2007-01-02

The 2006 MLA Conference

Christmas time is MLA time, and it has been for me since the mid-90s. For those innocent of what it all means, the MLA stands for the Modern Language Association, the international association of teachers and scholars of literature and criticism, and it holds its annual meeting and job fair from 27-30 December. The New York Times routinely reports on the event and equally routinely pokes fun at the panels and sessions. To those outside of the profession, the titles of the talks do indeed sound silly, as if the cloistered denizens of the ivory tower were trying desperately to claim that what they do and say and think is actually, truly, deeply, important.

It actually is. English professors, after all, are the whipping posts of conservatives and anti-inltellectuals of all stripes. They are accused of fomenting revolution, depravity, and everything else that is remotely un-American, like French-inspired criticism. In fact, the vast majority of professorts wish desperately to sell out and land a job that provides them with the security to pursue the most recondite studies or teach and teach and teach the willing and unwilling undergraduates who have been mostly obligated to take the lone English or composition course. These professors, in short, are hardly revolutionaries. They get paid little, they work long, and they are yearly confronted with the possibility that a grad student or contract lecturer might one day take their job from them. Incrasingly, universtities are moving to hiring lecturers and others who have no chance of tenure and who can do much the same work as the tenure track professor, viz, teach unwilling undergraduates how to write a paper.

The MLA on the one hand promises an antidote to this condition, as it supposedly (ideally?) provides a unique forum for enterprising ideas. Where else can you gather such an audience? Where else will your paper be so public? Well, the truth is that there are now many such forums. Furthermore, the august aspirations of the MLA have lately had trouble getting off the earth. Seldom are new ideas presented at the conference, though that does still happen. More often, the ideas presented are a little tepid. Frankly the point of the conference is much less an intellectual forum than a job fair, and it's been that way for at least a decade

As a job fair, the MLA is probably truly unique. The job fair aspect dominates everything about the event. Several thousand job seekers ranging from ABDs to associate professors come to the conference for interviews--and then there are those interviewing them. Without exaggeration, I'd guess that the majority of attendees are there for a job. The talk in the hotel bar is about jobs. The networking is about jobs. The people in suits seen walking briskly or sitting dazed are not there to give incisive papers or show off the results of their research, they are there for desperate interviews. Their hope is to land a job (often any job) not change the way people read this or that cultural text. (I can't blame them. In fact, if I were to turn things differently I'd join their ranks, something I think about it every year.) The sad fact is that for now, there is really no other mechanism for finding academic jobs in the US. (Other countries may use the MLA, which is supposedly international, but often do not; they use their own mechanisms.)

But what would the MLA be like without the job fair? There are some models: the ALA conference, regional MLAs, the Narrative conference, INCS, and so on. These events tend to be focused and interesting. Stress is lower--one's life is not on the line--but the papers are often enough more exciting, as people will use these forums for the presentation of their research. But I don't think that the MLA can get back to this state, at least not until he job situation is ameliorated, and that is not going to happen any time soon.

Instead, I'll probably continue to attend the conference, presenting papers, meeting friends, perhaps more. And my Christmas to new year's period will likely continue to be bracketed and infinitely altered by the event.

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