A podcast interview with MLA Subconference organizers Margaret Hanzimanolis and Andrew Yale. The 2016 MLA Subconference, “Between the Public and Its Privates,” will take place at Cheer Up Charlies in Austin, Texas, on January 6-7, 2016.
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Host: Mary-Beth Brophy
Hi everyone, and welcome to Contingent, a podcast devoted to issues relevant to English and foreign language instructors working off the tenure track in higher education. I’m Mary-Beth Brophy, and today’s episode is about the third annual MLA Subconference, which takes place in Austin, Texas, on January 6th and 7th in 2016.
Subconference Organizer: Andrew Yale
The Subconference originated as a set of conversations in 2013 among friends who were in attendance at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell.
That’s Andrew Yale. He’s a contingent lecturer at the University of Chicago and a member of the MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. He’s also one of the Subconference organizers.
Prior to that, my friend Lenora had asked me, “Hey, do you think this project might be viable? Could we do a shadow conference at the MLA?” I was, like, “Sure, you know, we could do that.” And so through conversations we, primarily Lenora…
He’s talking about Lenora Hansen, another MLA Subconference organizer.
…gathered together a set of volunteers, and we began Skyping in September 2013, and over the course of four months we scheduled a shadow conference. We aimed to have a space where primarily grad students and non-tenure-track faculty could come together outside of the main convention space where we ourselves organized the agenda and teamed up with allies.
In 2014 MLA was in Chicago and so we partnered with the Part-Time Faculty Association at Columbia Colleage for space. We solicited donations from individual faculty and certain centers on our home campuses to fund food and drinks and certain other miscellaneous expenses, printing expenses. And, by we, I mean the seven or eight, I can’t remember the exact number, grad students from five different universities…
There are actually eight people on the 2014 organizing committee, and the five universities Andrew mentioned were the University of Chicago, Duke University, Wayne State University, University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
We did this without having really met each other, except for a few of us. I knew Nora. But we started on Skype, and we basicly wanted to, as I was saying, provide a sort of space to take ourselves out of the professionalizing and individualizing space of the convention, where it’s very much about individual scholarly production and to some extent the addressing of collective political concerns.
But what we wanted to do was to put those collective political concerns front center so that were able to address the corporatization of higher education, the neoliberal university, the financialization of the University head on, and to discuss collective modes of action to transform the university in a way that benefits those who make it work.
So we put out a call for papers, and we focused on basicly three areas: one being in advances in organizing on and around campuses, in labor organizing, in racial justice, and housing justice. Second: around pedagogy, modes of radical pedagogy, in the classroom, outside of the classroom, thinking of the university or college as a whole kind of learning space – the sort of different kinds of learning spaces that are possible with free schools or labor study groups, sort of radical book clubs and so forth.
And I would say the third is what you might call research from below. So workers and other constituencies in and around universities doing the kind of research that informs social movements. So financial analysis, a kind of militant research in the phrase of a manual that was produced at New York University a few years ago…
Andrew’s referring to the Militant Research Handbook, which you can download at VisualCultureNow.org if you’d like to read it.
The first Subconference – One of our kind of conceits for the Subconference is to play off of the convention theme for each year, and this year, of course it’s, I believe it’s “Literature and Its Publics,” and so we decided to name our shadow conference “The Public and Its Privates” this time. The theme of the first one was “Vulnerable Times,” and so playing off of that we titled ours “Resisting Vulnerable Times” and with the 2015 it was “Negotiating Sites of Memory,” and so I believe we called ours “Renegotiating Sites of Struggle” or something along those lines.
So clearly the decision to hold the Subconference in the same location and timeframe is a deliberate one. I asked Andrew to talk about the reasoning behind the choice to link the two events both in theme and logistics.
Well, I think the MLA is such a dominant institution, and it’s one that kind of regulates our working lives as professionals and inculcates certain modes of professional being and subjectivity, where as I was mentioning earlier, the presentation on panels, the job interview, it’s really about cultivating one’s own professional profile.
And we felt that since there are so many people here together in one place, you know, the convention has, what, 8,000 people in attendance every year, or there abouts. We found it to be a kind of a convenient way to piggyback on the Convention and to also provide a common space if you will.
