Sunday, January 06, 2013

Dropping by the MLA

Last Friday I had the chance to drop by the MLA conference for the first time ever.  In my faculty days, I used to attend APSA fairly regularly; now I can sometimes be found at the League for Innovation or the AACC.  The MLA was a new one.  But between an opportunity to participate in a bloggers’ panel in the Exhibit Hall Theater and an unusually accessible location, I couldn’t turn it down.

Some observations from a social scientist and administrator, walking among humanists:

- I was struck by the number of times that different people mentioned their own colleges, both public and private, making conscious efforts to recruit large numbers of wealthy, full-freight students from China.  (One even mentioned that Brazil is offering scholarships for its students to go abroad, so that’ll be the next wave.)  The conversations usually revolved around culture clashes and English fluency, but I couldn’t help but think about what it suggested about the fiscal sustainability of the current model.  Presumably, sooner or later, other countries will have their own higher ed infrastructures.  

- Nearly every laptop at MLA was an Apple.  Given all the talk of budget constraints and two-tier wage systems, that surprised me.

- The gender balance was a lot more female than APSA.  It was almost as female as CASE, though with much darker clothing.  Make of this what you will.

- Nametag-checking is alive and well.  I had a press pass, since I was there with IHE, so people didn’t quite know what to do with that.  When I dropped by a food court for lunch, a woman behind me in line asked about the different color of my tag.  (She was a presenter.)  When I said “press,” she recoiled, as if from a bad smell.

- Apparently, they haven’t quite gotten the hang of the “Exhibit Hall Theater” concept yet.  The EHT panels weren’t included in the version of the panel schedule that people actually use, so they were pretty lightly attended.  The IHE panel on career advice, was nearly empty, despite a topic that seemed like it would attract some interest.  On the bright side, the folks who were there had a great discussion.  

- If you have an active Twitter presence, it’s fun to see avatars come to life in three dimensions.  In person, my colleague Lee Skallerup Bessette looks a lot like someone I went to high school with; I had to remind myself repeatedly not to call her “Kim.”  

- I attended a panel on “alt-ac” careers that was as interesting for its tone as for its content.  I went in expecting the usual angry admin-bashing and self-righteous invocations of imagined Golden Ages, but that really didn’t happen.  Instead, the panelists stressed -- correctly, in my view -- the range of possibilities for people who are willing to break from the script.  (Brian Croxall captured it nicely with his phrase “the transmission of possibility.”  Someone else referred to “future-proofing” the Ph.D. by supplementing the traditional research skills with skills around technology, budgeting, and even management.)  The common denominator among the various panelists was that things that had started as side projects were frequently what opened the next door.  I had to smile when someone started a sentence with “I know we all like to hate on admins, but...” -- for the first time in recent memory, I heard public acknowledgement that having administrators with real academic backgrounds can make a positive difference.  

- Obviously, there was a great deal of talk about frustrated adjunct or short-term faculty.  It was at the relatively early “consciousness-raising” stage -- lots of anecdote, almost no analysis -- but it’s a start.  At some point, I’d love to see some of these very smart people get beyond “moral suasion” as a strategy and actually look at the institutional drivers behind the trend.  (See the aforementioned rich students recruited from China.) But if the prior discussion simply didn’t exist -- which I’m told was largely the case -- then this is the start of progress.

- Despite the new focus on adjunct and labor issues, the conference had remarkably light representation from community colleges.  It also did relatively little on composition courses, and almost nothing on developmental courses. Some of that is probably a function of travel budgets -- at this level, they’re a bit spare -- and some probably reflects an informal division of labor with the CCCC.  But still, if they want an accurate picture of the institutional realities within which many of the labor issues occur, they might want to open things up a bit.

- Of course, a major function of conferences is catching up with friends and meeting new people.  I enjoyed meeting Lee, Mary Churchill, Nate Kreuter, and Serena Golden from IHE, and catching up with Scott Jaschik.  It was also refreshing to get to spend some time with my college friend Vic, who has built a formidable alt-ac career of her own.  As with the alt-ac panelists, her pattern has been a side project on job A leading to job B.  When the route up the middle is blocked, there’s no shame in a well-executed end run.  It’s a hell of a lot more fun than just hitting the wall repeatedly.