MLA attendees browse in the conference exhibition hall Credit: Edward Savaria Jr.

In 1999, two midwestern professors, Cary Nelson (University of Illinois) and Stephen Watt (Indiana University), teamed up on a cheeky pseudo-dictionary that was also a serious critique of academia.

They titled it Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education—in part after Ambrose Bierce’s 1911 satire The Devil’s Dictionary. In 47 entries, many of which ran to essay length, they took down everything from Academic Departments to Yuppies. But what most concerned them was the emergence of the Corporate University and its most egregious characteristic: growing numbers of poorly paid and badly treated part-time and temporary faculty.

The book won admiring reviews and some instant notoriety.

Last week when 5,000 academics gathered in Chicago for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (basically, the trade association for professors of literature and languages), Academic Keywords showed up as the subject of one of the more than 700 presentations. According to the convention program, a panel of six speakers, including the authors, would assess the legacy of the book and propose new terms for inclusion.

The MLA convention, which is part bone-chilling interviews for precious few jobs, part deeply quirky research reports by panels that can outnumber their audiences, and part a bookworm’s version of hard-partying weekend on the town, is also a guaranteed source of frustration. Like a gigantic, quickly-passed box of chocolates, it offers so many intriguing options in such a short space of time (this year’s meeting ran January 3-6), that no matter which you select, you’re going to feel regret for missing others. How to choose, for example, between “Posthuman Affection,” “Comics Fandom in Transition,” and “Philosophy of, as, and on Extinction”? To say nothing of “New Currents in Medieval Iberian Studies” and “The History of Financial Advice”? (Or, in other time slots, surprising topics of local interest like “Brecht in Chicago” and a whole session on the work of former Reader writer Achy Obejas?)

So the prospect of the two professors—now white-haired old white dudes in the ripest phase of their privileged positions (Nelson is now professor emeritus)—participating in the reassessment of their own snarky, 20-year-old rant about the crumbling edifice and problematic future of higher ed made an otherwise fraught choice easy for me.

Academic Keywords had concluded in 1999 that the exploitation of part-time faculty (and “the winnowing away of tenure lines”) “represents the single greatest threat to quality higher education.” Two decades later, with the plight of contingent faculty the focus of a half dozen MLA sessions (and, downstairs, in the convention’s exhibit area, the University of Chicago Press taking orders for a new book on the subject, The Adjunct Underclass by Herb Childress, a former academic), I had to hear what its authors in conversation with members of a new generation of academics would add.

The new terms the four younger panelists suggested for inclusion? “Identification” (from Yung-Hsing Wu of the University of Louisiana because it “fueled feminist criticism” and “is now explicit in our classrooms”); “Collegiality” (offered by Patrick Maley of Centenary University because it silences productive dissent); “Program Prioritization” (the choice of Mark William Van Wienen of Northern Illinois University who suggested it’s a means of eliminating “less productive” campus programs and, potentially, tenured faculty); and “Gender Studies” (contributed by Jaime Harker of the University of Mississippi along with a witty critique of Keywords‘ entries on “sexual harassment” and “spousal hiring”).

Watt, in his turn at the podium, noted that universities continue to crank out increasing numbers of PhDs in the humanities (3,336 in 1983; 5,662 in 2013), while the relative number of tenure track jobs for them continues to shrink. “Cary and I have complained about this for over 20 years, and things have only gotten worse,” he said before suggesting a reduction in both the number of PhD degrees granted and the time it takes to get one (now averaging nine years). Then he offered one radical partial solution: “post-tenure review with both positive and negative outcomes for our most senior colleagues.” In other words, mandated or phased retirement in some cases, which hasn’t existed since a 1986 amendment to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act that, Watt says, allows American faculty to “teach until they drop dead in the classroom.” (Or, as he said happened to one dementia-addled colleague, they show up for class minus clothing under their coats.)

Nelson rued the loss of what he called the “principles that underwrite the academy,” especially academic freedom. In 1999, he said, he thought corporate-style administrators were to blame for this. Now he sees the biggest threats coming from tenured faculty themselves—like those at Berkeley who called for the cancellation of a lecture by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

“Key to these new assaults is a growing faculty conviction that certain political beliefs trump traditional academic freedoms,” Nelson said. “Universities are supposed to be places where offensive, even loathsome views can be tested.”

As for the (finally) hot topic of adjunct labor? “The Modern Language Association denied the existence of the problem of contingent faculty for nearly 20 years,” Nelson told me. “They refused to admit it was a problem. They castigated those who brought the problem up. And now, when it’s too late to do anything, when only 25 percent of American faculty are tenure-eligible, they’re talking about it. They might as well talk about what kind of literature we should teach on the dark side of the moon. That battle is over. We lost it.”   v