So the theme for this year is “Literature and Its Publics.” One of the terms that I think is often in cotention with the public, aside from the private, is also the commons. So the MLA has its own Commons, right, which is a digital space. We in the Subconference plan to institute precisely that: a kind of comments below, as a kind of sub-conference, right, that is open to all.
We don’t charge admission. It’s free. We have scholars. We have activists. And it’s in a space where I think people are, especially grad students and non-tenure-track faculty, those who don’t have tenure, those who might want to be in a tenure-track position, but experience the Convention space as kind of very much anxiety producing sort of space. The Subconference, in contrast, can be a space of open discussion where people can speak freely, and ask questions, and learn. It’s a pedagogical space.
One thing that, or principle that’s informed my organizing the Subconference is that each Subconference should, in addition to having presentations on the state-of-the-art of the political analysis of the political economy of higher education, for instance, it should also provide skill-share workshops for people who want to learn how to organize, who are just beginning, who want to organize a union on their campus, want to be in solidarity with community organizing projects in and around their universities, and be in solidarity with social movements that intersect with universities, but don’t know how to do it.
So, in addition to the analysis, we really emphasize practice and approaching a structural understanding of our positions within universities from the standpoint of transforming those institutions through practice. And so we really want to start… You know, as an organizer, one is always starting over with someone who may be coming to questions of collective action for the first time, and we felt that a own, if you will, beneath in the Commons was the best and most effective way of facilitating that.
This idea that the Subconference exists as a kind of undercurrent at the MLA conference is definitely something I’ve observed. While I haven’t yet been able to attend the Subconference, I was at the MLA conference in Chicago in 2014 and in Vancouver in 2015, and references to the Subconference kept bubbling up in the social media discussions, particularly in panels that dealt with contingent faculty activism and digital humanities disruptions of established approaches to scholarship. Given that, I was interested to learn if the Subconference saw itself as antagonistic to the MLA or more as a parallel undercurrent.
I would see it as a supplement. I see the Subconference as a supplement to the Convention, or at an angle, or kind of adjacent to…I mean, there’s kind of different spatial metaphors that you could use to describe the Subconference, but is not strictly antagonistic toward the Convention I would say. I mean, a number of us have since gotten involved in the governance of the MLA, myself in the Committee on Contingent Labor the Profession, of course. Lenora Hansen is currently running for a position on the Executive Council.
But I do think that our relation to the Convention is also a kind of, almost a sort of social movement kind of formation, or a leas a kind of insurgent, that’s not exactly the right term, sort of formation. Or, maybe you could think about it in terms of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called the distinction between constituent and constituted power. So if the MLA, as an institution with a long august history, as a kind of institutional traction over, you know, a century plus in its existence, what we’re doing as grad students and as non-tenure-track faculty, is producing the kind of constituent power, where we determine democratically, kind of new ideas for how we govern ourselves.
And so I see see the kind of two in relation, both from the bottom up and also with greater participation by some of the organizers and conference and the governance of the MLA, also kind of transforming the organization from within. So, another way to think about it is what the non-tenure-track faculty organizer Joe Berry calls an inside-outside strategy, and so instead of antagonism you have a kind of reciprocal transformative practice.
Subconference Organizer: Margaret Hanzimanolis
I think people have different views. I view it it as slightly antagonistic to the MLA. I think it’s providing a kind of way of scholars being together that is not provided by the MLA.
That’s Margaret Hanzimanolis, a contingent faculty member at D Anza College and the City College of San Francisco, and a member of the 2015 and 2016 Subconference organizing committee.
It’s been the failure of the MLA to provide spaces and programming and other social and political frameworks that would permit the kind of discussion and up-skilling or skill-sharing that contingent faculty and graduate students do at the Subconference. So in that respect, it is a reprimand, I think, to the MLA, though not antagonistic, it’s a… We wouldn’t have to do this if the MLA had responded over the years to many of the concerns that graduate students and contingent faculty had brought to the MLA.
But while the Subconference maybe in some ways critical of the dynamics within the larger Convention, that doesn’t mean the relationship between the two groups is hostile. In fact, the MLA has provided some financial support for the Subconference.
