Thursday, January 04, 2007

Not Just Another MLA Screed

There's a flurry of post-MLA blogging going on right now; I'm too lazy to link, but I assume y'all are reading Dr. Crazy, Flavia, Horace, Scott Eric Kaufman and the Berube, just to get started.
It's a hell of a way to dive back in to the semester.

The MLA conference is a juggernaut that many literature-types face with ambivalence; it is, first and foremost, the place where job-seekers go, freshly-scrubbed, to grovel at the feet of the hiring committee. At the same time (and perhaps because of the first description), it is also commonly known as THE conference in our shared field. It's a conference of academic rock stars and coteries, brilliant academics on the rise and wanna-be brilliant academics flinging jargon. It is a place to gawk and be gawked at. Basically, it's our very own version of Capote's Black and White Ball, annually.

Doubtless, there is a kind of glamour to the MLA, based on the idea that it represents the best and brightest thinkers about literature. But then there's also its seedy underbelly--the hundreds of job candidates waiting in tiny hotel chairs outside the "interview barn": an unsubdivided ballroom with scads of tables where some institutions examine potential hires; the black-clad grad student masses trailing the big name scholar; anxious attendees who read name tags before looking at faces.

Here's my HUGE disclaimer before I continue on: I attended the MLA exactly twice. The first time to interview with potential employers and the second time as a member of a hiring committee. Both times I hung out with my friends from graduate school, attended no mixers and not a single panel. I was just too skeeved out by the smell of desperation in the air; it seemed to me that everyone wanted something desperately, and was focused on measuring what others had. [If you 3 or less degrees of separation from a group of job seekers, this is particularly painful to watch. My favorite horror story is the one in which a group of--hmm, let's say Victorianists--were at dinner after having all interviewed earlier that day with the same school. The cell phone of Vic #1 rings: it's the school saying that he's their number 2 candidate. The school is waiting to hear from #1--does he want the job if #1 says no? Everyone else at the table rushes to check his/her cell phone. The dinner conversation is, as you can imagine, a bit tense after that.] I just can't take this kind of tension and immanent heartbreak. No doubt this says more about me than it does about the MLA.

With that in mind, however, I'm puzzling over my reactions to reading the enthusiastic MLA wrap-ups. I'm delighted to know that there are people that have positive, even rewarding experiences at MLA. Furthermore, it reaffirms my belief in the generosity of our virtual bloggy academic community that people would be willing to post suggestions as to how to make it work for you (see Dr. C's post on networking, for example). As I read these, I feel a brief flame of guilt and shame: why am I not working harder? Why don't I go to the MLA? Why don't I network? What have I been doing with my time?!! This is spot-on the reaction I had when I was last AT the MLA. Essentially, it all boiled down to one question: what was my academic identity as it was defined by my work? At the time, fresh off of writing the dissertation, I could answer that question. I'm going to be the go-to girl for (just work with me) Asian American shoes of the late 20th century! That's me!!

As you may have guessed, I'm not currently the go-to girl for Asian American shoes. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and think "I had better either publish the dissertation on Asian American shoes right now (which got a pretty decent response from a major publisher, if I may toot my own sad little horn) or else I have to trash it because it's on the verge of being irrelevant." And then I let another day go by without re-sending my book proposal. In part, this is because I'm less and less motivated by the academic identity that one needs to have to navigate MLA effectively. With a lot of work, I could make myself into that girl, but she's not who I really want to be anymore.

Why, you ask? [And make it snappy, Fluff, as the battery on your laptop is dying and this is already a monstrously long post...] In part it's because my understanding of what it means to be a professor has changed. Who I am and what my work consists of at my current institution is not who and what the MLA values. I studied at a research institution that defined scholarly work as the sum total of our being and our worth, and MLA was the polestar in that system. Nowadays, in order for me to participate actively in the field--ie., to pump out multiple scholarly articles or a book-- would mean devoting far less time and energy to teaching, to institutional change, to the things that I care about more and more. This is wholly a personal observation--I know academics who can do both, but I'm not them. The second reason, and one I think is perhaps more provocative (and not original to me), is that MLA itself is starting to become less relevant to the reading and study of literature and the ongoing discussion of these among experts. We are already readers and writers with increasingly tiny realms of expertise, which MLA struggles to encompass. Is PMLA (the journal of the organization) REALLY the place we go to read about what matters to us in our field? Is the conference truly the place where the best and brightest minds talking about literature go to present their work? For my part, the last five things I've read that got me really excited about the field were in blogs and mass market books. And if I expanded the category at hand from "literature" strictly defined, to "practices of reading, writing, and/or interpretation", I'd be hard pressed to remember the last journal article I read that sent me into a flurry of further research. Henry Jenkins' work, on the other hand, has me revising my spring "work" reading list.

There is no doubt that we will continue to use lengthy, scholarly articles and conferences as means of dissemination for one form of our scholarly work--and for that, MLA may indeed remain a crucial site of academic identity formation. But as other vibrant spaces emerge, I find myself wandering farther and farther from the gravitational pull of the organization. This may be because I was a wacky literature scholar from the start (let's just say that a handful of references to the Pottery Barn catalog appear in my dissertation). However, this may also be because the world of literature and our role as scholars within it are shifting right out from under us.


Blogger Flavia said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, much of which I entirely agree with.

Since it's 2 p.m. and I STILL haven't started working for the day, I'll just make this comment: I'm really surprised that I like the MLA. Although I *like* socializing, I have a lot of social anxiety in new situations, and I also have a serious imposter complex. But aside from when I'm sitting in a hotel lobby surrounded by job candidates, I just don't feel the fear and anxiety that I think I should feel hovering over the conference. Instead, I feel the excitement of being around thousands of other people who are (in some sense, and whether I like it or not) in my profession. People who (again, in some sense) believe that teaching and reading and writing matter--and even though some of them are pompous assholes and others are nuts in matching berets, I find that really exhillerating.

Thursday, January 04, 2007 2:14:00 PM  
Blogger Mel said...

I think that for me, the fact that there are so many different kinds of activities going on at MLA (interviewing, hiring, meeting with editors, book buying, book selling, politicking, networking, partying, flirting) is in itself a reminder of the wonderfully messy complicated thing "academia" is -- in which many of us don't find our professional identities to be defined by our research in quite the way that our graduate training would have led us to believe...

Friday, January 05, 2007 12:13:00 AM  
Blogger kfluff said...

Flavia--I wonder what the mechanism is that allows you to feel the excitement over and above the existential dread? We should pass some of it around!!

Mel--Your point is a good one, and maybe engaging more deeply in one or more of those many activities would de-emphasize the weltsmerz I generally feel at the conference. Your post on intellectual community is giving me more to think about too--I definitely get the rush of enthusiasm about my research and others' at different conferences, but not at MLA. Is that about content? About ethos? About warm fuzzies? I can't quite put my finger on it right now...

Friday, January 05, 2007 11:18:00 AM  

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