I’ve been thinking a lot about doing a post like this, because I think it’s worthwhile to address some of the typical things of which the MLA convention is accused. Before I begin, let me state for the record that I don’t think the convention is perfect or something, and I do understand that my enjoyment of that particular event has a lot to do with my disposition, which tends to be extroverted and incredibly sociable. (Though, and this is saying something, even I am completely done with people at the end of the convention.) Not everyone is like me, and I do understand that. And while it’s true that I am in a position of relative privilege compared with some (having a tenured appointment), which some might argue accounts for my enjoyment of this annual event, I can tell you that I enjoyed it before I had this privilege, and I can also tell you that the privilege I hold is relative, and lots of people would look on me with pity when they see the affiliation on my name-tag. (Note: I don’t think people who actually matter care a whole lot about the affiliation on my name-tag, but more on that later.) I can also tell you that I regularly see people at the convention who are not in tenured appointments, and who still attend the convention even if they are not interviewing. Because it’s a professional meeting, and regardless of their employment status, they see themselves as professionals in our discipline. So.
I’m going to begin with what to some of you might be a shocking assertion. The point of the MLA convention is not, ultimately, the interviews. If all you’ve ever experienced of the MLA convention is interviewing for jobs for which you are a candidate or serving on a search committee to evaluate candidates, then you have a very, very limited perspective on what the convention is, why it matters, and how it works. This is not to dismiss people’s hatred of the interviewing portion of things, but rather to note that a lot of important business gets done at MLA that has nothing to do with interviewing.
But even as I write that, I suspect that some of you might be thinking, “that’s exactly what’s so awful about the MLA convention! It’s not about scholarship! It is awful and crass!” Look, I’m not going to deny that the convention is awful and crass. And yes, it’s about taking care of business. It is a professional meeting and not a conference of scholars. And yes, many of us professor-types like to think that we lead, or would like to lead, a life of the mind that keeps us insulated from the crass, business-like concerns that seem to dominate the convention. Except.
Are you a member of a scholarly society, or have you attended a conference sponsored by such a society, one that you think has value and that you believe enriches your perspective on your specialty? Have you published an article in a small journal that addresses a niche audience, or an article in a larger journal that had a special issue on a very narrow topic? Guess what: the MLA convention is probably where a lot of decisions get made about that nice, enriching scholarly group or that small journal or that special issue. One of the primary roles of the convention is that it allows groups of scholars to come together to make plans, and this is particularly important for small groups that do not have the resources to hold their own annual conferences or to travel regularly to have meetings with one another. If you’re opting out of the convention, or if you are only experiencing the convention as an interviewing venue, then you’re opting out of being a decision-maker in your specialization and you’re closing yourself off from scholarly opportunities and opportunities to make a difference in the discipline. You’re choosing – and I do believe it’s a choice – not to engage in service to the profession. And that’s your right to make that choice, but it’s not the convention’s fault that you don’t want to do that work, just as it’s not, say, the fault of the faculty governance structure if you don’t step up to serve on your university’s faculty senate.
Further, the convention is about networking, networking that gives your scholarship an audience and that creates a forum for your ideas, or, if not for your own individual ideas, for ideas that you care about. I have personal experience with a number of societies devoted to women authors and the scholarship that people in those societies produce has visibility in large part because of the convention. I think that’s important. People often complain that MLA papers are not very good. All I can say is that this hasn’t been my experience of MLA papers typically, but I think that one reason for that is that I typically attend panels where I know those presenting and/or that are organized by either allied organizations or divisions with which I’m affiliated, and so the people speaking on those panels have a reason to present quality work. These are not people who are just trying to get a paper on the program in order to get funded to go to the conference: they are people with an investment in promoting scholarship on a topic that may not be in the mainstream of literary studies. Often, these papers and panels lead to articles, special issues of journals, essay collections, or book contracts. The presentations may sometimes feel less “fresh” than presentations one hears at other conferences, but that is, I would argue, because presentations at the convention are often flattened out in order to reach a more general audience of scholars (so, for example, one needs to offer plot summary of a novel at the convention that one wouldn’t need to offer at the conference on that author), or the presentation is cut down so much from a longer work that it only scratches the surface. And it is true that discussions may not be as vibrant in the Q and A, and people can pontificate rather than asking a question, but I’ll also say that I haven’t witnessed much in the way of scholars attacking other scholars or grinding of axes at the convention. Perhaps I’m not attending the right panels.
