This is the first in a series of statements written by graduate students and adjunct faculty that will be published over the coming months. Many of those statements will be published anonymously due to the professional threats students and contingent academics face by organizations like Canary Mission and a general imbalance of academic freedom extended to scholars who support BDS. The author of this statement has chosen to sign her name, despite that risk, in a small act of solidarity with the Palestinian graduate students and faculty who cannot avoid regular exposure to personal and professional harm.
Lenora Hanson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently completing her dissertation with the support of a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship and is a graduate student member of the Executive Council of the MLA as well as a proud member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (Local 3220, AFT/AFL-CIO).
What is the relationship between the MLA, as an academic organization with a focus on languages and literatures, and Israel’s occupation of Palestine? Many MLA members have been asking this question as our organization approaches the 2017 Convention, where a resolution to boycott Israeli institutions will be debated.
As someone who is nearing a bid for an academic career in the midst of the adjunct crisis, I have been considering that question in a different way. I have been asking myself: How do we come to decide which political conditions we are responsible for as professionals?
I have been thinking through this question intensely since returning from a ten-day long trip to Palestine with fellow MLA members this summer. During that trip, we met with Palestinian students and faculty inside and outside the West Bank in order to hear from them why the call for an academic boycott has been issued and why they support it. One student at Bir Zeit University made an important intervention that prompted my reflections: “If you are a Palestinian student, your life is about politics. You cannot separate the two.” For Palestinian students, politics—the political—cannot be divided from the mundane elements of academic pursuits. Every moment of their education—from the checkpoints they cross to get to school, to the fear that they will be imprisoned for protesting the occupation—is affected, limited, and enclosed by Israeli state policies and actions. This is to say nothing of the Palestinian faculty and graduate students in MLA-represented fields whose academic freedom and mobility is routinely denied in practice as we debate the definition of those terms at annual Conventions—frequently in the absence of our Palestinian colleagues.
The question then becomes, what makes it possible for us to consider the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian education and our Palestinian colleagues as separable from the work of the MLA? How do some conditions get deemed central to scholarly study rather than others? Which political demands do we feel are inseparable from our work? And how regularly are we even asked to consider such questions?
It is helpful to recall here the MLA’s recent advocacy in response to the crisis of adjunctification, demonstrating that we have, in fact, answered such difficult questions anew in the context of the changing conditions of labor in academia. (Two most recent examples of this responsiveness include the recent Executive Council statements on Threats to Academic Freedom in Turkey and on Discrimination Against Transgender Individuals.) That is, while working conditions may once have appeared to be separated from academic and scholarly pursuits they are, of necessity, increasingly visible as items of professional concern to the organization. (I refer here to the moment in 1916 “when the majority of the American Association of University Professors’ leadership abandoned unionization and relinquished much of faculty’s governing power in exchange for institutions of tenure and a weak form of academic freedom.” See Eli Meyerhoff, Elizabeth Johnson, and Bruce Braun, “Time and the University,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10:3 (2011): 483-507.)
The BDS resolution first submitted two years ago to Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee of the MLA may be yet another instance in which we will decide what is and is not separable from our work as teachers and academics. This resolution comes at a time when the MLA has made clear that it is interested not only in advancing our intellectual activities, but also in advocating for the improvement of the working conditions of all of its members—advocacy that should not stop at the checkpoints in Palestine.
Some have argued that adjunctification is inherent to the concerns of MLA members, whereas BDS is not. But the labor of adjuncts has kept universities running for decades now and only recently became central to the MLA’s platform. That is, the nature of what we consider inherent to our profession is the product of decisions we regularly make and not of a static fact. What counts as “our” work will always be the product of historically-situated, collective decision making. We must continue to do that hard work in the face of structural conditions that directly impact education, whether that be poverty-level wages of adjuncts or state violence against Palestinians.
