Stop the madness of MLA: a modest proposal

Here I am, in the last weeks (days, really) of wrapping up my teaching for the term. I have some grading to do, there are some student revisions out there, some other teaching loose ends, and I will also have a few meetings between now and December 22 or so. I don’t have any finals to give, but it’s still a busy and hectic time. Then there are the pressures of traveling to see family. And of course I still have plenty of things I will need to get done before school starts again in the winter term, which always comes here about a week or two early.

But with all of that, the thing that I am right now most looking forward to is I won’t be going to damned MLA.

Ah, the annual Modern Language Association convention, the meat market of English studies, and, IMO, ample evidence for the contempt that the field and profession has for family, impoverished graduate students, and “lives” in general. This is because:

  • MLA is always held right after Christmas, the one and only time of the year in which language-types in the Western World are more or less guaranteed a necessary break to regroup and reconnect with family and friends. I think the MLA’s position on this is “this is the only time of the year where we know everyone is free,” which is a pretty strong indicator of what the profession thinks academics ought to be doing (and not doing) with their “free” time.
  • Everyone in any field that has to do with languages or “English” (and see the discussion in my preivous post to see what that word “English” is in quotes here) who are looking for a tenure-track job are expected to go to this conference to interview for jobs. Now, that’s okay for the likes of me, an already employed professor, and it is okay for the interviewers who have their ways paid by the school. But it’s just wrong to make impoverished graduate students cough up what could end up being well over a $1,000 (plane, hotel, food, etc., not to mention the standard protocol black suit) for the privledge of sitting on a bed in a hotel suite and/or a ballroom with a couple hundred other people and to talk about your dissertation and your teaching philosophy for twenty minutes. What’s worse is that for those specializing in various versions of Literature, these grad students might be enduring this expense and experience all for just a couple of interviews that don’t work out. I’ve known any number of “lit types” who literally spent several years going back to MLA and coming up empty.
  • And God forbid if, while at MLA, one has a life! Oh, the many stories I have heard and how the many times I have seen for myself the stereotypical MLA scene of a crowded hotel bar, all full of people in black or rumpled herringbone jackets, drinking and talking and simultaneously looking for someone else to talk to, or, just looking for someone famous (or, relatively famous, like Stanley Fish or someone).

English can be rather ironically inhumane.

I don’t want to be a complete downer about this. As I suggested on my official and unofficial blogs last year, I had a good time at that version of MLA in Philadelphia. Annette and I had a nice hotel room (while our son was with Grandma and Grandpa), I had fun with some old friends, and the food was fantastic. And my experiences on the job market have been pretty good because, over the years, I’ve had a lot of interviews. I’m not bragging when I say that; rather, I’m pointing out the difference between the markets for someone in, say, 19th Century American Literature and someone in Composition and Rhetoric.

But I’m not going this year because my wife started a tenure-track job here this year and we’re almost certainly here for the rest of our careers– unless something strange happens, of course. And if I can help it, I hope never to go to MLA ever again, not to interview for jobs or to give a presentation or to interview job candidates.

I think there is a solution to all that is wrong with MLA, but I doubt it could ever happen: I think the MLA ought to encourage or require people to conduct phone interviews for jobs and stop interviewing potential job candidates at the conference. Stop facilitating this abusive system with things like the infamous “ballroom” interview room, and proactively encourage the use of old technologies (e.g., the phone) and new technologies (e.g., video chat, a feature that is soon going to be built in to most computers anyway– check out the new Apple iMac to see what I mean) to screen candidates.

I know that there are reasonable people who think I’m wrong about this. I have one friend/colleague here, in favor of the traditional MLA interview, who has said if it is just about saving money, why not skip the on-campus interview too and just hire people based on the CV materials they put together? This person has a point. And I also have colleagues here who did phone interviews for a particular search last year and these colleagues are convinced that not doing MLA interviews was the cause of the “bad search.” I’m not sure this point is as accurate.

Nonetheless, I still think I’m right about this. I think the advantages of phone interviews outweigh the disadvantages, and it might actually make the MLA a pleasant experience. Sure, it’d be a much smaller conference, but at least the people who were there might actually want to be there.

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2 Responses to Stop the madness of MLA: a modest proposal

  1. Laura says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Both in the corporate world and for academic staff positions, phone interviews are standard. They can be just as rigorous as a face-to-face interview, and through the wonders of a speaker phone, you can have the whole search committee in the room. I suppose the tradition of the MLA interview evolved from the idea that everyone interested in “English” would want to be at the conference anyway.

  2. Bill says:

    Good post. I’m always struck by the absurdity of the MLA interview process: the discomfort of sitting in a small hotel room with strangers, the wastefulness of resources involved in sending an entire committee to an expensive city for three days, and, as you point out, the twisted economics of asking already poor grad students to make the trip/buy the clothes/etc. What if MLA through a conference and no search committees showed up?

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