And while I have witnessed and participated in a lot of convention-drinking, I haven’t ever hooked up at the MLA convention and I don’t know anybody else who has done so. I’m sure it could happen – I mean, I don’t know all 10K people who go to the convention and maybe the people I know are frigid- but everybody I know is dead tired at the end of each day. Because more than anything, the convention is a lot of work. Even the parties are work. At the end of each day, I typically feel dehydrated, I haven’t eaten actual meals, my feet are sore and/or blistered, and I’m losing my voice. I collapse into my overpriced hotel bed wishing I were at home. If I’m lucky, I remember to set up a wake-up call for the morning. Sexy, right?
Sometimes I feel like people’s complaints aren’t actually about the convention but rather about David Lodge’s novel Small World.
Like, for example, the urban legend about the scanning of name-tags. Here’s the thing, folks: if anybody does that, it’s maybe graduate students, and are you really concerned that a graduate student doesn’t think you’re important enough to talk to? ‘Cause I’m totally not worried about that, and, in fact, I’d rather avoid snobby graduate students. It’s one of the awesome things about no longer being a graduate student, actually. What I think happens with the rest of us (and I gave this a good amount of thought this year) is this: LOTS of people at the convention bear a striking resemblance to one another. Think about it: dress up a bunch of people in dark suits, funky spectacles, and (for the most part) sensible shoes. Most people have basically one of three haircuts. The result of this for me is that when I’m in the main hotel, I spend a lot of time squinting at people who are sort of far away, wondering, “Do I know you? I feel like you look like somebody I know….” and then I catch sight of their name-tag and realize that I don’t in fact know that person, but I’ve been looking at them weirdly, and so then I look away because I’m a weirdo who was staring at a stranger. It’s also worth noting that anybody of real importance doesn’t wear a name-tag and doesn’t bother looking at anybody else’s name-tag because those people only talk to people they already know or people to whom they are introduced by people they know. And apparently I am a fool who meets those sort of people and doesn’t realize they’re anything special until somebody alerts me to it after the fact (this is a consistent problem for me, and one which resulted in the most hilarity in a non-academic context when I said hello to Steve Zahn as if I knew him because he looked familiar, not realizing that he looked familiar because he’s a freaking actor) so if I’m trying to jockey for position by only talking to important people I really do a piss-poor job of it.
And here’s one last thing about name-tags: Lots of important people are actually at no-name universities in the middle of the country, and lots of the people with fancy affiliations on the coasts are nobodies. People don’t look down on me because of my Directional State University affiliation, though I thought they did during my first few MLAs with it because of my own issues with it. And my state is one where people think cousins get married and people go barefoot and play banjos. But seriously, the most frequent thing that happens when people within my specialization see my name-tag is they ask me exactly where I’m located, and if they don’t do that, they usually recognize my name and ask me about my work. Or, if I meet a complete stranger, sometimes a grad student sometimes a professor, as I always do at MLA, usually as I try to grab a meal, we end up talking about the state of things at our respective universities – hiring, raises, curriculum, etc. Because wherever we’re all located, and whatever our status in relation to the tenure track, we’re all professionals in the same discipline. We all have the same concerns about the humanities, about higher education, about grading, about the material conditions of our day-to-day professional lives.
I guess, finally, my point is this. If you don’t want to participate in the MLA convention, you really don’t have to. But I’m troubled by criticisms of it that don’t reflect the actual convention, and I’m troubled by criticisms of it that ultimately devalue very important professional activities. Sure, sometimes people are fake (and I actually had a couple of unfortunate encounters of this type at MLA this year), and sure, there’s a lot of posturing. But in the midst of all of that, important decisions about the direction of our discipline are being made. I notice that we don’t hear people in other disciplines devaluing their professional activities. And, at the end of the day, I like to think of myself as a professional – not just as a scholar and not just as a teacher. As a professional I can defend against attacks on my discipline, against claims that I should give away my expertise for free out of “love” for what I do, against anti-intellectual arguments about what I should teach and how I should teach it. Yes, I am a scholar and a teacher, but that is not my entire identity. My identity as a scholar/teacher is only part of my identity as a professional. Further, and I think this is important, I think that professionalism ultimately is the vehicle through which we can unite people of different status levels within the discipline. It is highly unlikely that I’m going to end up becoming a scholar with the kind of clout that, say, Judith Butler has achieved, for a lot of reasons. But even if I never do, she and I are professionals in the same discipline. Similarly, if those of us with tenure are going to be allies with our colleagues in contingent positions, we must regard those colleagues as professionals in our discipline and insist that those colleagues are treated with professional respect.
While the MLA convention is not perfect, it is the largest event in our discipline that puts professional status and issues within our professional discipline front and center. I think it’s unfortunate that so many people are so ready to condemn it and to refuse to participate in the work that happens there.