Paula Krebs

Executive Director at Modern Language Association

We Need All Those Ph.D.s in Nonteaching Jobs to Stay in Our Scholarly Societies

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Image: Aaron Hawkins, Creative Commons

Since taking over as executive director of the Modern Language Association, I’ve found myself posting online more often about issues related to our field — curriculum, advocacy for the humanities, the job market — and hearing back from all sorts of academic professionals. But I’ve been brought up short more than a few times to discover that many of the super-engaged folks I’m chatting with online or on campuses are not, in fact, members of the MLA.

Mostly those nonmembers are people who work on the academic staff of institutions, not on the faculty (professors who have let their MLA memberships lapse is the subject of another column). These are people who clearly care about literature and languages, and about the work we do, and would like to belong to the MLA.

The reason they don’t: money. Their institutions do not set aside professional-development funds for academic staff members to pay for their memberships in scholarly societies.

As colleges and universities increase administrative staffing — I’m talking here about positions in academic-support services, rather than associate deans and vice provosts — more and more Ph.D.s are taking jobs on campus that do not involve teaching. They are academic advisers, faculty-development experts, international-studies coordinators, and more.

Their graduate training enables them to understand the workings of the discipline, the job of a faculty member, the needs of students, and the culture of their campus. They have spent years on doctoral work, usually teaching at the same time, and they have located their own research in the conversations of their disciplines and in larger critical contexts. They’ve gone to conferences, perhaps published articles or books, and established reputations among their peers.

None of that identity goes away when they turn from a faculty career path to one in academic support. They are still scholars, and they retain a love for their fields and their research — much like Ph.D.s who move into academic administration via chairs and deanships.

The difference is that chairs and deans retain their professional memberships (and should, but that’s another column still) because they can afford to. They have budgets for professional memberships and travel, and even if they don’t, they usually have salaries that make the dues affordable.

But many academic staff members — even those on the director level — aren’t eligible for professional-development funding and don’t have the disposable income that would permit them to pay regular dues to a scholarly association — at least, not without more tangible benefits aimed at them specifically.

In the wake of the weak faculty job market in the humanities, we in the MLA have been increasing the resources we devote to helping members find good nonfaculty positions. We’ve paid close attention to the kinds of work our members find rewarding — what draws on their graduate training and interests, what challenges them and is consistent with the love for the humanities that drew them to graduate school in the first place. We try to help graduate programs prepare students for a range of careers, many of which are in academe but not in the classroom.

What we had not considered was that institutions would not see the value in our members remaining as members once they took those nonfaculty jobs.

How does a disciplinary society welcome members who are not faculty members? What are the benefits of membership for them, and what are the benefits for the association of retaining those members?

From my work in advocating for the humanities, I know that some of the strongest voices encouraging humanities education come from Ph.D.s who are pursuing nonfaculty careers as librarians, academic advisers, associate deans, and directors of teaching-and-learning centers and honors programs.

What if we in the scholarly societies took more seriously the roles that those professionals play in building enrollments, in getting students through their degrees, in facilitating faculty research and student success? What if we acknowledged that Ph.D.s in academic-support positions would benefit from staying involved in their discipline and would benefit the discipline by staying involved? What would we need to provide in order to keep them in the association? What would make it worth their paying the dues?

At our national conference, we offer lots of sessions on professional issues. We tackle enrollment problems, employment concerns, student success, course development, and a host of other topics that draw on and contribute to the expertise of faculty members and of other campus professionals. Our publications (except the research-focused journal, and even that one, at times) do the same.

At our last convention, for example, a career adviser for a graduate program could have:

  • Participated in a workshop on teaching at teaching-intensive colleges.
  • Attended sessions on getting funded in the humanities or building a public humanities program.
  • Spent a couple of hours at a career fair, talking with representatives of a score of organizations that want to hire humanities Ph.D.s.

That’s not to mention sessions related to scholarship in language and literature.

Members are what give an association clout. Having a large membership allows me to speak with some authority in lobbying or in letters to college presidents or in op-eds. It’s what allows us to advocate for better working conditions for adjuncts or a broader definition of the literary canon or more support for language education. It’s what brings us grants to do research on the job market or enrollments.

When people in our disciplines who aren’t MLA members ask us to do things like advocacy or research, I wonder what they think makes it possible for us to do our work?

We can do more for the growing numbers of academic support staff members, but the onus for their inclusion in our membership cannot be entirely on the association. To be sure, they should belong to professional societies that directly relate to those positions — such as Nacada for academic advisers or Nadohe for diversity officers.

But it is also important for academic staff members who have trained in a discipline to keep in touch with the latest developments in the academic community they are serving. A campus that provides no professional-development funds to help academic staffers stay connected with their disciplines thinks they have nothing to learn and thinks it has nothing to learn from them.

As we employ Ph.D.s on our campuses in a wider variety of roles, let’s acknowledge and allow them to pursue their passions and expertise. And as we adjust graduate programs to help educate students for a wider range of jobs, let’s make room for those jobs in the membership of our professional associations.

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