MLA Stories

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t get to the MLA this year; I was hanging out in Chicago with the historians. What’s been interesting to me, as I read reports from this year’s MLA in various venues, is to see themes re-emerge from previous years. Some of those reports inspired a sort of scholarly-conference deja vu. Twitter, anyone? Pedagogy? Rethinking standards of tenure and promotion?

Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at my MLA coverage from years past. Here’s a sampling. One difference between then and now: I wouldn’t say “Twittering” in 2012; I’d say “tweeting.” (N.B. Some of the links may be subscription-only; apologies.) Tell me in the comments what themes you’ve seen emerge and re-emerge–and which ones have faded away.

MLA 2005, “The Talk of the MLA: Technology, Teaching, and Politics

After several years of soul-searching and hand-wringing about the crises in the humanities and in scholarly publishing, the scholars who gathered here at the Modern Language Association’s 121st annual convention last month displayed signs of a practical desire to do something about those crises other than complain. The question of political engagement inside and outside the classroom was very much on public display, as were professional “best practices,” an urgent need to rethink the mechanisms of tenure and promotion, and the possibilities offered by the digital age.

MLA 2007: “Humanities Publishing at the MLA: Digital and Posthuman

“How many of you want your first book to be electronic?” asked W.J.T. Mitchell, longtime editor of the journal Critical Inquiry, after a panel on “Professionalization in a Digital Age” at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention in Chicago.

Mr. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, directed the question at an audience largely made up of graduate students. Nobody put up a hand. While that group has good reason to be drawn to digital publishing, it also has reason to be wary, at least until tenure committees treat e-scholarship as seriously as they do print monographs and journal articles.

MLA 2008, “Pedagogy Is Not a Dirty Word

It’s not all economic doom and gloom at the MLA meeting here. For one thing, it’s San Francisco, a far more temperate place to be in late December than Chicago, the site of last year’s convention.

There’s good news besides the relatively balmy weather. If you’re looking for a job in creative writing or Asian languages, two growth areas identified by the MLA, your prospects don’t look quite so dismal. Anything with a digital turn — a workshop on evaluating digital work for tenure and promotion, a panel on scholarly editing in the 21st century — attracts a good crowd.

And the renewed emphasis on pedagogy, spearheaded by this year’s president, Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has gone over well with attendees, who seem relieved to hear that it’s not intellectually unserious to talk about teaching. (It’s also nice to hear the lovelier word “teaching” make a comeback.)

MLA 2009, “The MLA Convention in Translation

So what was the big story at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, held this week in Philadelphia? Was it translation, the theme chosen by the MLA’s president, Catherine Porter? Was it the digital humanities, the pull of which drew overflow crowds to too-small conference rooms and helped create a snappy back-channel conversation on Twitter (hashtag #mla09)? Was it the hardships of contingent faculty members like Brian Croxall (@briancroxall on Twitter), a visiting assistant professor of English at Clemson University. Mr. Croxall’s paper on the plight of non-tenure-track professors became a sleeper hit of the conference, although (and in part because) its author couldn’t afford to be in Philadelphia to deliver it in person.

The answer to the big-story question depends on which narrative arc you choose to follow and who else is reading–or blogging or Twittering–along with you.

MLA 2011, “Hard Times Sharpen the MLA’s Lens on Labor and the Humanities

Jobs are scarce. Budgets are down. Language programs are threatened. None of that was news at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting, held here Thursday through Sunday.

The association declared “The Academy in Hard Times” this year’s theme. Many sessions took up the topic in one way or another, calling for collective action to convince administrators and legislators of the humanities’ value.