Academe, Activism, and Associations: The Graduate Student Caucus in the MLA

Felicia L. Carr, April 2000

Many of today's graduate students face a world far different from the one they once imagined. The anticipated openings that enticed many into the profession never materialized. Instead, graduate students are confronted with fewer full-time jobs, meager pay for teaching assistantships, minimal benefits, and extended terms of study. It is not just the job crisis that presents a grim future.

There has been a systematic change in how courses are taught and in who teaches them. Adjuncts and teaching assistants are teaching more courses than ever before. These changes are happening in conjunction with a corporatization of the university and a war on faculty governance. On top of all this, cuts in government spending for education have left many universities scrambling to make ends meet.

By now, none of this is news to anyone in the humanities. What may be news to some, however, is that some graduate students in literature and foreign languages deplore this situation and have decided to fight for their future, as well as for the future of the university as a site of liberal education and as a fair and equitable employer. By revitalizing the Graduate Student Caucus (GSC) of the Modern Language Association (MLA), graduate students aim to use professional organizations in the struggle. The MLA itself has begun to address these issues through panels at its annual convention, articles in Profession, and in its 1997 report from the Committee on Professional Employment. The GSC applauds these efforts, but knows that without the sustained efforts of all involved in the job crisis, the momentum gained could easily slow.

Professional organizations must become more involved in the multifaceted crisis confronting the academy, and graduate students can play a key role. This essay is part of a cross-disciplinary dialogue designed to show how graduate students have organized within the MLA and to show history students how they can form a group similar to the GSC. The AHA and the MLA share similar professional objectives. In both disciplines, moreover, students face a tight job market and employment issues centered on adjunct work and assistantships. Currently, while there are association-based task forces and committees on issues in graduate education, the major organizations representing the history profession do not have formal graduate student advocacy groups. The GSC can serve as a model for history students as they become more involved in the job crisis and seek to develop their own student caucuses.

The Activities and Goals of the GSC

The key activities of the GSC are maintaining the GSC web site and e-grad (an electronic discussion list for graduate students), organizing panels at the annual convention, and using the MLA's governing bodies to ensure the involvement of graduate students in all aspects of the association. E-grad and the e-mail committee discussion lists have been vital to the development of the GSC. The importance of e-mail, which serves as the cornerstone of the group since the GSC comes together only once a year, cannot be stressed enough. Students set agendas, discuss positions, propose motions and constitutional changes, report on meetings and discussions with MLA officials, and hold elections—all via e-mail. Through e-mail and at the annual
convention, GSC members work on caucus committees dedicated to membership, fund-raising, elections, electronic organizing, governance, and publicity. In February 1998, the GSC launched its online journal, Workplace, which is devoted to issues of the academic workplace.1

Through these activities, the GSC hopes to achieve the following goals:

  1. The MLA should elucidate and address, assertively and publicly, the true causes of the job crisis. That is, the MLA must operate from the assumption that the current state of the job "market" is not a natural inevitability, but rather the result of active decisions that have led to the exploitation of graduate students and adjunct workers.
  2. The MLA should broaden its scope from an organization of scholars that promotes the careers of a few stars to an activist organization that supports scholars in all aspects of their lives, including work conditions.
  3. The MLA should include graduate students in all aspects of its governance and daily operations in proportion to their membership, so that graduate student concerns can be heard and acted upon in meaningful ways.
  4. The MLA should set professional standards for remuneration and working conditions for graduate students and adjunct faculty and should publicize departmental compliance.
  5. The MLA should work actively for the return to a reliance on full-time positions.2

The GSC's Structure and Legislative Achievements

The GSC is an allied organization of the MLA that represents the 10,000 plus graduate student members who constitute one-third of the MLA's membership. Although the GSC has been around so long that its exact date of origin is lost, its rebirth as an activist organization began in the early 1990s. Since then, the group has grown from a handful to more than 5,000 members, who are enrolled in literature and foreign language departments in the United States and Canada. The group's leadership is elected by its members. The president and vice president serve one-year terms, with the vice president serving as president for the following one year. In this way, the president serves an apprenticeship before assuming leadership of the group.3

