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(Omni?)Present at the MLA

Last year I gained some attention for not attending the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. The notice that was paid to my situation and to the paper that was read on my behalf took me completely by surprise. That feeling of surprise persisted throughout 2010 as people occasionally sent emails or told me at events that they had heard of me. Standing in for the present absence [paywall] of many contingent or non-tenure-track at the yearly meeting of the MLA—and all the other conferences or department and faculty meetings—was not what I had had in mind when I stayed home. But I’m grateful that my paper resulted in increased attention being paid to the effects of labor casualization in the university.

Because I’m lucky, I have a job now. And because I’m even luckier, I’ve just finished attending my fifth MLA convention, where I spoke on two panels. I say “my” MLA with good reason. Previous to the 2006 MLA Convention, I’d heard that the yearly meeting wasn’t especially enjoyable: people only went for the job interviews; the presenters always took too long and there was never time for Q&A; the lobby was full of the dead gazes of nervous candidates; and conversations were stunted by the sizing up of one other’s badges—their names and affiliations. So I was stunned when I got to Philadelphia, where I was slated to give a paper. For three days straight, there was something fascinating and fabulous happening. Every hour of the day there was something that I wanted to attend. I saw Michael Bérubé and Bitch PhD (RIP) speak about their blogging. I saw Dave Parry (although I didn’t know him at the time) and others talk about the Wikipedia. I attended talks about the authors I was writing about in my dissertation and talks given by friends in my program. I met Katherine Hayles, someone whose work intrigued me and who chaired the panel that I spoke on. I bumped into one of my favorite undergraduate professors in the book exhibit and caught up on the last 4.5 years. I hung out with friends from grad school, met scads of new people, and ate one of the best meals of my life. What had been billed as a soulless gathering at a terribly inconvenient time of year turned out to be quite possibly the most interesting three days of my academic career to that point.

I was hooked. I planned to go back to the MLA the following year since I would be on the market for the first time. But I was very much looking forward to it. In Chicago in 2007, I had two interviews, but I went for the fun of it all. I met Matt Kirschenbaum and Joe Tabbi for the first time, the latter offering me the opportunity to work some on electronic book review and the ELO Directory. I caught up with Jason Jones and his family. I ate a montecristo. In 2008, I hit San Francisco with one job interview, but I was also moderating a panel on Twitter with Dave Parry, Matt Gold, and John M. Jones. The first MLA tweetups took place, and I met so many people whom I had come to know online that listing them would verge on the obnoxious. And the work of my peers continued to keep me rushing from one hotel to the next, as I tried to decide between incredible When I decided not to attend the 2009 convention, then, I was as disappointed by my missing out on what I suspected would be both a great intellectual feast and a fabulous party.

Although any notoriety I was enjoying in March 2010 had come my way primarily by my not attending the conference, I knew that I could pull a(n accidental) stunt like that once. So I began submitting paper proposals with the hope that I could speak in this year’s program. Others kindly invited me to participate in round tables that they were organizing. And after Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, wrote to threaten (in a tongue-in-cheek manner) to not accept my panels unless I showed her an airplane receipt guaranteeing I would be at the 2011 convention, I learned that I would have the chance to speak on two different panels. I’ll blog the talks from those panels in a day or so, but I wanted to quickly recap some of what my MLA looked like this year–to the best that I can recall, at least.

