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Misplaced Priorities in Academia: A Tale of Two Pictures

Toward the top of his piece on the debate about Israel at this year’s Modern Language Association conference, Joel Griffith posts a picture he took of the Delegate Assembly meeting, just before a resolution urging the State Department to contest Israel’s visa policy was to be debated. Though the room was not full, Griffith reports that there were 250 in attendance to discuss the Modern Language Association’s Middle East policy. Griffith tells me that the picture was taken at about 3:15 p.m.

Two minutes before, Lee Skallerup, professor and author of the blog College Ready Writing, had tweeted this picture from a panel on the plight of adjunct instructors, what she called, with some justification, “the biggest issue facing” the language and literature teaching biz. Such low-paid instructors, who typically do not receive benefits, make up an ever increasing percentage of teaching faculty not only in language and literature but in higher education altogether. While 250 people considered the plight of a handful of U.S. academics denied entry to the West Bank, five scholars were in attendance to discuss a problem the MLA might do something about.

Doing something about the academic job market may require, as Walter Russell Mead observes, producing fewer Ph.D.’s. But at a well-attended panel on “Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education,” speakers called for business as usual. As Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reports, while “many of those urging talk about the issue want to see programs shrink, the speakers here rejected that approach, with one even calling for programs to expand.” Onward.

It is unambiguously the job of a professional association like the MLA to be concerned about language and literature teaching and with what effect, if any, dependence on a contingent, economically insecure teaching corps might have on the quality of language and literature education. There is no question that officers and members of the MLA have expressed concern about these matters, but as the two pictures suggest, cost-free political posturing is more popular than facing the hard questions the MLA is actually charged with facing.

In the Times of Israel on Thursday, Sharon Musher writes movingly about a related matter, the American Studies Association’s recent vote to boycott Israel. That vote has bought the ASA wide condemnation, from over two hundred college and university leaders, several academic associations, the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and more than 100 members of Congress. Among many of Musher’s many excellent arguments—and I urge everyone to read the whole thing—is this one: the ASA leadership, in pushing the resolution, proceeded with complete disregard for the good of American Studies undergraduate and graduate students. Here is Musher, addressing the outgoing and incoming presidents of the ASA:

“I fear for my students’ future, the outlook for Stockton’s American Studies program, and the prospects for the field in the aftermath of the dangerous institutional decision you have made. As if the humanities were not in sufficiently dire straits, as if our graduates did not already need to struggle to manage their debt and find jobs in a bleak economy, as if public institutions of higher learning had not already seen their budgets slashed over the past few years, you have added fuel to the flames by turning the world’s attention to the ASA’s proclivity to political activism over scholarship and the intellectual exchange of ideas.”

Musher is leaving the ASA, and while other boycott opponents have chosen to stick around try to reform the organization from within, I think her decision makes sense. The recent history of the organization, going back more than a decade, offers very little hope of a near-term change.

No doubt supporters of the ASA boycott or the MLA anti-Israel resolution will argue that academics must be willing to sacrifice their interests in order to stand with oppressed Palestinians (as if impotent MLA or ASA statements are the sole or most effective way to take such a stand). Setting aside the debate over the substance of the ASA and MLA statements, which has been discussed more than once in these pages, it is striking that the only interests these particular academics are sacrificing are, as Musher emphasizes, those of their students. How noble.


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