An Exchange About 'MLA And The Market'
Issue #3, November 1992
EDITORS' NOTE: The following letter from Houston A. Baker, along with Annalee Newitz's response, originally appeared in the October 1992 issue of the Newsletter of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association. Baker is responding to Newitz's article, 'MLA and the Market,' which was printed in the September 1992 issues of both Bad Subjects and the GSC Newsletter. Both of these letters are reprinted with permission from the GSC Newsletter.
A Response To 'MLA And The Market'
Houston A. Baker, Jr.
To the GSCN Editors:
Thank you for sharing with me the recent issue of the GSC Newsletter. I remember the first Modern Language Association convention I attended. It was during a very cold December in New York. I had begun my first real job at Yale, and my wife and I actually had the courage to drive down to New York. There was no water ... it was veritably Eliotian ... not even the sound of water. For had there been water, we would have drunk. Not only was there no water, there were very few black people or seriously involved graduate students or diverse and interesting (much less overcrowded) sessions. I really think my wife and I were happy to go back to New Haven. And ... surely that must indicate the high degree of our dismay! I suffer, then, as do others of my generation, I believe, from a time lag. "What!" we say to ourselves, "there is actually free water here. My heavens!" Again, we tend to look upon the overcrowded sessions in this era of teleliteracy and frontal assaults on our designated areas of intellectual interests as a positive — if anomalous or duly circumscribed — boon. And the fact that an organization such as the Modern Language Association — approximately 1/3 of whose membership is comprised of graduate students — offers extraordinarily low professional dues to graduate students seems amazing to us. Particularly when we consider that there are multiple job lists, job information services, professional presentation opportunities, and other signal features of the MLA that relate directly to the lives of what we consider a very important constituency of the organization. I think that next to free water, however, the thing that amazes me and my middle-aged colleagues most is the quite remarkable number of "new" people who have come into our conference midst, bringing new and stirring intellectual concerns. Things are economically rough all over just now. We all hope that the situation will improve speedily. But, still I think passions have never been higher or more diverse for the common work that we are all supposed to have a very great passion for. I guess my hope as I wind down the Presidency is that the passion will greatly exceed the complaints. Finally, you and your colleagues might be pleased to know that my forthcoming President's column is devoted to the graduate enterprise. I hope that I will see you in New York and we can discuss matters over a free cup of water. Take care.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., Univ. of Pennsylvania, President of the MLA
A Response To Houston Baker
It is easy for Houston Baker to argue that freedom means having free water to drink at conventions when conditions are, for the many, overcrowded, potentially dangerous and the cause of great psychological discomfort. When he spoke at the MLA Convention this year, he sat at an elevated table with plenty of room for the two or three pitchers of water it contained. Those of us who sat in the audience, a great many of us unemployed or sub-employed graduate students (at UC Berkeley, where I work as a Teaching Assistant, graduate student instructors are not legally allowed to form a union because the state refuses to recognize us as "employees"), were forced to remain for the most part in our seats. The few (not always full) pitchers of water available to us were out of reach at the back of the room. The water was free to all, but some got more than others. Those who got more were so busy exclaiming, "There is actually free water here. My heavens!" to notice that their freedom came at others' expense. Specifically, they could not acknowledge that to be in their comfortable positions, others would have to occupy uncomfortable ones.
Baker describes his first experience attending an MLA Conference as alienating because "there were very few black people...or diverse and interesting...sessions." Now, he suggests, this problem is solved and we should "complain" no more. Certainly it is fortunate that we live in a time when formerly oppressed minority groups can make themselves audible and visible. But what does it mean when an institution like the university condones the practice of allowing its least powerful members to perform unacknowledged labor and menial tasks for its most powerful members? When Baker claims the MLA is providing its graduate students with an opportunity to get jobs he claims nothing more than any president of any institution might. He is telling us to endure various indignities (like doing other people's research, grading papers for other people's classes, responding to other people's mail, etc.) and be grateful, because someday we might make it to the top. In the future, we might have the luxury of Baker's position and the position enjoyed by powerful professional figures everywhere in capitalist culture. That is, we too might have the economically disempowered do part of our work for us cheaply, be we African-American or female or homosexual or Asian. This is not progress; this is merely change.
Furthermore, I would like to suggest that if Baker wishes to address earnestly the problems faced by "approximately 1/3" of MLA members, he might begin by acknowledging the labor they perform, and granting them rights and recognition on that basis. For example, he might have addressed his letter about my article, "MLA and the Market" (printed in the September issues of Bad Subjects and the GSC Newsletter), to me, Annalee Newitz, the person who wrote it. He might also consider this question: why should any human be made to suffer so much that free water looks good? Even prisoners and slaves expect free water. Might I not gain more emotional satisfaction and intellectual fulfillment from being allowed to live and work where and how I wish, rather than where and how the market makes me?