For the past couple of years, the Executive Council has allocated $1,000 to the funding of the Subconference, in addition to our own crowd-sourced fundraising, which we started last year.
If you’re listening to this prior to January 5, 2016, it’s definitely still possible to attend the Subconference.
We do like for people to register so that we can gauge how much food and drink we’ll need to purchase, and that includes the open bar on the Wednesday night. I don’t think that that should be a problem because, you know, we’ll hold it at a bar, right. But, yes, there’s a registration on the MLA Subconference website, and we would invite everyone to get in touch with us, tell us that they’re coming, but, you know, we are open to all, and if folks don’t happen to remember to register, everyone is welcome.
The program for the Subconference can be found on the event’s website: MLASubconference.org. I asked both Andrew and Margaret if there were any panels or workshops they saw as especially relevant for contingent faculty.
I’m reading union membership dues structures, and my message is going to be that the unions that represent contingent faculty… It’s about, somewhere around 40% of contingent faculty nationally are represented by unions, and our dues are going upstairs to the national and the state level, where that money is often used to lobby against legislation that will benefit part-time faculty. So I’m tracing dollars that we spend for our representation as it’s being used actually against us at the state level and national level to lobby in opposition to bills that would improve our situation. It would mandate change as opposed to lodge our efforts for change in collective bargaining per say.
The one that is directly related to contingent faculty and contingent faculty organizing is panel eight, which is on the Thursday, 1:30 to 3 p.m. One presentation will be by the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession’s own Veronica Poppe, with a paper entitled “The Public Adjunct: Peril, Loneliness, and Uncertain Future.” Another with Charli Valdez called “Strategy and Contingency,” and we’re hoping to have an adjunct organizer local to Austin to participate in that panel as well. But I think, more broadly, we have workshops and presentations that would be of interest to kind of the pedagogical side of things. One panel that was organized by the Radical Caucus of the MLA, called “Teaching Against Capitalist Mis-Education: Radical Pedagogies and the Crisis of the Intellectual,” and then one on “Teaching After Ferguson in the Public/Private Classroom.”
So these are occasions to think about our roles as teachers, whether we’re on the tenure track off the tenure track, grad students, and so on.
Margaret also pointed out that the Subconference can be a great place for activists within academia to make connections with contingent faculty and graduate student organizers.
I would say that the questions of cross-political groups is very important. We had critical resistance one year, we’ve had indigenous rights groups. I think higher education activists and people who are concerned about the future of higher education have to be more deliberate in their linking up with other struggles around other issues. I think the MLA conference itself does not do that very well, and the Subconference is a great place for making, you know, very, very explicit linkages between types of struggles.
We’re an evolving collective of organizers and scholars. And folks are welcome to get in touch with us to attend the Subconference, and get involved in the planning of the Subconference. This is the third annual Subconference, and we’re looking to continue into the future.
And with new people comes new ideas and new perspectives, and I think that has to be continually renegotiated, and I think also, if folks are interested, we’re building up a kind of publication record as a kind of Subconference collective, and people want to have ideas for articles, polemics, interventions, blog posts, we’re interested in hearing them.
Maybe the key publication in the Subconference portfolio at this point, if you will, would be our manifesto that we published in the journal, Pedagogy, in the year of the first Subconference. We called it, kind of playing on the famous title of the Walter Benjamin text, “Feces on the Philosophy of History,” and that was in Pedagogy in 2014. So to have a textual framework for understanding what the project is up to, at least as it was when we wrote that manifesto a couple years ago, that would be a good place to start.
That wraps up this episode of the Contingent podcast. If you’re interested in attending the 2016 MLA Subconference in Austin or finding out more about what the Subconference is doing and how you can support it, visit MLASubconference.org. There’s also a Subconference of the MLA Facebook page that posts regular updates. And if you can’t make it to Austin, you might want to check out Twitter #MLASubcon on January 6th and 7th. People often live Tweet from panels both at the Convention and the Subconference.
Thanks for joining me for this discussion about the 2016 MLA Subconference. To keep current on issues relevant to contingent faculty in the MLA, please visit Contingent.Commons.MLA.org. Also, if you’re attending the MLA Convention, the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession is hosting a Contingency and Coffee gathering on January 9 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the JW Marriott, rooms 502 and 503.