12 October 2018

The Perils of Professionalization: The Tone-Deafness of NAVSA

As this post goes up, I'm driving to the second day of NAVSA 2018 in St. Petersburg, the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association. It's my first time attending NAVSA, and my first year as a member of the organization in several years.

I was a member of NAVSA for a few years in graduate school, though eventually I stopped applying because I was rejected pretty consistently; I think three times in a row. I'd like to think I am pretty good at writing conference abstracts, and never have I been rejected so consistently by a conference. I remember attending my first meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in graduate school, and during the banquet the president came over to where all the grad students were sitting and asked us what SFRA could do for graduate students. I told him that just by accepting graduate students (most of my friends were consistently rejected, too), SFRA was doing more for me than, say, NAVSA. Eventually I stopped re-upping my membership.

The thing that really irritated me, though, was NAVSA 2013. A pretty common thing for academic organizations to do these days is to "professionalize" graduate students, which is a fancy way of saying that they try to give them tips on how to successfully navigate an increasingly terrible job market for humanities Ph.D.s, and so NAVSA 2013 was preceded by a professionalization workshop.

For some reason, that year's meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association was held in Venice. The conference was June 3rd through 6th; the professionalization workshop was May 27th through 31st, plus June 7th.

It cost $800!

On top of whatever it costs to fly from North America to Venice (humanities Ph.D. students get very little travel funding), NAVSA was expecting them to pay almost a thousand dollars in order to hear tips on jobs they probably weren't going to get. I found that completely flabbergasting and completely unconscionable. It would have been a whole month's rent for me at the time.

The cynic in me suspected the whole thing was to allow the workshop organizers and lecturers the luxury of extending their Venetian vacation. Nice work if you can get it.

Fast forward to 2018; NAVSA is still doing "professionalization workshops," though this year they do not involve a five-day beach vacation, at least. This year's conference is preceded by a two-thirds-day session and followed by a half-day one, covering the material of the Venice workshop in about one-fifth of the time. As a result, it costs not $800, but $60.

The workshop, however, is staffed by volunteers, so what does that $60 go to?

Apparently, one boxed lunch and a coffee break! I get that conference venues charge ridiculous amounts of money for their food, but $60 for a shitty cashew chicken wrap served with (I assume) a bag of chips and a can of soda? Really? That's the best you could do for a bunch of graduate students who are probably paying for all of this out of pocket? The conference is in downtown St. Petersburg; any one of those students could walk out the doors of the Hilton and just buy a lunch and a coffee literally anywhere and pay less than $60.

It's ridiculous that it should cost this much in general (at some conferences, $60 will get you a goddamn banquet), but it's completely tone-deaf to charge this to underfunded, underpaid, and underemployed graduate students. Like, give this to them for free and let them walk to McDonald's at lunchtime. Or pack some granola bars. These people will not get jobs. You do not need to charge them $60 for that privilege.

I complained about this to a colleague, and she pointed out that the whole idea of "professionalization" was essentially bogus anyway. Because the real problem is not insufficiently "professional" Ph.D.s (though I have seen some pretty poor cover letters), but the dwindling number of full-time Ph.D.-level academic positions, and the persistence of Ph.D.-granting programs in producing graduates for whom jobs do not exist.

According to its web page, my own alma mater produced fifteen Ph.D.s last year. Also, according to its web site, eight of them landed full-time jobs. Two of those were tenure-track. My program is one that trumpets its placement rate, too. That they produce a 50% excess of Ph.D.s is the problem, not "professionalization," and NAVSA is exploiting those desperate students' economic precarity with its continued stream of workshops.

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