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Today the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on MLA Job Leaks, an unauthorized, “rogue” website that is republishing the Modern Language Association (MLA) Job Information List (JIL).

Currently university departments have to pay to list jobs, and job seekers have to be members of the MLA or the related Association of Departments of English (ADE) or the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL) to search updated, complete listings in the database. Since the MLA’s executive director Rosemary Feal keeps telling me I’m getting this wrong, I include below the MLA’s explanation of who can access the JIL, taken from its website:

Access to search the MLA Job Information List database is through membership in either the Association of Departments of English (ADE) or the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages (ADFL). …

Individuals without an academic affiliation or whose departments are not currently members of the ADE or the ADFL can access the JIL database by becoming affiliate members of the ADE or the ADFL. Like students and faculty members in ADE- and ADFL-member departments, ADE and ADFL affiliate members receive access to the online archive of the ADE and the ADFL bulletins as well as rights to search both the English and foreign language listings in the JIL online database. Dues for affiliate memberships are $40 for MLA members and $65 for nonmembers. Affiliate memberships can be purchased online beginning in August with a credit card and are for the use of a single individual only. Printable PDF editions of the JIL are available at no charge at the MLA Web site (www.mla.org/jil_issues).

The Chronicle casts the story as one of commerce versus service, arguing that the MLA’s critics want it to take down its paywall and make job listings available to the general public, while the MLA wants to maintain partial subscription access as a justification for institutional membership. The MLA argues that nobody who would want access couldn’t get it, since any member department can make the list available to graduate students. There are lots of assumptions in that statement, not the least of which is that people looking for jobs in language and literature must already be indoctrinated into the MLA fold. Note that the “no charge” versions of the MLA JIL cited above are actually snapshots of the database offered only every few months.

The issue of access to the job list for job seekers certainly is a valid issue, but to me it’s a secondary one in the dispute between the MLA and its critics who created MLAJobLeaks.com. The central dispute is about the rhetoric of openness.

See, the MLA has been bandying about this term “open,” claiming on the web, Facebook, and Twitter that the job list is “open access.” But that’s not true, as they also readily admit that full access is limited to those who are individual or institutional members of particular professional organizations. Again, a truly open list is published occasionally in PDF form, but the job market is fast and competitive. And even if it made no difference, arguing that the JIL database snapshot is equivalent to the database itself is misleading. The fact that the means of access to the complete JIL are so complex and overwrought only underscores how convoluted access really is.

Dave Parry, who is cited in the Chronicle article, points this out on his blog, referring to the MLA’s practices as “openwashing.” He borrows this nomenclature from greenwashing and pinkwashing, deceptive marketing techniques used to promote an organization’s commitment to a particular policy. Here’s Dave:

The Modern Language Association released the Job Information List last week (known as the JIL) , but it is probably more accurate to say they released the database. The term list here refers to the bygone era of analog job lists and publications; now job seekers log onto a website, and view jobs posted by the MLA. Except they didn’t really open up access to the database, what they did was allow those with MLA membership to access the database. In other words if you have a membership or a member of an institution which has a membership you can see the list, and if not, well no job database for you. Just to be clear this isn’t to post jobs, this is merely to see the jobs. In other words the database is paid access.

The question of whether or not the MLA ought to offer all of their job listings to everyone for free as they appear in the database is a matter of debate rather than fact. The MLA has their position, and its critics have their own. There’s merit in both, and in any case the answer is hardly obvious (or shouldn’t be).

What’s not a matter of debate is that the MLA is claiming that their job list is “open access” when really it’s not. It would be a bit reactionary to call this false advertising, but the MLA is certainly benefitting from a perception of openness which they are not actually carrying out. You can imagine how faculty or administrators might ignorantly admire the MLA’s new openness, taking them at their word and thus improving their private and public opinion of the MLA as a result of misleading nomenclature. MLA Job Leaks calls them on this lie, offering a view of what a truly open access JIL would look like.

As someone who’s been following this controversy over the past couple weeks, my only request is that the MLA stop misleading the public into believing that it provides an open-access version of the JIL. To be taken even more seriously, the organization should issue some sort of public correction that clarifies the fact that the JIL is not open access, but actually paid access with a partially open component. That doesn’t require any change in policy by the organization, but simply a change in written and verbal practice. MLA leadership keeps complaining that they need time to change and that they’ve made many positive steps with respect to the JIL. That’s true, but it doesn’t make the list “open access.” The MLA simply hasn’t earned that label. Given the nature of the organization as one purportedly supportive of language, you’d think they wouldn’t need much coaxing to understand this point.

published September 24, 2012

Comments

  1. Abraham Romney

    What brought me here was the fact that the MLA website has been down for a couple of days. Nice to have MLA job leaks in that case!

    Getting mileage out of “openwashing” is similar to the mileage they get out of making it sound like applying for jobs is free for grad students because of their partnership with interfolio.

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-modern-language-association-teams-up-with-interfolio/40206

    Still not sure how I’ll get my $19 back…and I would say the majority of jobs that I have looked at are not offering the free applications through interfolio.

    This is also like the claim that journals will be open access because authors will be allowed to archive their articles on their own.

    Reply

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