What the AAR Can Learn from the MLA: The Conference Should Not Be Synonymous With “Job Market”

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I was recently listening to the Digital Campus podcast when they did a segment (skip to 38:03 mark) discussing the need, or lack thereof, for the conference job interview. They based the discussion on the recent column from Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association. Feal makes some really interesting points in the column that I hope other academic societies, such as the AAR can pick up on.

First, Feal argues that the MLA offers interview services because departments want them. Furthermore, she notes that the MLA has no vested interest in the status quo.

Some writers think the MLA has a vested interest in defending the current system, but that is simply wrong. The MLA operates under the assumption that the interests of both candidates and departments must be well served. At times, however, those interests conflict. Cost is a major obstacle for candidates when it comes to attending the MLA convention. Although the MLA has doubled the amount of travel grants in recent years (from $200 to $400) and although every qualified applicant has received one, the expenses involved in attending the convention can be prohibitive to the graduate student or part-time faculty member who may have one interview lined up. This is a huge burden on the candidate, and departments need to adjust their expectations.

I think Feal is right here. As I argued, the cost of interviews at conferences are prohibitive. Feal encourages departments to consider remote conferencing systems and even notes that there are guidelines for doing remote interviews provided by scholarly societies.

Feal also rightly points out that graduate programs have a duty to their students.

Graduate programs have a responsibility to their students. To maintain a PhD program in these difficult times means committing the resources to support students in their nascent careers, whether in academia or beyond. Students should expect extensive assistance in preparing for the job search and in meeting the costs of attending the convention. After all, the MLA convention is much more than an event where interviews occur. It remains the largest language and literature convention in the world, and it offers nearly eight hundred sessions, professional development workshops, networking opportunities, and a host of other activities. Being on the job market is extraordinarily stressful, but there’s a whole convention out there that offers intellectual and professional engagement of a very different type.

I think Feal’s point here is crucial. In my experience, professionalization has meant “preparation for a job” instead of “preparation for a career.” Thus, graduate students see the conference as a place for job hunting and miss out on the larger experience of the conference and all it has to offer. I cannot wait to go to the AAR this year and not be on the job market precisely because I feel like I finally get to go to the whole conference and not just that depressing part with the cubicles. I haven’t been able to do that since my first couple years as a grad student.

I hope the AAR is paying attention to what the MLA is doing because I feel like they are on to something here:

It’s time for us to reconsider how and where we interview and to look to the convention as a renewable source of intellectual energy, created by and for MLA members…Contrary to what I’ve heard being said, the MLA does not count on the convention as a major source of association revenue, unlike other scholarly associations. Our fees are among the lowest, while we provide more services than most.

Side note: How does this compare to the AAR?

It’s an exciting, rich occasion for intellectual, pedagogical, and professional exchange. The convention exists to serve members, and as long as the structures that undergird it are supporting that mission, they should remain. The MLA has no interest in forcing an interview model on the profession if it no longer works. Quite the opposite: the MLA has every interest in documenting and promoting best practices, recognizing that there are many. What if departments always offered candidates the option of a remote interview and treated candidates equally whether or not they planned to attend the MLA convention? Some departments have already adopted this practice, and it sounds wise to me. I very much enjoy seeing graduate students at the convention, hearing their presentations, and meeting them informally. It would be in all of our best interests to make the convention a less tense and burdensome experience for the next generation of the humanities workforce.

I think we can all agree that the conference should be less burdensome. I think we all want a conference that is a “rich occasion for intellectual, pedagogical, and professional exchange.” It should be that way for everyone.

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