Looking in on (and remembering) the MLA

Say, did I mention that I didn’t have to go to MLA this year? And that I’ll probably/ hopefully never have to go to it again? Oh yeah, I guess I did mention it a few times….

Well, not unlike the rubber-necker looking at the three-car pile-up on the other side of the interstate, I have spent a bit of time skimming through some the things in the blogosphere about MLA. A few random thoughts/memories:

  • At “Thanks for Not Being a Zombie,” there is a nice list of links to others who have been blogging about MLA.
  • As Rebecca Moore “Schenectady Synecdoche”Howard pointed out on her blog, composition studies– specifically, first year composition– seems to be the target by at least a few folks at MLA as the place where all that liberal indoctrination is taking place. She’s referring to a series of articles by Nick Gillespie on the TCS web site, specifically the first of a three part series. One of the things worth remembering (Gillespie doesn’t seem to realize this) is that, at least at a lot of Ph.D. granting schools, most of the people who teach first year composition are actually literature students.

    Anyway, I don’t think first year writing should be a site for “liberal indoctrination” and really, I don’t think it is 80% or so of the time. So often things are exaggerated in the ether of MLA. When I teach first year writing at EMU, I’m just trying to get students to grasp “words in a row” literacy.

    Having said that, I do agree with Gillespie when he writes (in the second part of the three part series) “… the MLA’s politically correct and arguably even more annoying obscurantist tendencies have also provided fertile ground for an annually repeated story in the Times and elsewhere, one every bit as worn out and tedious as an Art Buchwald holiday column.” Sure, as Gillespie points out in the same column, the MLA includes serious panel presentations (with not necessarily racy titles) about all manners of literary studies. But so much of MLA is so unpleasant, and besides that….

  • …. it isn’t my field. At least it isn’t anymore. I’m not entirely sure when it happened (though for me, it has happened in the last ten or so years), but while composition and rhetoric might fall into the broad category of “English studies,” it really doesn’t seem to have any meaningful connection to the study of literature anymore. At least it doesn’t to me. As Collin writes, “I can state with certainty that I feel no more at home at MLA than I did as a noob and an applicant,” and “I’m more and more convinced that all it would take is for several of our leading programs to decide to interview at NCTE, and within 4-5 years, we could dispense with MLA altogether.” Collin says he doesn’t think this move to the NCTE is likely to happen (and he might be right about that), but I do think there has been and will continue to be a move away from MLA. More and more folks are doing phone interviews (and, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I think that all first round interviews ought to be phone interviews), and you’re also seeing more interviewing at the CCCCs, too.
  • Unlike Collin, I have presented at MLA, twice. The first was in 1998, the year I was interviewing for the job I currently have. My presentation had to do with the practice of ellocution in 19th century America. Not counting the panel chair and other presenters (grad students talking about their dissertations), I believe there were two people in the audience. The second time was in New Orleans in 2001, where I was on a panel that was organized by Todd Taylor that featured Todd’s mentor, Gary Olson, one of Todd’s grad students at UNC, and me (I am not sure how I got into this mix). The panel was on electronic publishing– this is where my now disappeared CCC Online article “Where Do I List this on My CV?” had its origins– and I think there was about 100 or so people in the crowd. I believe Susan Miller argued with me about something, though I’m not sure if it was her or not.

    Anyway, that MLA was kinda fun. My wife and I left our toddler son with the grandparents, and we flew into New Orleans, went out eating and drinking that afternoon/evening; wandered around the French Quarter the next day; I went to my panel; we went out eating and drinking that night; and then we got back on an airplane, back to the grandparents and our son. I guess the moral of that story is MLA can be okay, if you don’t actually have anything to do with MLA.

3 thoughts on “Looking in on (and remembering) the MLA”

  1. This was my third MLA (and my first time not presenting), and all three times I feel like I’ve always been at a different conference than everyone else. I like the conference. While I always hear about nasty and hostile questions or sensationalist presentations, I haven’t encountered them. Oh, I’ve seen some sensationalist papers/panels in the program, but they’re really the minority and easy to avoid.

    I realize that because my interests include not only rhet/comp but also medieval, textual studies, and digital literary studies, MLA offers me more than it does most rhet/comp folk. But one can say the same thing for the same thing for the literary scholar specializing in literature of the German Reformation or of Japanese literature or of Middle English. If your focus is narrow, MLA doesn’t offer you as much as a conference geared towards your focus. Having looked through the program carefully, I can attest to the fact that, like last year, nearly ever session had at least one, and often two or three, sessions of interest to a technorhetorician, a few examples of which include “Editing New Media” to “The Subject Matter of Composition” to “The Language of Soundscape: ‘Rhythm Science’ and Reading Electronic Music” to “The State of American Writing” (in which Anne Wysocki gave one of my favorite presentations of the conference). I’ll take up the myth of there being little for a rhet/comp scholar in my own blog (kind of a follow up to my email post to either TechRhet or WPA last year).

    The truth is, however, that I hear literature people bitch about MLA all the time too. The problems of MLA, from what I can tell, actually cut across area of interest, and have much to do as much with the conference being the place (both physically and temporally) where the interviewing happens. I really don’t think Colin’s suggestion of moving the interviewing to NCTE would solve much. In fact, it runs the risk of bringing all the anxieties, stresses, and angst of MLA to NCTE. In other words, I think it’s as much the attitude people bring to the conference. For both interviewers and interviewees, its a time of stress and the conference can be an ugly, tedious thing. If you go under those conditions, or if you go thinking “its MLA, God its going to be horrible,” then yea, it’s going to be horrible.

    For me, one of the coolest things about MLA is that the big names in my areas, in both rhet/comp and in medieval. Pat Belanoff and Doug Hesse and Mary Jane Osborne and John Niles may wave or say a brief hello in pasing at CCCC or The International Congress on Medieval Studies, but at MLA they take the time to talk to me, even come up and say hello. For me, that’s an added bonus to a conference I already enjoy.

    Any way, Happy New Year.

  2. Well, three thoughts:

    * As I sit here today, puttering around the house and slowly (oh so slowly) getting ready for next term while my son plays video games, I am reminded again that I think the biggest problem with MLA is that it is held a couple days after Christmas and (more significantly) during the break between terms. That screws up necessary time away from school and with family, and like I said a few posts ago, I just think that’s really awful.

    * I would agree with you that there are some comp/rhet and/or techno-rhet -like panels at MLA, and I have been at a few of them. But only a very few of them, mostly because the MLAs I have attended have either involved me being the interviewee for various jobs, me interviewing for my institution (I have done this only once, and, by far, that was the absolute worse MLA experience), or, as was the case in New Orleans, I was there so briefly and was more interested in sight-seeing.

    And besides all that, I think the comp/rhet things get so buried in panels about literature things that it gets frustrating. I can go to the CCCCs and, if I’m in a panel-going mood (which isn’t all the time, I should admit), I can walk in on damn near any panel and find something interesting to me. I can’t do that at MLA.

    * I do agree with you though John about the interview thing though. Clearly, the biggest problem with MLA is the meat market aspect of it. I think at least two-thirds of the people going to MLA are going to either be an interviewee or an interviewer, and these people are tired, tense, pissed, crabby, etc.

    Which is why my suggestion that the field adopt phone interviews as a “standard practice” is the correct answer. ;-)

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