Thursday

  • On arriving at the JW Marriott on Thursday morning, I found myself riding on an escalator behind someone who looked very familiar. He seemed to have noticed me and was looking quizzically at me as well. Neither of us had yet found name tag holders. Right before I could speak, he turned fully to me and said, “Excuse me, are you Brian Croxall? I’m Michael Bérubé.” This is not how you expect your conversation to go with the Second Vice President of the MLA. He was very kind and asked about my new job.
  • I started Thursday with some media training that I and approximately 20 other people (including many ProfHackers had been invited to. Rosemary Feal and Mark Aurigemma provided two hours of helpful and revealing strategies for how faculty can effectively interact with journalists. Expect a ProfHacker post soon on the subject from myself or one of my colleagues.
  • For the very first session of the MLA, I attended a panel on labor in the digital humanities (DH), which featured Tanya Clement, Mark Childs, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Amanda French, Carl Stahmer, with William Thompson presiding. The conversations ranged from debating the extent to which non-programmers can really expect to learn code well enough to contribute to a project (Carl said no), to the degradation of digital humanities projects due to the evaporation of labor after a grant ends, to Amanda French’s commonsense (and therefore all the more radical) suggestion that funds from grants be used in part to fund the training of graduate students so they can learn basic programming concepts and therefore become more able to communicate with their DH collaborators. Tanya Clement even read a portion of the whitepaper that she and Doug Reside have been preparing for the upcoming, NEH-funded Off the Tracks meeting that seeks to limn out pathways for DH scholar-programmers (their term, which she pointed out is contentious). At the end of this panel, I was very happy to get to meet Richard Grusin for the first time. His (and Jay David Bolter’s) book Remediation had a profound effect on my dissertation. This, by the way, is what’s cool about the MLA, in case you missed it.
  • Directly after this panel, Natalie M. Houston, Jason Jones, George Williams, and myself got to speak about hacking the profession on a ProfHacker-organized and -themed panel. Natalie’s posted her talk, and I’ll put mine up shortly. I really enjoyed the Q&A, which featured tales of poems about burritos and George regaling us with his boxing days. In this panel, I got to meet Kathy Harris for the first time—someone with whom I was able to collaborate a bit on a timeline— and Bill “Thomas H. Benton” Pannapacker, who wrote a blog post on The Chronicle of Higher Education about the panel.
  • Following a one-panel interlude where I’m afraid I zoned out more than anything, having hit a wall, I had my second (and final) speaking engagement. The “New Tools, Hard Times” panel featured Marc Bousquet, Rosemary Feal, Marilee Lindemann, Chris Newfield, and myself talking about the use of social media in the academy in hard times. I will simply say that I was floored to be on this panel with these people. My talk is forthcoming, but Marilee has posted hers and Chris has already blogged his reflections on the panel. And if you want to read the VERY lively tweetstream for the session, look at the hashtag archive for #newtools. During Q&A we were all happy that questions were coming in from people who were not at the convention and were asking about issues of anonymity in the academy. Perhaps the best question came from Matt Kirschenbaum who wondered whether work in social media was actually counterproductive at a point as it too often ends up being uncounted by the academy. This is a good question to keep in mind, but I appreciate the fact that my being presently off the tenure track means that I don’t have to worry as much about whether my contributions online count. Or in other words, while I haven’t grabbed the brass ring of the tenure-track job, I do get to exercise a tremendous amount of freedom in how I spend my energies and time. It’s kind of ironic, then, that I have some academic freedom that the tenured and especially the tenure-track faculty lack.
  • At this point, I hit a wall, but had a fabulous dinner—and even better conversation—at Cork Bar.
    This was eventually followed by some night caps (orange juice for me!) with friends. And Rosemary Feal introduced me to Gerald Graff.

Friday

  • Friday morning started early with a show-and-tell round table of new digital projects. As I tweeted, I was most taken in by some of the new visualizations (still in beta, unfortunately) that John Walsh of The Swinburne Project demonstrated and “For Better For Verse,” an interactive tool for teaching scansion and prosody, which is headed up by Herbert Tucker of UVa. Then I got a personal tutorial on NINES and 18thConnect from Laura Mandell.
  • I then took in a panel where Ryan Cordell presented on his work on Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad.” Ryan’s work is fascinating, but even more was his ability to present effectively. He really taught the audience about his work, rather than reading directly from the page. He made it plain that even more traditional talks can be shifted from what is supposed to be the norm at the MLA. I hope that Rosemary Feal really does ask him to do a video about effective presentations.
  • I then hurried over to the book exhibit. It’s always fascinating to see what new books are coming out (not to mention how much money I can save). But the real draw this year was the Narrating Lives project, which participated in the larger theme of the conference established by MLA President Sidonie Smith. There wasn’t a line when I arrived, so I was quickly briefed and waivered, and I recorded a one-minute video that talked about why I look forward to the yearly MLA and what made me go to graduate school in literature and language.

