JIL Omens


Since news of professional developments is slow to cross into my relatively social-media-free information bubble, I have only just learned of the transformed MLA Job Information List, and I have an opinion.

Consider the new JIL home page:

New MLA JIL home page

Now compare the home pages for Inside Higher Ed’s Careers section and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s job ad site, Chronicle Vitae:

IHE Careers home page
Chronicle Vitae home page

I have a theory about organizational website design. I think that when two organizations have websites with similar designs, this is evidence of isomorphism between the organizations. Convergent designs mean that either the organizations are responding to the same external imperatives, or their personnel have formed converging ideas of what they should be doing, or they are all doing it because everybody is doing it and nobody has any idea what they should be doing anyway really.1 If my theory is right, the question then becomes, why should the MLA’s employment apparatus come to resemble a newspaper help-wanted operation?

Well: the new JIL looks like IHE’s Careers page because, as a quick look at the footer of each page reveals, both sites use the same “job board platform,” Madgex, which markets to associations, newspapers, “B2B publishers,” and staffing companies. The marketing for associations proclaims that Madgex will “help professional organizations offer more value, boost membership engagement and grow non-dues revenue.” Ah. Though I would be curious to know how much MLA is paying Madgex for its platform, and indeed how much extra non-dues revenue MLA will gain, the immediately striking thing is the way this company’s web product identifies a point of apparent convergence between the aims of a niche newspaper and the aims of a professional organization, namely, that both can act as a hiring clearing-house. The newspaper’s help-wanted pages are part of its advertising business; should the same be true of a professional organization like the MLA? The JIL offers three tiers of ads to hiring institutions, “Standard,” “Premium,” and my favorite, “Executive Search”:

MLA JIL Recruiters Page

I find it somewhat distasteful that the MLA might choose to “grow non-dues revenue” by compelling the abject ranks of PhDs looking for work to scroll past “boosted” job ads2 in order to reach the alphabetical list, but this is only a single extra straw added to the camel’s back. I am more troubled by the question of how the JIL can, or should, contribute to the MLA’s ostensible mission of advancing the profession of academic modern language studies if it ceases to be distinguishable from Inside Higher Ed Careers except by the branding at the top of the page.

Presumably what ought to distinguish MLA’s job list from an omnibus higher-ed help-wanted page is that it is as far as possible an authoritative and complete list of available positions for which the members of the profession it represents are exclusively qualified. The professional organization can and should oversee such a list because the profession itself ought, ideally, to have the last word about what makes such positions suitable and who can fill them (namely, its own members). That is the difference between the ideal-typical profession and other jobs. Putting it this way, if I can stop laughing long enough to finish typing the sentence, immediately reveals what the problem is. What positions? As everyone in academic language studies knows, there are many more credentialed job-seekers than tenure-track faculty positions, and the disparity only increases year by year. I am sure that when the latest summary statistics emerge—perhaps, now that Madgex has applied its technical magic, I can hope for highly granular JIL statistics in machine-readable form?—they will not provide much in the way of good news for the tenure track, or for the employment prospects of modern language PhDs.

To address this crisis, the MLA has been attempting to redefine the scope of suitable professional positions to include non-faculty academic jobs, and, more recently, a wider range of non-academic jobs.3 The new JIL is clearly designed to be open not simply to academic departments but to any hiring organization, or, as the website calls it, “recruiters”:4 no doubt using the general-purpose “job board platform” from Madgex facilitates this. Now we are in a position to say what is implied by the convergence of IHE Careers with the JIL. Just as there is little reason for IHE Careers to limit what kinds of jobs are advertised in its pages, it seems there is diminishing reason for the MLA to do so either. Discriminating among possible types of openings would now appear counterproductive, even contemptuous of the many credentialed scholars and teachers of modern languages for whom no faculty position will be forthcoming (regardless of merit or desire). The only discrimination that remains is the cost of placing an ad, still too high to support my modest proposal that all adjunct faculty positions should have to be advertised on the JIL. But to have reached this point is also to have reached the point where one crucial aspect of being a profession has been lost.5

Perhaps, you think, I ought to quit my bellyaching. Obviously the real crises (of the profession, of society, of the planet) continue regardless of the JIL website design. And it seems like a perfectly fine website, with a moderately improved faceted search; we will see how it performs when the first big installment of job postings appears next month.6 Job searchers will surely welcome the prospect of instantaneous rather than weekly updates, and they are not likely to complain if the MLA’s appeals to “recruiters” for non-faculty jobs succeeds in producing more genuine opportunities for rewarding employment of any kind. I am skeptical that a sufficient number of such opportunities actually exist, despite the efforts of the MLA (and other humanities professional organizations like the AHA) to discover or create them. But as with all the MLA’s efforts to address the crisis of the profession, I do not doubt the thoughtfulness and good intentions of the people involved at the MLA. None of that changes the way I read the new JIL: as an ill omen of even further deprofessionalization for literary studies still to come.

[Edited the next day: smaller screenshot images; click for full-size versions.]

  1. These explanations correspond to the three types of isomorphism identified by Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell in their classic essay on organizational isomorphism: they call them “coercive,” “normative,” and “mimetic” respectively. “Mimetic” is the most fun, of course. Why do all annoying tech startup websites look alike?] ↩︎

  2. While thinking fond thoughts of the administrators who decided to shell out for the “executive search.” Not less distateful are: the phrase “find your perfect position” (really? no one responsible thought about the appropriateness of this staffing-agency-ese?); the use of stock photos; the content of the stock photos (happy coffeeshop meeting; fake bookshelf backdrop; etc.). If you want an image of the future, imagine thousands of PhDs visiting this page every day—forever. ↩︎

  3. “Alt-ac” was always an unsuitable cover term, but I am extremely suspicious of the current leading alternative, “humanities careers.” For starters, why “humanities”? The MLA is not the professional organization for academic historians, musicologists, art historians, philosophers, or classicists, yet it prefers to make itself the flag-bearer for “the humanities” rather than to specify, for job-advertising purposes, the specific disciplinary expertise of its members. ↩︎

  4. This term to me calls to mind the corporate recruiters who come to college campuses. ↩︎

  5. Thanks to Jonathan Goodwin’s explorations of the historical JIL files, I know that there was an earlier era in which non-faculty positions—for example, with the CIA—were commonly advertised on the JIL. But my impression, which I cannot check before the irresistible urge to publish this post overcomes me, is that this did not come about as an attempt by the MLA to find positions for a large reserve army of PhD job-seekers but rather stems from a much stronger labor-market position for (a smaller population of) PhDs. ↩︎

  6. One’s experience with other companies operating in the IT-for-higher-ed-hiring sector does not exactly make one optimistic. ↩︎