Resisting Vulnerable Times


The MLA Subconference held its first meeting in January 2014, running one day before and one day concurrently with the MLA Convention in Chicago, IL. It was organized by 8 graduate students at 5 different universities in the span of about 5 months of Skype conversations. Some of our goals were simple: to see if our peers and others would reject or embrace a “shadow” conference; to register and discuss the ample frustrations that exist with academic and professional organizations such as, but not limited to, the Modern Language Association; to provide a safe space in which to discuss those frustrations, as well as the psychological and affective impacts of economic precarity.

But we want to be clear: the goals of the Subconference were and are not limited to the immediate, the discursive, or the spatial. The Subconference is also intended as a site for forging relationships between academic and non-academic activists, proposing and re-educating ourselves on the use of direct action on our home campuses and in our communities, and understanding militant research as a way to map, take advantage of, and destroy the financial and power structures of universities.

In other words, we convened the Subconference because we believe that there are tactics and strategies in activist and labor union toolboxes which are powerful and effective but which we, as “professionals,” have dismissed, forgotten, or perhaps never been exposed to. Because of this, professional organizations have failed to confront the jobs crisis in a way that is resistant to and critical of the private market’s role in dictating the terms of higher education and of our labor. This, and not some misguided understanding of the MLA as for-profit institution as has been suggested, is why it is necessary to work outside academic organizations in order to transform our collective futures.

While professional organizations envision the future of higher education as achievable through narrow tactics like making the humanities more exciting and relevant to incoming students, better communicating with administrators and becoming administrators ourselves, and getting better at “fundraising” through alumni and philanthropic sources, we realize that these go hand-in-hand with student debt, administrative bloat, and the privatization of higher education. The problems plaguing higher education—and disproportionately impacting the humanities and social sciences—cannot be addressed through such reactive methods but rather demand creative strategies of collective response.

Over the coming year, we will continue to articulate that demand and forge the collective that is needed to pose it. Please join us in Vancouver in January, 2015 (location TBA) for our second meeting and contact us at any time with your questions and interests in the event.

To see the call for proposals from 2014 and panel descriptions, please visit our blog.