“Alt-ac” at the MLA? “Things are so desperate that a few academics are even considering change.”


He never looked back … well, almost never.

Stephen Marche, a refugee from academia, went as a sort of tourist to the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago this year, and it was a downer.  “The MLA this year took, as its principal subject, the death of its own significance,” he writes in the current Times Literary SupplementWhat’s happened to the humanities?  The lack of reading – c’mon real reading, like Kafka and Proust and Milton and Dostoevsky – and the omnipresence of the electronic media have “the rug has been pulled out from under a whole scheme of meaning.”

Marche’s particular target is a “neat piece of jargon for these alternatives to academia: the alt-ac track.” He found one alternative himself: the Canadian novelist, essayist, and cultural commentator taught Renaissance drama at CUNY until 2007, when he resigned in order to write full-time. He is now a contributing editor of Esquire. 

He reflected on his former life: “The cloistered interiorizing logic of the system makes life outside seem halfway impossible. From the outside, ‘academic prestige’ as an idea is completely ludicrous. From within, nothing could be more in earnest. Thus the inherent hilarity of the phrase ‘academic superstar’.”

“And this is what the graduate student facing a non-academic job has to confront: They’ve been collecting Disney bucks their whole lives and must now leave the magic kingdom. Alt-ac brings with it stigma and shame as well as terror.”

He maintains “the ostentatious left-wing politics of academia is camouflage for a deeply conservative way of life.” Elsewhere, he writes: “The cloistered interiorizing logic of the system makes life outside seem halfway impossible.”

Things are so desperate that a few academics are even considering change. Peter Kalliney, from the University of Kentucky, proposed a plan he had been imposing on his own department: “Fun, effective courses to non-majors” is “the way to the major”. What if you taught courses, in other words, that people wanted to take? At his department, Kalliney insisted on “a few strategic new courses in growth areas” – creative writing, film, mythology – and insisted, most radically, on senior faculty members teaching the most popular courses. This is the exact opposite of what is typically done, where senior academics toddle around their specialist subject among the upper years, while overworked contract staff slug it out in the trenches with the masses who have to take classes. Instead, why not have the best-paid, most experienced teachers teach students who need to be convinced of the value of literature?

The current state of the humanities can be found in the juxtaposition of these two sessions. First, academics devote their lives to writing things they know that nobody will ever read, then they gnash their teeth about why nobody cares about what they do.

In one of the more desperate pleas for relevance, the MLA introduced a session called “Humanities in Five” at this year’s conference. “Scholars from multiple fields present five-minute descriptions of their work in accessible languages”, the description read. “Chicago journalists serve as judges. The goal is to offer models for sharing work in the humanities with the general public.” The event itself, in a sparsely populated ballroom, had the painful incompetence of people doing stand-up for the first time. The professors reverted to the standard lecture speak and their weird fascinations: the trade in ivory between Zanzibar and Connecticut, the influence of Jewish conversos on early Jesuit writings, applying Bourdieu’s theories to YSL’s India collection from the 1970s. One of the scholars lost the ability to speak for fifteen seconds. Somebody played the blues harmonica, which is never a good sign.

Congratulations, from one angle. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

He recalled a student who told him she feels like she’s betraying her mentors by looking for a non-academic job. “I want to tell her: It’s the professors who betrayed you long ago.”

“It’s not just hurt feelings. The problem is practical. If you are a graduate student, and you want advice on how the world outside academia works, there is nobody worse to ask than an academic. Asking a professor for advice about how to find a job outside academia is about as useful as asking a priest for advice about the wedding night.”

As someone who has tethered her inflatable life-raft to the cruise ship of the university, and tied it to the humanities in particular, I find it tragic that the whole thing is going blub-blub-blub. But at least the TLS and Stephen March are helping us have a last drink and a few laughs as the ship hits the iceberg. And it’s the free online offering this week at the TLS, here.


4 Responses to ““Alt-ac” at the MLA? “Things are so desperate that a few academics are even considering change.””

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    Since the early 2000s, unhappy graduate students and adjuncts in the humanities have been telling their stories, first on (usually anonymous) blogs, then under the real names as briefly quoted interviewees in news stories, and most recently on Twitter. It’s been obvious for all that time that the would-be scholars who are bitter, disgruntled, disappointed, and emotionally or financially damaged vastly outnumber those who prospered and found good jobs. I’ve been wondering when all those angry but articulate voices would start to become the norm. This is the second such piece in the past few weeks by a former aspiring scholar who no longer has any reason to care what his former mentors and colleagues think of him. We should probably expect to see more.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    It’s a bitterly funny article, though! Thanks for checking in, Jeff.

  3. George Says:

    I think that the Chronicle of Higher Education carried an article about the same MLA meeting.

    It seems to me that since the end of WW II–since the GI Bill, really–much of academia has functioned as a pyramid scheme. This worked quite well for about thirty years, while the university system was expanding rapidly: if there wasn’t room for you in Cambridge or New Haven, well, they were hiring in Lincoln and West Lansing and Denver. With the end of the expansion, this changed. The professor who didn’t quite get tenure at Grand Old Ivy might be better than any of the dozen tenured faculty at Tumbleweed State; but the oldest of them was forty-five and looked to be hale for the next quarter century, and Tumbleweed State wasn’t expanding any longer.

    (By the way, I don’t fault academia for the pyramid scheme. A large percentage of pyramid schemes are launched by naive souls who simply can’t do the math.)

    I wish I had an answer for the talented and scrambling, but I don’t. I heard of a fellow who didn’t catch on teaching Wittgenstein, and who was forced to go double his salary programming for a government contractor. I knew a fellow out west on soft money who could have greatly increased his salary by teaching high school English in Aspen. A niece in a Ph.D. program says that if it doesn’t work out she can always go teach Latin in a high school. And I will mention that there is a letter of Jakob Burkhardt’s to a young friend saying essentially, “Are you sure that you want to pursue university teaching? If you settled for teaching in a gymnasium, they’d pay you enough to marry and settle down.”

    I will mention also that the postwar expansion benefited more than the humanities. In his memoirs, Stanislaw Ulam mentioned the contrast between the American Mathematical Association meetings before the war, with young Ph.D.s courting chairmen of departments, and after the war when the chairmen courted the young.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always, George.