As part of its agenda to change the MLA through its own governing processes, the GSC has introduced motions at conventions every year since 1994. Motions set the agenda for the association's work in the following year and are important parts of shaping the MLA's response to the job crisis. They are voted on at the annual convention by the MLA's Delegate Assembly, which is the association's governing body. A brief history of how these motions grew in scope and complexity demonstrates that a student group can tackle large problems and large organizations.

In 1994 the GSC started with a modest proposal focused on internal reforms: its leadership successfully introduced motions to reduce the cost of the MLA's Job Information List and to make the list available online. Then, in 1995, the leadership introduced a motion that would require the Elections Committee to recognize and encourage graduate students as candidates for MLA committees as well as for the assembly. In addition, the GSC called for the financial support for students who attend the convention as delegates and for a reduction in convention expenses for graduate students. These motions were approved. That same year, the GSC worked closely with Yale University students to help draft a resolution that condemned Yale's handling of striking teaching assistants. This resolution was passed by the Delegate Assembly, and a similar resolution was passed by the AHA. This resolution marked a seminal victory for graduate students and the GSC, because it needed support from two-thirds of the delegates to even be presented for a vote, and thus marked support from a large body of MLA delegates for a graduate student issue.

As a result of this success, the GSC devoted itself to a quest to make the MLA more actively involved in graduate student issues. For example, the GSC pushed to get the association to use its public relations budget to become publicly and actively involved in issues of academic labor. A key GSC motion, approved for 1996, stated that the MLA should "take the lead in working with other disciplinary and higher-education groups in encouraging legislative and policy bodies at the national or state level to adopt and fund initiatives which would provide for labor equity in graduate-employee and adjunct work."

In 1997 the Delegate Assembly approved a GSC motion that called for the Committee on Professional Employment to determine minimum standards of acceptable ratios for full- to part-time faculty. In a related motion, the GSC proposed that adherence to these staffing ratios be a factor in accreditation. The GSC's proposal that the MLA become more involved in public relations efforts aimed at returning part-time work to full-time jobs was also approved, as was the GSC motion to require the association to broaden its diversity guidelines to include workplace status, e.g., junior faculty, graduate students, and adjuncts. Also in 1997, the GSC used the petition method to nominate a graduate student, Kirsten Christensen, to the MLA's Executive Council. In a groundbreaking election, Christensen became the first student elected in the 115 years of the Executive Council. Professor Cary Nelson also was elected to the Executive Council as a GSC-supported candidate.

The key victory for the GSC at the 1998 convention was the approval of a GSC proposal calling for the collection of detailed salary, benefit, and course-load data for all part-time instructors—including teaching assistants—in language and literature departments in the United States and Canada. The survey, to encompass 5,100 departments at an estimated cost of $91,000, was overwhelmingly approved. Bob Scholes, author of Textual Power and an MLA member, called this "the most important thing the MLA has ever done."4 This survey and the publication of the results will give the MLA the facts it needs to document the exploitation of part-time workers. It is a critical step in discovering the true extent of the academic labor crisis. A related GSC proposal, that the MLA draft model legislation that sets fair standards regarding the proportion of courses part-time workers at public institutions can teach, was also approved. These legislative victories have demonstrated that graduate students can work together to make professional organizations more responsive to the needs of their members.

Where Do Graduate Students Go from Here?

