A circle of people with their hands in the middle

Advocating for One Another

Published in the Summer 2021 Newsletter

These are heady days for higher education. Various initiatives under consideration by Congress would establish federal-state partnerships to address some of the most intractable issues facing students and educators in the United States. Student debt, stubborn barriers to access, and the adjunctification of the academic labor force are all squarely in the public eye. In April 2021, the MLA’s Executive Council endorsed the proposed College for All Act, which would mandate that public institutions achieve a seventy-five-percent tenure-track workforce, building employment security for many (Statement on Proposed College). 

Although the outlook is improving at the federal level, a number of states are passing increasingly intrusive legislation that threatens to curtail academic freedom at public institutions while ostensibly securing so-called viewpoint diversity. It is no coincidence that much of the legislation targets efforts to teach the history of race and racism in the United States, even as institutions of all kinds attempt to address this vexed history in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. These developments remind us that we must redouble our efforts to advocate for one another and for our students—not only sharing research and teaching resources but speaking out for ethical workplace standards and academic freedom.

To that end, the Executive Council and Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee (DAOC) have been developing a new network to enhance our ability to advocate for members at their institutions. While this initiative is designed for the long term, members may already be getting a sense of how important it will be to use our collective voice. In January 2021, the Delegate Assembly overwhelmingly approved adding advocacy to delegates’ roles. Now the work truly begins, as we imagine together what on-campus advocacy might look like.

On-campus advocacy requires us to understand what is happening to our colleagues and their institutions across the United States and beyond. Ideally, this information should flow in multiple directions—among delegates who may share concerns, from individual members to their delegates to the DAOC and Executive Council, and from the MLA back to individual institutions. Only by ensuring this networked flow can we hope to empower members while also keeping the MLA responsive to what occurs on the ground. 

The DAOC has begun consulting with current delegates on how best to open these lines of communication: delegates hope to report on local conditions on their campus through a periodic survey, and they note that more frequent online meetings of the Delegate Assembly, beyond the official annual meeting at the convention, will help them share impressions and organize.

How might advocacy work under this new remit? We encourage delegates to remind their colleagues and administrations about MLA statements on various key issues (e.g., such as those at “Career Resources”), from academic freedom to salary recommendations to guidelines for search committees and job seekers. Contingent faculty members may wish to point to the “Statement on Contingent Labor” created by members of the Executive Council, in consultation with the Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. Conversely, members are encouraged to approach their delegates—geographic, special-issue, or forum (“Members”)—to alert them to any particular challenges or situations of concern on their campuses.

Sima Godfrey, of the DAOC, recently shared how she used MLA guidelines at her institution, the University of British Columbia. When faculty members from various departments sought to produce a document on the responsibilities of graduate supervisors and the rights of graduate students, Godfrey pointed them to Improving Institutional Circumstances for Graduate Students in Languages and Literatures: Recommendations for Best Practices and Evaluative Questions, issued by the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession in January 2013, thereby providing them with a carefully crafted starting point and saving many hours of reinventing the wheel of graduate supervision. Were this to occur today, Godfrey might also point to the May 2020 Report of the MLA Task Force on Ethical Conduct in Graduate Education (updated Feb. 2021). 

As institutions continue to grapple with the long tail of the pandemic, the opportunities to invoke MLA statements that establish best practices have multiplied. The MLA has weighed in on everything from pausing time-to-degree and tenure clocks to gendered inequities in childcare and eldercare responsibilities; the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities has stressed the importance of consultation and protections to tenure amid financial pressures (“Statement on Administrative Overreach”).

The more we can do to alert our membership to these resources, and to create the habit of invoking MLA standards in our workplaces, the better off we will be, both as a professoriat and in allied professions. My somewhat dogged insistence on these very concrete matters—far from the intellectual passions that led many of us to our profession in the first place—stems from my conviction that we need to look out for one another and for those of our colleagues who come under increasing political and financial pressures.

We continue to gather ideas from our members and from current delegates on how best to implement this initiative. A special session at the 2022 convention in Washington, Using Our Power: The MLA, Advocacy, and Academic Labor, organized by Meryl Winick, our delegate representing full-time contingent faculty members, invites members to share their thoughts on how to engage under this new remit. I urge you to attend—and to send us your thoughts on this key matter.

Works Cited

“Career Resources.” Modern Language Association, 2021, www.mla.org/Resources/ Career/Career-Resources.

Improving Institutional Circumstances for Graduate Students in Languages and Literatures: Recommendations for Best Practices and Evaluative Questions. Modern Language Association, Jan. 2013, https://www.mla.org/content/download/2792/79522/csgspguidelines_2013.pdf.  

“Members of the 2021–22 MLA Delegate Assembly.” Modern Language Association, 2021, www.mla.org/About -Us/Governance/Delegate-Assembly/Members-of-the-2021-22-MLA-Delegate-Assembly.

Report of the MLA Task Force on Ethical Conduct in Graduate Education. Modern Language Association, May 2020, www.mla.org/content/download/124589/2486014 /Ethical-Conduct-Graduate.pdf. 

“Statement on Administrative Overreach, Shared Governance, and Faculty Rights in the Time of COVID-19.” Modern Language Association, Mar. 2021, www.mla.org/About -Us/Governance/Executive-Council/ExecutiveCouncil-Actions/2021/Statement-on-Administrative-Overreach-Shared-Governance-and-Faculty-Rights-in-the-Time-ofCOVID-19. 

“Statement on Contingent Labor.” Humanities Commons, MLA, 9 July 2020, mla.hcommons.org/groups/statement-on-contingent-labor/forum/topic/working-draft/.

Statement on Proposed College for All Act. Modern Language Association, Apr. 2021, www.mla.org/About-Us/Governance/Executive-Council/Executive-Council-Actions/2021/Statement-on-Proposed-College-for-All-Act.