Resisting Vulnerable Times
(Please note that the subconference is in no way affiliated with or endorsed by the Modern Language Association.)
This year, the MLA hosts its annual convention in Chicago, IL under the title of "Vulnerable Times." As in past years, committees and special sessions will be convened to address the pressing material and financial conditions shaping our profession and its possible futures.
But who are the subjects of such times? While individuals certainly experience it in different ways, vulnerability is distributed disparately across constituencies and groups as part of the systematic reproduction of hierarchies and forms of segregation that have long characterized higher education. The 2008 recession and austerity measures implemented in response to it have only intensified the visibility of those hierarchies through diminishing and unequal access to low-interest or interest-free federal funding, skyrocketing university tuition and fees, the "adjunctification" of labor, heightened pressure to reduce time-to-degree without increased financial support, and the introduction of distance learning programs, MOOCs, and for-profit institutions.
What is the role of graduate students, contingent workers, and autonomous intellectuals in organizing to change the distribution and affects of vulnerability today? Can those of us struggling on the strange outside and inside of the profession, on the margins of an institution but constituting the bulk of its labor, afford to do otherwise?
With the above questions in mind, we seek to challenge our profession's tendency to promote individual merit as the primary source of success or failure and to reinforce social, professional and economic atomization. Instead, we seek a collective approach to vulnerability that locates new possibilities within and responses to what is already our shared condition. In favor of institutional responses to "vulnerable times," other autonomous projects have already begun the work of imagining alternatives to the existing forms, costs, and hierarchies of knowledge and education. These include, amongst many others, the Edu-Factory Collective, the subconference of the American Association of Geographers, the Public School in the Bay Area, CA, Freedom University in Athens, GA, Mess Hall in Chicago, IL, the Coalition of Graduate Employees annual conference, Occupy Education and Occupy Student Debt, the Reworking the University project, the Beneath the University, the Commons conference at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, and countless other co-research projects.
Following suit, we are calling for an autonomous meeting of graduate workers, adjunct and contingent faculty, and unemployed or independent intellectuals that will coincide with the 2014 MLA convention. This gathering will be experimental, attempting to put into practice more democratic modes of knowledge production and decision making, and privileging the insight of those most directly exposed to the threats posed by our shared economic and political climate. This is not an attempt to close ourselves off from that climate by ensuring the continuation of a status quo, but rather to imagine ways of opening up our profession through new strategies of response. This meeting seeks to provide an alternative space for the articulation of possibilities and responsibilities, reconstructions and exits that may only be visible from our paradoxical outside/inside positions.
One primary goal of this inaugural session, hopefully the first of many, will be to identify the function of an autonomous conference within our particular academic context, to establish long-term goals for its future, and decide how best to influence existing committees and organizations. In accordance with the nascent status of the project, we welcome submissions for panels, presentations, workshops, and other session proposals that take up the numerous and intersectional issues that arise from living, working, and raising families in higher education, including perspectives on race, class, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.
We seek proposals that consider the following, with a heavy emphasis on tactical and on-the-ground training useful for classroom pedagogy and out-of-class organizing:
• Should autonomous collaborations such as these seek to put pressure on existing professional organizations and entities? If so, in what way? In the form of hegemony, collaboration, autonomy, etc.? How can power be leveraged and applied through these projects?
• What alternative sources of experience and knowledge can we draw from in these "vulnerable times?" Which existing models appear most successful today?
• What can we learn from recent fast food and public school worker strikes, Occupy and Occupy Student Debt actions, graduate union organizing, the response to Trayvon Martin's murder, etc. and our involvement with these movements as new lenses through which to analyze the current status of academia?
• What artists and art movements might we aim to share as models for this proposed work of resistance and imagination? What tactics might help us move through what are often felt to be incommensurable differences between on-the-ground training and aesthetics?
• How might an analysis performed through co-research produce different forms of action than the traditional recourse to policy recommendations, working papers, and official publications?
• Tool-kits and tactical training for cooperative resource sharing, research within and about the university, union organizing, critical pedagogy, etc.
• How to be a grad student and a member of a social movement? How can students and faculty best stand in solidarity with the communities where universities exist? How can we establish productive alliances with other workers?
• The political economy of higher education, including patent and tech transfer policies, the marketing of the humanities within a creative economy, department and administrative spending and budget, faculty and administrator compensation research, etc.
• How can we incorporate the political economy of the university in undergraduate humanities courses? How can we teach critical research that reveals strategic pressure points in the university? What are the possibilities and limits of doing this work while being a student at the same time?
• Shared governance and the crisis in shared governance policies; the introduction of graduate students and contingent faculty in shared governance; academic freedom in this new composition of labor.