Monday, January 03, 2005


MLA and the "Profession" of Literary Studies

This will be the first of my posts related to the MLA Convention. I think there will need to be more than one because as I've been thinking about what I want to write there is no way to separate it out from broader issues related to the humanities and to academe, and so basically talking about MLA will be a launching pad for me to talk about a lot of other things that have been floating around in my head. So while these posts will talk about the Convention, that isn't entirely what they'll be about, if you catch my meaning.

So, let's begin at the beginning. Everybody likes to make fun of the MLA Convention (I could post more links but I'm just not feeling like it). From insiders to outsiders, literary scholars to journalists, academics to non-academics, MLA is, for whatever reason, a big joke. Now, it is easy to make fun of MLA - from the panels with their esoteric titles and bizarre punctuation to the desperation of interviewers to the schmoozing and ruthless name-tag-glancing to the clothes. But I think that the reason that people make fun has to do with the broader problem that the disciplinarity of literary studies - its value as a profession and as a field of scholarly inquiry - is suspect. If a bunch of doctors go to a convention and dress up in suits, it's not a joke. If a bunch of lawyers have a convention and talk about lawyery things that seem trivial to outsiders and schmooze away smarmily, not a person would think twice about it. The issue, I think, is that on the one hand we scholars are supposed to be "above" all that - too high-minded for the nonsense and gross commercialism of conventioning, but on the other hand we're also all supposed to be locked in our stodgy ivory towers, unable to hold our own in the glossy world of commerce and competition. We literary scholars are both too good for the hustle and bustle of conventioning and too pathetic for it. Both sides of the same coin.

I'm not saying that MLA is perfect or that the criticisms of it are not warranted. These sorts of things are always grounded in some reality. But at the same time, I refuse to be on the "I hate going to MLA" bandwagon - an oh so fashionable position - because I honestly like the MLA Convention. Yes, it comes at a horrible time of the year. Yes, many of the panels are uneven. Yes, there are many desperate people trying to get a job, and we don't like to see desperate people. But MLA is where professional connections are made and renewed, it's a place where one can actually discuss the profession more generally and not necessarily revert to talking about one's research, which is not the same thing, and it is a place where one can see old friends whose specializations are different from one's own. These things happen in other venues but not on as grand a scale, and I like the grand scale.

I should admit, however, that my experience at this MLA was different from the year when I interviewed. It's not that I hated my experience at that interviewing MLA, but I did notice the desperation a lot more. Going to MLA as an employed person with professional business and mingling to conduct was a radically different experience from going to MLA on the market. The desperation that seemed everywhere last time was hardly noticeable to me. Now, there are some practical reasons for this. The job information center was located far, far away from the rest of the convention; the elevator bank in the main hotel to get t rooms for interviews was also separate from where sessions were held; I wasn't near any of the other major interviewing hotels during the times when interviews would be held. But another reason I think that my experience was so different is because a lot of the desperation I perceived when I was on the market was magnified through my own desperation. This time I was basically relaxed - I was nervous about my paper, yes, but I felt... certified? legitimate? I felt like I belonged. As much as I fear I'm a fraud, I'm the kind of fraud who belongs. I'm "in the club" - I have colleagues, contacts, and I've moved beyond the insular world of graduate school. Feeling this has also, I think given me a greater confidence about my work, and I think that confidence has had a lot to do with how others have responded to my work since completing the diss/getting a job.

I think this will end my initial post on MLA. I will complete further posts this week about the following:

1. Schmoozing, Networking, and the Joys of Bizarre Hotel Parties

2. The Value of Literary Study, or Yes, a Paper Titled " 'Dude! Your Dress Is So Cute!' Patterns of Semantic Widening in 'Dude,' " Might Just Be Worth the Paper It's Written On

3. Patterns of Dress/Hairstyle at MLA

4. A Wrap-Up of My Ideas about Literary Studies/MLA/ Etc.

And then I'll let all of this go because I need to do a hell of a lot of work to get ready for my classes next week. Yes, I go back Jan. 10. I want to die.

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