Venerable Vulnerability

Loic Bourdeau on the Modern Language Association’s 129th annual convention

The presidential theme of last month’s MLA convention in Chicago, Vulnerable Times, seemed most appropriate to further discuss issues pertaining to graduate students. Certainly current debates around the state of academia are constant reminders that we are and will continue to face difficulties, for the most part vis-à-vis (un)employment and precariousness. In that spirit, the Graduate Student Caucus (an affiliate organization of the MLA) put together two panels aiming to investigate this notion of vulnerability both through literature and in the profession.

Our first panel: “The Poetics of Suffering in Francophone Literature” allowed outstanding graduate students to present at the MLA, which should prove a great asset for the job market. Unexpect­edly, motherhood turned out to be a pivotal discussion thread, which then followed us in our profession panel entitled: “Compromising, Negotiating: Being a Graduate Student.” During this roundtable, six graduate students shared about different topics: how to talk about one’s research, how to negotiate one’s public or private persona, how to keep healthy, racial invisibility. and getting a job while ABD.

ABD for “all but dissertation”is a mostly unofficial term identifying a stage in the process of obtaining a research doctorate in the United States and Canada. According to Wikipedia, at this stage, the student has completed the preparatory coursework, qualifying examinations, comprehensive examinations, and may have defended his or her dissertation proposal. To complete the degree, the student must carry out the proposed research and write the dissertation that defines a PhD or equivalent research doctorate.

In the end, one subject grabbed everyone’s attention and made for a very engaged debate: parenting and motherhood. It soon appeared that from one university to the next, the disparities as regard this very topic can be broad. Some institutions do not offer any financial support for families while other can be rather generous. In addition to these pecuniary concerns, the stigmatization of parents, and mothers specifically, remains greatly problematic in that it adds more and more hurdles for these individuals.

As much as it may sound like a topic from the past, the academy must continue to address all issues equally. The Grad Caucus Chronicle — the caucus’ online publication — will doubtlessly continue to be a space where everyone is welcome to draw our attention to what needs fixing; and parenting is one such issue that we will most definitely feature. As we praise ourselves for being so progressive and open-minded, we cannot forget that we are yet to be post-gender and post-racism. Although each new convention brings a new topic, and each academic year its share of new concerns, let us not forget the past. Let’s discuss digital humanities and racial invisibility, or adjuncting and parenting…

Post-convention comments also remarked on the elitism of most panels, and I would add that elitism comes with a great deal of social exclusion. Indeed, another striking element — at least to me — was the major lack of diversity. Having spent most of my time at the Sheraton, the “whiteness” of the conference was quite overwhelming and disturbing. Here is yet another issue that we might tend to forget, but thankfully the presenter on our panel who addressed racial invisibility allowed us all to think about our own privileges, and to keep in mind the various degrees of vulnerability. Overall, an intersectional approach seems the best way forward so that we do not further isolate any specific groups.

As I go over this (soft) rant — that I did not initially mean to write — I realize how basic these comments are, or might seem. And, yet, basic might be the solution. Some of the best panels and presentations sounded very basic, while being utterly captivating and groundbreaking. So, in 2014, how about we try to be basic, to be human, and to care… intersectionally.

Loic Bourdeau is a PhD Candidate in the French Department at UC Davis and the President of the Graduate Student Caucus.