Precarity and Activism: A CSGSP Roundtable at #MLA18

In one of our three sponsored roundtables at #MLA18 we focus on precarity and activism for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty.  We ask, how do graduate students engage activism from the position of precarity? How do these issues impact research and teaching? Issues include confronting rape culture, creating space for junior scholars in academic organizations, fighting for academic freedom in teaching, critiquing faculty and the corporate university, addressing poverty, and discussing different aspects of union-organizing.

See below for titles, abstracts, speaker bios, and further resources.

Time: Friday January 5 1:45 PM-3:00 PM

Location: Concourse F (Hilton)

Session 342. Chosen as one of the sessions under this year’s theme #StatesofInsecurity


Melissa Leigh Antonucci (U of Oklahoma)

Making Room for Junior Scholars

At the 2013 biennial conference for the Society of Early Americanists (SEA), the incoming President Kristina Bross (Purdue University) and Vice President Laura Stevens (University of Tulsa), who later served as president, expressed interest in the possible formation of a junior scholars’ caucus during an early morning breakfast meeting of graduate students. The onus, however, of bringing such an organization into being was on us—the graduate students. Three years and two biennial meetings later, the official Junior Scholars’ Caucus made its debut as a functioning organization within SEA. During those three years, Kirsten Iden (Auburn University) and I worked closely with Kristina, Laura, and others within SEA to carve a space for junior scholars within the larger national organization. This presentation will outline the challenges we faced and the support we received from the SEA executive board in developing an optimal space for junior scholars to share research, fellowship/grant information, job market resources, and ways to create a sense of sustained community among younger scholars. This presentation will also include a discussion of those foundational issues with which junior scholars must contend when considering organizing similar associations—issues such as the degree and scope of national leadership involvement; protocols for communicating with the executive board and caucus members; caucus governance and the creation of a constitution; membership; events coordination; and funding. Finally, I hope this presentation will foster discussions as to how junior scholars, many of whom, even after earning their PhDs, find themselves in positions of precarity, can begin establishing professional and steadfast presences within national organizations that do not always address specific concerns of younger scholars.

Melissa Antonucci is a faculty member in the English Department at the University of Oklahoma. She earned her PhD at the University of Tulsa in 2015, where she also recently completed a one-year postdoctoral appointment. As a graduate student, Melissa served as co-chair of the Graduate Student Caucus for the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) and is co-founder of the Junior Scholars’ Caucus for the Society of Early Americanists (SEA), which officially launched in March 2017. Her discussion today focuses mostly on those experiences of laying the groundwork for the Junior Scholars’ Caucus and the challenges and benefits of advocating for graduate students within national organizations.
Michaela Brangan (Cornell U)

We Are Workers (?): Organizing Graduate Assistants in the American Labor Movement

It is an organizing commonplace, and paradox, that the worse off the worker is, the harder it can be for them to step toward their union. What, then, when the graduate assistant does not see herself as a worker? What, too, about the grad member of an underrepresented, marginalized or oppressed class. How can they know that anything will improve with unionization: a historically majoritarian model of gaining power? This paper gives a brief political and legal analysis of the graduate unionization movement. Specifically with reference to the author’s organizing experience at Cornell University, it thinks through the intersectional and class conflicts that arise with traditional organizing; discusses issues around American business unionism; interrogates the double precarity of “student labor” within the administrative university context; and speculates on what productive solidarity and activism could look like in future academe.

Relevant links:

Michaela Brangan, a PhD candidate in the English department at Cornell University, researches and teaches at the intersection of law, politics, and contemporary literature. From 2014 to 2017, she worked to gain recognition and collective bargaining rights for graduate assistants at Cornell with Cornell Graduate Students United (CGSU). She holds degrees from the University of Washington and the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law.
Update: unable to attend