In spite of these successes, some have raised objections to the GSC's plan of action and its interest in the MLA. They have asked, why bother with a group such as the MLA, and by extension, any professional organization? The GSC counters that the MLA, and other scholarly organizations, can play roles on several fronts. The association can serve to raise the awareness of its members about the grave problems that face the academy. It played this role during the Yale University teaching assistants' strike and can do so again in the future. Because professional organizations have an intermediary role in reaching people with student concerns who may be hostile to unions, the GSC feels its efforts complement the work being done in the unionization effort. Unions and activist graduate student groups can work together and reach different audiences. In addition, the MLA convention and other conventions of large professional associations are the primary locations of the major job fairs each year. As such, these organizations will always have a vital role in the job crisis and must be enlisted as allies by graduate students. Students have a unique opportunity to address the job market many will face in the future, and they should not ignore this opportunity.

Through their professional associations, graduate students can point out the ways the fate of teaching assistants, adjunct workers, and tenured faculty are intertwined. The MLA, the AHA, and other professional groups can begin to work outside the organization by actively lobbying for change, by working both with university administrators and with other constituencies, such as undergraduate students and their parents. While they may be resistant to change, the MLA and the AHA are not lost causes, nor are they doomed to be ignored by administrators and the larger public. These constituencies will take the associations as seriously as they take themselves. Graduate students must act on the assumption that their voices matter and that together they can make meaningful change. It is in this area of making their voices heard nationally that this professional organization can offer the GSC another benefit. The MLA's prominence, and the GSC's affiliation with it, gives students media visibility that is difficult to achieve on their own. As a result of the GSC activities at the 1998 convention, the GSC received coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, Talk of the Nation, and many other outlets. The MLA and the AHA are not the be-all and end-all in the fight for fair working conditions in the academy, but they have a vital role to play, and graduate students can be the impetus that drives them forward.

There are compelling personal and professional reasons for struggling to change the academic system. Graduate students care deeply about their areas of study, and, by extension, their profession. They have a stake in the future of the profession and a desire to help shape that future. This commitment demonstrates to employers that students are invested in the profession they hope to enter. Further, working with professional organizations and allied organizations develops diverse skills, such as leadership and organizing skills, and promotes writing, speaking, and researching abilities in new directions. It prepares graduate students for other activist work. GSC members also enjoy meeting other graduate students and overcoming the sense of isolation and alienation that many students experience, particularly once they finish their course work. On a broader level, graduate students need to make sure that their perspectives and voices are not marginalized in the discussions. As a result of hyperprofessionalization and extensive teaching, publishing, and presenting, graduate students are already acting as members of these professions and should have a part in determining their futures.

The idea that the individual can overcome the current crisis through personal achievement and merit, which is encouraged by the rhetoric of individualism and liberalism in the academy, works against graduate students because it fosters individual competition over group action. What graduate students need at this juncture is group action. Group action has emerged around unionization, the development of e-mail discussion groups such as H-Grad, and the growth of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students. These are important developments, but students need more discipline-based groups such as the GSC to confront the state of the profession from the inside and across disciplines.

—Felicia L. Carr is a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at George Mason University and a member of the steering committee of the Graduate Student Caucus. She would like to thank the many GSC members and supporters whose ideas and comradeship have supported this article, in particular Marc Bousquet, Gregory Bezkorovainy, Mark Kelley, Ellie Kennedy, William Pannapacker, Leo Parascondola, Mary Refling, Victoria Smallman, and Laura Sullivan. For more information about the GSC, or to discuss forming a similar group, please contact Ms. Carr at fcarr1@gmu.edu.

Notes

1. Workplace is available at http://www.workplace-gsc.com. Contributors include Barbara Bowen, Barbara Foley, Paul Lauter, Cary Nelson, and many others.

2. This list is drawn from caucus meetings, discussions with GSC leaders, GSC e-mail discussions, a review of GSC materials available on the web, and the minutes of the MLA.

3. Additional information about the structure, officers, charter, joining e-grad, and more is available at http://www.workplace-gsc.com/~gscmla/.

4. Quoted in "Response to Robert Weisbuch," by Mark Kelley in Workplace; available at http://www.workplace-gsc.com/ workplace2-1/kelley.html.