02 December 2016

How to Vote in Elections for Your Professional Association

This clip art will never not come in handy.
As a member of the Modern Language Association, I am asked to vote in the annual elections. The MLA's organizational structure seems to me to be particularly labyrinthine to the casual observer. And as a once and future parliamentarian, I am far from a casual observer. This year I was eligible to vote for the second vice president, members of the Executive Council, members of the Delegate Assembly, and members of forum executive committees. I feel like the last two categories there had at least a dozen contests to vote upon apiece (now that I've filled out my electronic ballot, I can't open it up to check).

There are a lot of contests to vote in, and though I'm sure it's important, it doesn't feel very important. I feel very disconnected from the MLA, whose main function seems to be to send me quarterly issues of a journal I don't read, host a convention at which I might someday have a fifteen-minute job interview (if I'm lucky), and charge me even more money for membership than last year because I graduated even though I make less money. Yet I still feel obligated to vote.

Two principles seem obvious: If I know someone and I like them, I vote for them. (For people I only know from meeting them at conferences, this basically boils down to, "did they seem nice when I had one awkward conversation with them?") If I know someone and don't like them, I vote against them. This year, that principle carried me through about four of the umpteen contests.

So my emerging arbitrary standard is this, since I've decided I don't have enough investment in the whole process to actually read the candidate statements (and not all positions even have candidate statements anyway): if the candidate received their Ph.D. from or currently teaches at a higher-ranked institution than I did, then I vote against them. (If both candidates did, I vote for neither.)

This is kind of a joke, but it is the actual principle I follow, and there is a serious reason for it. I attended a decently, though not amazingly, ranked program. Our program's rate of tenure-track job placement seems to be good enough. Most of my friends have ended up at small liberal arts colleges, or smaller research universities. My argument would be that someone who got their Ph.D. at Princeton and teaches at Columbia has it better than the vast majority of languages academics. How can they truly represent them? Yet, I suspect, they are disproportionately represented among the leadership of the MLA. Universities hire for research potential-- should I believe that this just happens to correlate to being good at representing my interests?

So, in the absence of other evidence, I vote for people who are more like me than they are not. If they got their Ph.D. from a Top 30 program (keep in mind that the NRC ranks 119 English programs, so I am still among the 25% if not the 1%) and teach at West Boofu State University, I am inclined to believe they know what it is like to be me more than not. The interests of the MLA should not be the interests of its elite scholars.

I don't know if I'm actually helping in any way, but that's my approach and my rationale.

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