Aesthetics in the Adjunct Age

Is philosophical labour commensurable with exploitative labour? In his influential 1950 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger focuses on a painting of a worn pair of farmer’s shoes by Vincent van Gogh. “A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more,” he says, and then pauses to add: “And yet.” Thinking further, the philosopher decides that “the toil of the worker’s tread stares forth” from the shoes, and argues that the painting is thus “pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread.” With his continuation of this “and yet,” Heidegger mobilizes the material reality of poverty in the service of philosophical explication; in doing so, however, he renders his peasant woman silent: “uncomplaining.” In the contemporary academic condition, performing the work of aesthetic philosophy often means also having to worry as to the certainty of bread, and increasingly, many of us are refusing to remain silent. The corporatized university and its dependence upon precarious labour is what Kevin Birmingham calls “the great shame of our profession,” and adjunct professors who make poverty wages tell of having to “sell their plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays” to pay for their children’s daycare (Birmingham). “We tell our students to study literature because it will make them better human beings,” Birmingham argues; “that in our classrooms they will learn empathy and wisdom, thoughtfulness and understanding. And yet the institutions supporting literary criticism are callous and morally incoherent” (emph. added). What is the relationship, I ask, between Heidegger’s and Birmingham’s “and yet”? In this labour climate, what kinds of work are we being asked to perform in order to get to a place where we can perform intellectual work, and how do we reconcile this moral incoherence?

Related resources:

Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award Acceptance Speech:

Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Alyson Brickey is a Sessional Instructor in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba, Canada. She writes about the aesthetics of listing in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century American literature, and her work has appeared in intervalla and Mosaic. She is currently at work on a book-length project called The Agony of the Partition, which focuses on the recurring figure of the wall in modernist American short fiction by women. Twitter handle: @alybrickey


David Puthoff (U of New Mexico, Albuquerque)

Beyond Bargaining: Uses and Limits of the Modern Language Association’s Academic Collective Bargaining for Radical Organizers

Following the victory of Columbia University graduate instructors at the National Labor Relations Board in August 2016, the Modern Language Association promoted to members its 2006 collection of essays in collaboration with the American Association of University professors, entitled Academic Collective Bargaining. Perusing this book helped convince organizers at the University of New Mexico that organizing graduate students and adjuncts within traditional unions would be insufficient for our urgent needs in a new political landscape. Instead, organizers sought and found an alternative in an anti-capitalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This paper seeks to chart those conditions altering the struggle for precarious academic labor. These conditions affect our students as well as our teaching and include mass deportation, violence against women on and off university campuses, police violence, Islamophobia, climate change denial, and anti-intellectualism. As educators, we need to recognize these conditions are not new developments stemming from a recent change in federal administration. I argue that instead they are the conditions which the organization of our labor has failed to adequately address before and since the publication of Academic Collective Bargaining. However, we have increasing opportunities now to engage in solidarity work with student groups and community activists as Foucauldian “specific” intellectuals. Coalitions will improve our working conditions beyond the relatively modest stakes set forth in the MLA’s collection, while our organized labor translates into real gains for our students and our communities.

David Puthoff is a graduate instructor and a PhD student in American Literature. His research focuses on the practices of collective identity in the 19th century, including slave rebellions, non-nuclear family configurations, and labor unions.   In his spare time, David networks with student activists on dismantling rape culture, fighting white supremacy, and deploying effective demonstration techniques. He lives in Albuquerque with his partner and their three cats.


Leland Tabares (Penn State U, University Park)
The Precarious State of Academic Freedom for Graduate Student Instructors in the Trump Era

This paper examines the precarious state of academic freedom for graduate student instructors in the Trump Era. As English departments continue to rely on contingent labor, graduate students increasingly occupy that influential position behind the lectern. But university structures make addressing race in the classroom difficult. Graduate student instructors have little to no institutional protection. With tenured professors already coming under fire for discussing racial politics in the classroom, especially as neoconservative watchdogs like Turning Point USA encourage students to surveil university classrooms through anti-left websites like “Professor Watchlist,” graduate instructors are often left on their own to speak on sensitive issues regarding race—even in courses dedicated to unpacking racial violence—making teaching a daunting task. However, while some of the dangers of the Trump Era lie in its pervasive bigotry and anti-intellectualism, I also suggest that the structures that govern graduate student professionalization in the academy risk enculturating self-censorship, silence, and even fear in graduate student instructors as they attempt to test the political worldviews of their students. I use my own experiences teaching an Asian American Literature course in Spring 2017—currently my home institution’s only course singularly focused on Asian Americanness in any capacity—in rural Pennsylvania to interrogate the institutional conditions that impact graduate students. Asian American Studies holds a particular relevance to discourses on academic freedom because the contemporary political climate is fueled by anti-immigrant sentiments, yellow peril ideologies, and orientalist conceptions of Asians and Asian Americans. I reflect on my time teaching units on Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, Indian immigration, and post-9/11 Muslim American surveillance programs during the first full semester after the election of Donald Trump, and consider how these units coincidentally overlapped with the inauguration of Trump, attacks against Asian Americans, and the signing of Executive Order 13769. In the end, I put forth some useful initiatives that universities can take to support their graduate student labor forces.