A vision of the academy as “the profession” that decides a priori that a particular political crisis cannot be relevant to its self-understanding is a frighteningly neoliberal version of itself. By this I mean that it reinforces a false distinction between private, intellectual work and the political structures and conditions in which it is performed. The existing tendency of professionalization to supplement such a logic needs to be resolutely rejected by graduate students and young faculty, if we are to maintain that we have a right to be involved in decisions about our academic institutions and professional organizations. As a student in the University of Wisconsin System, where faculty have been regularly told that they do not need to be involved in decisions about tenure, defending this involvement feels crucial.
We need to resist any version of professionalization that encourages us to separate the content of our work from the world in which we produce it. Such professionalization would ask us to appear singularly and solely committed to intellectual work that shows no signs of the local and global duress that shapes it. In an era of ever-increasing student debt, Taylorist management of faculty productivity, growing external interference in the hiring and tenuring of faculty, and global expansion of U.S. universities, we only affirm that separation at our own peril. The forces of opposition to these trends can be seen in graduate student and adjunct faculty unionization, anti-racist movements on campuses, and the rise of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as the contemporary form of international solidarity among students and faculty.
If professionalization requires that we treat a structural crisis—in this case a crisis of underemployment—as an individual responsibility, then we must redefine it. That crisis might otherwise be a site of solidarity, but only if we understand that the conditions producing it involve us both with those currently excluded from our professional organizations as well as those outside our profession. (The campus service workers who have been facing the crisis of precarity for decades come to mind here.) In its divisive mode, professionalization makes it hard to understand our conditions as graduate students as those that align us with others through a larger political and economic structure. Instead, our relation to those others is made into a private one of sympathy or moral interest that falls outside the limits of our profession. In that divisive mode it feels almost impossible to consider any situation, especially one not tied to our own immediate sense of crisis, as something more than personal interest. Even working to end adjunctification becomes an activity that must be tangential on our CVs, or blogs or Twitter accounts, at the same time that it is a condition under which many graduate students can expect to labor.
So it is not surprising that an issue such as the educational conditions of Palestinian students, faculty and others living under occupation appears to fall entirely outside of what is purportedly inherent to our professional concerns—especially when the profession is delimited entirely to our own, individual reproduction rather than put in relation to the larger structures of which it is a part. But we must be cautious in accepting any definition of the profession that avoids politicizing it. That division is so often used to tell us that the administration of the university is not part of the work we do as academics, or that graduate students are apprentices rather than workers.
The proposers of the academic boycott resolution have asked us to decide whether or not we think the conditions of Palestinian students and faculty are relevant to our work. They have asked us to consider which political conditions are those we feel we must respond to, as teachers and scholars. This is a decision that, as a graduate student and young scholar, I look forward to having the opportunity to make. Deciding in advance that we should not consider it comes too close to a logic that will be used against me, against us, later on—that we have no right to be involved with decisions about the political conditions of our own labor. This is one reason, amongst others, that we should allow the BDS resolution to move forward to membership.
In short, if “the profession” means that there can be no relationship between a broader concept of justice, in Palestine in this case, and the work “inherent” to the profession, then we have already conceded to a university in which we have a say over very little. This disturbs me, as questions about language and reading, justice and responsibility are what brought me into the discipline represented by the MLA in the first place. And I have been profoundly disturbed to find, upon reflection, that when I think about representing myself as a professional in the fall, there will be no way to account for my encounters with students and faculty living and studying in apartheid conditions in the West Bank. In fact, I worry that it will only be to my detriment to try to do so, in the context of an intensely professionalizing academic world.
As a young scholar starting out in the profession, I understand the BDS resolution as part of an ongoing interpretation of the conditions that we take to be necessary to our work as academics and members of an academic organization. That reinterpretation has already begun with the MLA’s elevation of the adjunct crisis as a central concern. At the very least the MLA membership’s consideration of a BDS resolution will affirm that we take our contemporary and rapidly shifting political contexts as a responsibility that we will be actively involved in considering. The MLA membership should be allowed to vote on a BDS resolution because it will send a signal to graduate students, especially those who know their academic futures to be in the most vulnerable of positions, that we take the political conditions of the profession to be inseparable from the academic work it enables.