Sunday, January 11, 2009

The MLA Tourist, 2008

In what follows, fifth-year graduate student Matthew Sergi reflects on his experience “visiting” the Modern Language Association convention that recently took place in San Francisco. This is a somewhat condensed version of Matthew’s more colorful account which can be found on his own personal blog.


MLA members are the custodians of language, and language is at the heart of virtually all disciplines (at least the humanistic ones).– Rosemary Feal, MLA Executive Director

The thirty thousand scholars of language and literature who form the Modern Language Association convene annually in late December. In a different city every year, we critique each other's research, compare notes on teaching and evaluate the current state of humanities education. We also hold preliminary interviews for the majority of academic jobs available in the humanities.

Graduate students' futures are set in motion at this conference. Which is why, well before entering the job market as interviewees, some Cal graduate students attended this year's San Francisco MLA as tourists: to adjust ahead of time to the gravitational pull of a conference so massive. To see and not be seen, and to learn tips and tricks about the profession.

As overwhelmed as I was by the sheer size of MLA, I found my way to some truly memorable panels, particularly on the second day of the conference. In "Public Shakespeares," after Bryn Mawr's Katherine A. Rowe deftly analyzed three virtual Globe theaters on Second Life (one with a paid "acting company"), Harvard's Marjorie Garber presented her talk on "Shakespeare's Brand." With clever insights on branding in Sonnet 111 and in twenty-first-century advertising, Garber argued that American education in Shakespeare, which had once been representative of broad literacy, now threatens to overshadow and replace broad literacy. The National Endowment for the Arts, according to Garber, supports Shakespeare programs to the exclusion of other literature; its new Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, whose logo features the Bard's bust before a rippling American flag, appeared immediately after the White House cut back much of its funding for contemporary American poets, many of whom were protesting war efforts.

"Liturgy, Literacy, and the Literary: Katherine Zieman's Singing the New Song" came next for me. Well-respected medievalists gathered at this session to present responses to Cal English alum Zieman's 2008 debut book. Andrew Galloway (another Cal English alum) discussed, via Zieman, the importance of "unanalyzable utterances" in understanding the words of the medieval liturgy, and cautioned literary scholars that too much attention to the meaning of words can eclipse the use of words. Then our own Steven Justice, shrugging off his narrower pre-planned topic, embarked on a relentless and at times unforgiving evaluation of Zieman's arguments, including examples of "unnecessary scaffolding" in her language which, when removed, would truly reveal the groundbreaking impact of the book. After the session, Zieman stood up, and was given only ten minutes (!) to respond to the respondents: extempore, Zieman summoned up a poised and very effective counter-counterpoint. Go Bears, indeed. The direct, aggressive (though never disrespectful) debate was representative of the kind of "big league" mentality that I loved about MLA.

At the conference, however, job anxiety weighed heavily on the sessions, the talkbacks, the informal conversations, straight through to Executive Director Rosemary Feal's convention blog: "Between the decline of available positions this year and the erosion of full-time tenure-track positions in the academic workforce overall, we are facing a situation that demands our advocacy and action." The California Report on NPR has even done a feature on the subject. When I ran into the fabulous Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, though, she assured me that an English Ph.D. from Cal, even in this market, was a powerful thing. And this helped quell my anxiety a bit.

Leaving Professor O’Brien O’Keeffe, I shuffled into "Publish and Flourish: A Roundtable on Academic Publishing for Graduate Students," hosted by the MLA Graduate Student Caucus. The Caucus had invited six professors to advise nervous grads like myself on when and how to publish, and how it would affect our job searches. But (to the Caucus leader’s surprise, I think) the first speaker, Stanford English Professor Franco Moretti, vehemently discouraged graduate students from publishing at all. Publishing before the dissertation, he said, potentially allows “external signs” of professionalism to distract from the kind of "profoundly serious, deep, even religious commitment to a subject" that was characteristic of academics only decades ago. Moretti lamented that the profession itself has "lost its fire. It's boring. It's not about the ideas anymore.” Berkeley’s own Charles Altieri rejected the implicit premise of the session: that any scholar (grad or not) should approach academic discourse as a means of résumé-padding. He pointed out that sessions which offer standardized rules for a profession that should focus on the insight of individuals only “tend to create, rather than allay, anxiety.” His advice, instead: “You submit [your article] when you have something to say. That’s the time when you should try to publish something… once you believe in it.”

The MLA lesson seemed to be the following: the professorial career is not built on anxious, generalized rules, or on ways to game the job market, but only on a solid corpus of solid work. Seeing my friends nervously prepare for their job interviews reminded me that, in order to study the humanities, you have to be human: not just a functional conglomeration of "external" signs of professionalism. Only humans, with room for failure and not paralyzed by fear, can maintain the kind of productive, active debate like the professors of the Zieman session did. I do not wish to belittle job panic, only to draw attention to the negative effects that it can have on the work we do, by skewing our attitudes about our work. We cannot address the situation with CV-padding and small fixes, but only by, as Feal put it, direct "advocacy and action" (if you're looking for a place to start, click here). But in the meantime, for me, the time for tips and tricks and tourism is over: it is time to get to work, and if I get my dream job in the process, all the better.

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