Leland Tabares is a PhD candidate in English at Penn State. His research focuses on contemporary Asian American literature and culture, with interests in neoliberalism, institutionality, and professional labor economies. Leland has served as the managing editor for Verge: Studies in Global Asias (published by the University of Minnesota Press), a journal in Asian and Asian American Studies, which was recently named the Best New Journal by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. He currently serves as the Student Representative of the Executive Board for the Association of Asian American Studies. His work has appeared inLateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association.


“Peers Now”: Pitting the Corporate University against Professorial Fictions

While faculty share many concerns about the corporatization of the university with graduate students, there is a marked—and unnoticed—exception. The touted alternative and precursor to the corporate university, shared governance, masks and often reinforces rather than negates power disparities between faculty and graduate students. The polite fiction then becomes one of equal footing: shared governance, shared intellectual exchange, shared responsibilities as scholars and educators in the field. But even this shared governance is inevitably conditional. Faculty have tenure, compensation (to some extent), and inertia. Graduate students take on further vulnerability and a pressure towards silence. It is at least in part self-sabotage to demonstrate for the faculty senate or one’s committee members (groups that can easily overlap) that they are incorrect in perceiving one as a peer.

Yet they are. Faculty who endorse this fiction of equality, no matter how sincerely, absolve themselves of accountability, responsibility, and power. We have a genuine and vast disparity in faculty and graduate student perceptions of power, one which becomes a minefield in, for example, the context of romantic and sexual relationships. Graduate students face this power disparity in gatekeeping, recommendations, reviews, lab access (outside the MLA’s scope), limited alternatives for their chosen studies, and reputational consequences, all of which impinge on free consent.  I will expose the problems of this dynamic in a specific case, the Cornell Faculty Senate’s rejection of a more stringent supervisor/supervisee relationship policy on the grounds of respecting graduate students’ agency and its subsequent denial of the representative graduate assembly’s formal request for that more stringent policy. Through this I hope to show that in select instances the reviled top-down corporate decisions and corporate culture can, counter-intuitively, be enlisted to mitigate graduate student precarity and aid safety, educational access and diversity.

Anna Fore Waymack is a Ph.D. candidate in Medieval Studies at Cornell. Her dissertation investigates the construction of old age and its relationship to futurity in late Middle English writing. She is also coauthoring Insider Information: The Worlds of Medieval Identities, a book on mnemonic practice, the Global Middle Ages, and textual maps. As a Title IX activist, member of the MLA Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession, and executive vice chair of Cornell’s University Assembly, Anna’s service work focuses on access in higher ed. At times her service work and research meld, resulting in a just-published article on Chaucer’s rape allegations at Medieval Feminist Forum and related digital humanities project Twitter handle: @annawaymack
Unable to attend: Tara Forbes (Wayne State U); Lucia Lorenzi (McMaster U)
Christine (Xine) Yao now a SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia and later in 2018 will join the English department at University College London as Lecturer. She completed her PhD at Cornell University in 2016. She is currently working on her book manuscript Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America. Her second SSHRC-grant-funded book project is Sex Without Love: Affect, Bodies, and Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Sex Work Narratives. She has published or has work forthcoming in J19: Journal of 19th-Century Americanists, Occasion: Interdisciplinary Humanities Journal, Common-Place: The Journal of Early American Life, and American Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion. Twitter handle: @yao_christine