I am not in the MLA. I will never join the MLA again. Still, it’s difficult to be an academic in the humanities and not notice the folly of responses to the MLA over the past year or less. Responses such as:
- The MLA can solve the labor problem in academia (it cannot)
- The salary of the MLA’s director should be reduced to better support adjunct labor (there is no relationship)
- The MLA should be a better public advocate for labor because public advocacy will solve the issue of labor
This last position is partly expressed in an InsideHigherEd piece today by a group of scholars. These individuals are responding to a previous MLA report (and what do umbrella organizations do if they do not issue reports) on graduate education. The number one recommendation in the group’s response is “public advocacy.”
This could include speaking about these issues in classes, in meetings, in public forums; writing op-eds; insisting that senior administrators consistently justify the hiring practices of the university, not only in terms of faculty hiring, but also of administrative and professional staff. Of particular importance would be to obtain and circulate the Adjunct/Tenure faculty ratio in departments and at universities.
There is one issue here. That issue is the who gives a shit dilemma. The who gives a shit dilemma goes something like this:
- We have an educational problem.
- We will take our problem to the public – that part of the public whose tax dollars somewhat support higher education, whose income pays for tuition, whose children are enrolled in the universities and colleges where we work, and that public, in turn, will be outraged.
- Their outrage will force a change in public policy.
- Conditions will change (i.e., the problem of adjunct labor will vanish).
- The infrastructure, which has supported this problem in the first place, of course, will remain largely in place. Public opinion will be the force of change.
That, of course, does not occur.
Since some of us are in the business of rhetoric, some of us should believe in the power of language delivered publicly to change opinion. In some cases, along with infrastructure shifts, that does occur. The humanities, where this InsideHigherEd response emerges from, though, often leaves aside the changes – what is a major, the value of specific types of study, the role and shape of graduate education, the need to study literature, how general education demands create this labor problem as well, and so on – in order to focus on the public. And one narrative often goes: if only the public knew that its children were being taught by instructors making $2500 a course with no benefits, it would demand a change. Yes, it might. But that change would likely be: “I want the tenure line instructors, instead, teaching my children.That’s what I pay for.”
Here’s another idea about the power of rhetoric: sometimes the public does not give a shit. Sometimes, the public cares more about insignificant issues such as whether or not two people can marry or whether someone from another country can pick vegetables or work in a chicken factory without a visa, than more serious concerns such as education. Maybe, in the case of education, argument has little to no effect. Maybe, no one gives a shit.
An example from our neck of the woods: It used to be (and maybe still is, but I am no longer subscribing to many listservs) that my field’s main listserv would be hit with periodic requests regarding the cap on first year courses. A barrage of emails listing cap sizes would follow, and the original poster would, supposedly, now have the information to make an argument regarding the efficacy of low caps on first year courses. As if. As if someone gives a shit.
As if some person in power (dean, provost, chair) does not already know that a lower student to teacher ratio means more attention to student work and, thus, better student performance. Of course they know this. What is the power of an argument when the other side says: “Yes, I know. You are right.” And then goes on to relate the available funds for hiring, for student instruction, etc. generated by an infrastructure problem. The power of the rhetorical situation is: who gives a shit.
I know why this is what it is.
I don’t give a shit.
Who gives a shit does not necessarily equate apathy or lack of concern. It might, instead, suggest another type of response which may deal with value priority (some people, for whatever reason, think marriage is more important than education), other concerns (such as, for instance, eliminating or reducing Gen Ed requirements or graduate programs), helplessness (no money, no money), shifting language (maybe replace the pejorative “vocational” with a word like “responsibility” or “career preparation”), or some other force that requires the original call for public advocacy to change its current order of business in the first place. Change is not, as the InsideHigherEd authors claim, necessarily “capitulation.” It may, indeed, be the real step toward countering the public response of: who gives a shit?
Who gives a shit?
The public does not give a shit about the MLA’s recommendations. The academic public does not give a shit either. The graduate students, who sign up every year for 4-6 years of study in areas where there are likely no employment prospects in academia upon graduation and thus become adjuncts, don’t give a shit either (if they did, they wouldn’t start this trek in the first place). The faculty, who prefer to teach graduate courses over first year courses, who encourage students to study esoteric material that they wouldn’t find compelling in a job search, don’t give a shit either.
They don’t, that is, when they are not writing passionate pleas in InsideHigherEd for public advocacy.
Hear my roar. Wait. What? I don’t give a shit.