t like that; the important thing is that we speak out as scholars through our disciplinary organizations, and thereby take public positions for or against X.

“Have you thought of joining the American Association of University Professors and bringing this to their attention?” I ask.  “The AAUP?” people reply. “The AAUP doesn’t get anything done; they’re like a faculty club or something.  If you want to get things done, you’ve got to make a statement through the American Historical Association or the American Philosophical Association or the American Anthropological Association or the. . . .” (In fact, in the modern languages this attitude can take even weirder micropolitical forms, whenever professors get it into their heads that the MLA is just too large and impersonal and what they really need to do is to work through their subdisciplinary association.)

I’m not exaggerating when I say this attitude is depressingly pervasive in academe—and that it has things almost entirely backwards.  Not that I have anything against disciplinary associations; I’ve been plenty active in mine.  And despite all the grief it gets, the MLA actually does do plenty of stuff worth doing.  We were out in front on academic labor issues long before most of our sister organizations, and we’ve come a long way toward making our convention physically and intellectually accessible to scholars with disabilities.  The Bibliography and the Handbook remain the gold standard for such things, and though we need to catch up with developments on the Internets, our online language map rocks the house.  Still, when you’re dealing with governance disputes on individual campuses, or Horowitzian attacks on academic freedom launched in the name of academic freedom, or unfair labor practices and unjust firings, the most you can do in the MLA is make general statements of principle.  If you want something investigated or you want something done, the place to go is the AAUP.

Who do you think defined academic freedom in the first place, and remains its determined and principled defender today?  And academic freedom is just the foundation; the rest of the organization is a many-layered edifice.  Check out their definitive statement on procedural standards in the renewal or nonrenewal of faculty appointments, if you like.

Or their position on student rights and freedoms.

Or on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation.

Or on speech codes.

And hey, if your disciplinary organization has a Governmental Relations Office this good, more power to you.  But I’m willing to bet it doesn’t.

The AAUP doesn’t just fling those standards into the ether, either.  They actually enforce them, they file legal briefs to support them, and they censure colleges that flout them.  They do this not just for AAUP members; they do it for everyone.

I want to emphasize that last bit.  Penn State didn’t even have an AAUP chapter until a handful of colleagues and I founded one last month.  But the AAUP didn’t stop to check its membership roster in Pennsylvania before sending representatives to Pittsburgh to testify before the House of Representatives Select Committee on Student Academic Freedom, which, as you may already know, is investigating liberal “bias” on Pennsylvania campuses (today they’re at Temple U in Philly).  The AAUP works for college faculty regardless of whether they’re members of the organization.  If there’s a bill that might give legislators direct control over departmental hiring and curricular content, the AAUP will show up to argue against it.  If people are running around the country arguing that academic departments and curricula should be overseen by state legislators in the name of academic freedom, the AAUP shows up to argue that these people haven’t the faintest idea what “academic freedom” means or why it’s critical to a free society.  And when misguided universities come up with kangaroo courts in the name of conducting “student judicial proceedings,” the AAUP insists on the due process rights of the accused, regardless of whether the accused is liberal or conservative or what-have-you.  If you’re teaching at a college in the United States, you ought to be an AAUP member just as a matter of principle.

Yet AAUP membership has declined drastically over the past thirty years.  It’s declined even more drastically as a percentage of the professoriat overall (which has grown in the past thirty years, particularly in the part-time and non-tenure-track ranks), and even more drastically if you look exclusively at AAUP membership among faculty at research universities.  What gives?

Well, I know the dues are a bit high, at least as far as young assistant professors are concerned. $150 a year or thereabouts can be a lot of money to some people—almost as much as a small-town gym membership.  (For new members, the dues are roughly half of that for the first four years of membership.  Graduate students may join as well; their dues about one-quarter the full fare.) But if money’s an issue, don’t make me climb up out of this blog and say academic freedom isn’t freeBecause you know I’ll do it.

And all the while AAUP membership has been declining, too many faculty members have been thinking to themselves that if they just send a sharply-worded resolution to their disciplinary organization, they’ll get something done that needs doing.

Listen, folks.  By all means join or stay in your disciplinary organizations.  But if you’re a college professor or advanced graduate student in the United States and you’re not a member of AAUP by now, I don’t know what to tell you.  Are you thinking that perhaps the next couple of years are going to be happy, placid times for college professors?  Or that over the next decade, the 68 percent of us who are teaching part-time, or off the tenure track for one reason or another, are suddenly going to be granted tenure?  Or that people are going to stop attacking the very institution of tenure?  Or that academic freedom would survive just fine without it?

You want my advice?  I say join the AAUP today if not sooner.  Form a local chapter, if need be.  And vote for my dear and trusted friend Cary Nelson for AAUP President.  His website includes his statement of candidacy, and if you look it over you’ll see why he’s just the right man for the job.

Posted by Michael on 01/10 at 03:23 PM
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