Briefly, on the MLA Job List Discussion

The first version of the 2012 MLA Job Information List (JIL) was just released, and Dave Parry has raised some thoughtful questions about the cost of access. Alex Reid and Collin Brooke have followed up on this as well.

As someone who was just on the job market, I will say that the MLA Job List—and especially the database—wasn’t the most helpful job-seeking tool. As Colin notes, the interface is antiquated, limited, and not especially easy to use. In fact, its most notable feature over other sites (higher ed jobs, the chronicle, etc) is its reputation as the single point of collection for English-related jobs.

This is, as Dave notes, cartel-like behavior, but it is also the same mistake that many contemporary media organizations have made and continue to make: It is an attempt to generate content-based revenue through the mechanisms of distribution. Which means that, when a simpler or more viable distribution option arises, the MLA will lose its major revenue stream. We know this story.

The Academic Jobs Wiki shows us one alternative. Yes, it’s crowd-sourced and messy, but such a wiki could just point to each university’s HR page: direct the job seekers back to the full ad and the application portal. Triangulating content isn’t difficult (and, I should add, the MLA job ads are often much shorter than—and point to—ads on university department or HR sites).

I also don’t want to downplay the labor costs of the JIL database. Surely, part of its antiquation stems from the fact that it’s difficult or expensive to move a legacy database to a more contemporary and extendable solution. I’ve spent the last few years working with two open-access academic publishers, and I’ll be honest: It’s difficult, time-consuming, and unpaid work. Sure, it’s hugely rewarding, but this work draws on academic labor and rewards contributors with credit for service to the field—a helpful piece of the tenure puzzle, but not the most important one. Which is to say, I understand the need for revenue. But that revenue needs to serve the organization and its constituents. If contingent faculty don’t have access to the job data, constituents aren’t being served.

And this is why I think the revenue-via-distribution model has to change. As department budgets continue to tighten, how long will the MLA listing fee make sense? And as other means of distribution gain traction, how long will job-seekers continue to view the JIL as the primary job ad repository? I can’t speak for others, but—for me—the academic jobs wiki, the WPA listserv, and the Techrhet listserv more than served my needs. If distribution is seen as the only service and the only point of monetization, then there is trouble ahead.

Professional organizations are so very important, but they can move with a monolithic slowness. I don’t know the MLA’s organizational chart or its means of generating revenue, but the JIL provides an opportunity to innovate and to serve grad students and contingent faculty in rather difficult economic times. To support the JILs relevance in the long term, however, the MLA needs to move away from the revenue-via-distribution model. Instead, they should underscore the JILs importance by improving and extending the database—and then offering an open means of access for those who need it.

There will be struggles: These changes aren’t easy, they require labor, and they require our departmental and professional practices to change. They require change of us, at local levels.

But I think it’s also important to remember that we are the MLA: We are the members, the constituency, the organization. The problem of access is a larger problem of academic work—an issue with our organizations, our scholarship, our classes. This access problem is a touchy one, as it tethers our labor to two very difficult issues: revenue and ethics. I hope we can focus on the latter to underscore the former.

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