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Altac at the MLA

Shaun and I were at the Modern Language Association conference in Boston last week and I am happy to report that the conference was abuzz with discussions of the altac track. The session we organized was packed and well-received — with presentations by fabulous panelists. Two of them are available online — click here for Sarah Werner’s presentation and here for Brian Croxall’s. The session also received a nice writeup in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, while Inside Higher Ed covered another panel on alternative career paths (including faculty positions off the TT and/or outside of research institutions).

While the Twitter backchannel for all the altac sessions was lively, one observation in particular stood out for me — Daniel Powell’s provocative take on the “true” altac

Most provocative & truthy idea of #MLA13 so far: the TT is the true #altac in the modern academy. Discourse structures reality.
Daniel Powell

If the above is true — and at the various sessions I attended, the number given was that 20% of Ph.D.’s get tenure-track jobs — then Daniel is correct. Which is, I think, one reason why the discussion of how to reform graduate education in language and literature programs was also a hot topic at this year’s meeting. Scott Jaschik has a nice summary of a session chaired by Russell Berman here. As Jaschik notes, there was some resistance to Berman’s and the other panelists’ ideas, but also much support. Another session (that I unfortunately missed), included a presentation by Katina Rogers, of the UVa Scholars’ Lab, on why rebooting graduate education, starting with the following observation:

The report on the 2011 Survey of Earned Doctorates…presented the grim fact that 43% of doctoral recipients have no job or postdoctoral plan upon receiving their degree

43% is an amazing figure and one that demonstrates that traditional graduate education is failing our students. I was pleased to see such a focus on the profession and jobs at the MLA, including a historical all-adjunct Presidential Forum and a Presidential Address focusing on adjunct and contingent labor. For me, William Pannapacker’s assertion that there was a “stronger sense of solidarity than I remember feeling at any time in the past” (“The End of MLAlienation?”) at the MLA was indeed true. I only hope that it continues to be true in 2014 and beyond.


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