    (You can tell from my presentation that the media training hadn’t quite sunk in yet.) All in all, I’m really excited that the MLA is looking for such user-generated content. And I’m even more thrilled that Kathi Berens recorded two videos along the theme of “It Gets Better,” talking to those—like her— that are not on the tenure track.
  • Next on the schedule was a session on “The History and Future of the Digital Humanities,” which featured Kathy Harris, Alan Liu, Tara McPherson, Steve Ramsay, and Bethany Nowviskie (who, due to illness, was channeled by Steve), and Brett Bobley of the NEH, with Kathleen Fitzpatrick chairing (all links are to either the speaker’s blogged talk or to their Twitter account). The speakers each had about 3 minutes to present their perspective on the Digital Humanities. Perhaps most electric was Steve’s polemic (which appears to be his public persona and one which he performs exceptionally) in which he considered “Who’s In an Who’s Out,” a subject that seems to come up frequently in DH. He suggested that knowing how to code is all but required in DH and presented a definition of DH: it’s “about building things.” Steve has blogged his reflections on the panel, and they’re worth reading. Personally, I very much like his definition of building as requisite to DH. I’d suggest that it doesn’t have to be limited to one’s research, however, since I think DH can happen in pedagogy just as well as research. (See Chris Forster on this important point.) But during the discussion, Alan Liu argued that he’s not so much a builder as someone who steals or is a bricoleur, and I think that that’s possibly closer to my vision of myself than one of a builder. It was a very good conversation, but one that I also felt I’ve heard a lot recently, either in person or in the blogosphere about just what DH is. In the end, I wonder to what extent these questions really come down to wondering about how we should train the current generation of graduate students. After all, if we are to prepare people for DH positions, we need to make sure they will be able to have the skills that programs will be looking for. But I don’t know if we’ll ever get as specific in training as we are in breadth requirements for PhDs. The current (and previous) generation of DH practitioners seem to all have taken idiosyncratic paths, and that’s one of the things that makes the community vibrant. I’d hate to lose that (although I recognize that not everyone has the time or opportunity to pursue these paths). Perhaps this is why we keep talking about it. If you want to see more of the conversation, look at the archive for the hashtag #309. One of the things that I found most interesting about this panel was how packed the room was: standing room only, and it was clear that there were a lot of people there who simply wanted to learn about what the digital humanities were. Due to all reports I saw from last year’s MLA, the digital humanities sessions in 2009 were also packed, but were in much smaller rooms. This year saw DH given larger space, but it still wasn’t sufficient. I saw MLA staffers counting attendance during this session, and I think it’s reasonable to expect that we’ll see still bigger rooms in 2012.
  • After the DH History and Future panel, I stayed put for a session on “The Open Professoriate” (Twitter hashtag #openprof) featuring Samuel Cohen, Amanda French, Dave Parry, Mark Sample, and Erin Templeton, with Matt Gold chairing. At the moment, only Amanda has blogged her talk, but I am sure that we’ll see more of the talks made available soon given that the openness of faculty’s research, teaching, and lives was the subject of the day. The Q&A was again very lively, and I asked the panel to what extent we should count on large corporations such as Google or Twitter to have our interests of openness at heart. It’s not that they are necessarily more or less profit-driven than the universities most of us work for, but I think that many of us—myself certainly included—forget to consider that we are creating value for the web companies that we contribute to with our searches and discussions. Not that this makes me want to be less open; after all, I’d rather have accessibility. But we need to be aware of everyone with whom we’re consorting in the quest toward openness. I was glad to see the MLA embrace conversations suh as these as well as the standard literary discussions.
  • I stuck to the same room for one more talk, and got to hear Stanford’s Dan Edelstein talk about the mapping of Enlightenment correspondence in the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. The visualizations and the patterns they have been discovering by building a massive archive of early modern correspondence is intriguing and brought the conversation from the meta level of the #309 panel back to the practical. Fascinating work and well worth following.
  • Following Dan’s talk, I moved to the Electronic Literature Organization‘s meetup, where I caught up with Zach Whalen and Kari Kraus and met Jentery Sayers and Mark C. Marino for the first time. Again, one of the reasons to attend the MLA in my experience is that everyone is there. And even if you don’t get a lot of time to talk to everyone, simply seeing each other in person helps to make possible new chances for working together or learning about what’s at the bleeding edge of different fields.
  • After a DH-filled dinner of sushi, the final event of the evening was the MLA Tweetup, which Rosemary Feal sponsored. While it will likely not get the press coverage that 2009’s did, it was still nice to see in person many of the people whose tweets we had been reading throughout the first two days of the conference. I’m sure not everyone there was someone that was on Twitter, since it appeared to include some bleed over from the audience for President Sidonie Smith’s keynote address. Still, it was amazing to see so many people there, who were engaged in the Twitter side of the MLA. And the ambience was something to behold:
    Twitter _ @Stephen Ramsay_ At the MLA tweetup. It loo ...-1.jpg

Saturday

  • For my final experience of the MLA, I joined the fun run that Dave Parry had organized for as many MLA participants as were crazy enough to be consider spandex and black turtlenecks at 7am.
    Fun runners gathered en masse. @academicdave & @triproftr... on Twitpic
    Dave and the others at the front of the pack took pity on us and kept it manageable. Fortunately, I had a strategy.
    Twitter _ @Mark Sample_ People who were there_ is ....jpg
    As was the case throughout so much of the MLA this year, it was great to have Rosemary Feal involved. She mentioned before the run how much she appreciated that the run got organized. At the risk of putting words in her mouth, I think she was pleased to see young blood at the MLA. But I also imagine that she enjoys seeing spontaneous organizing taking place: the activities of the underconference.

I don’t want to come off saying that there aren’t any problems at the MLA. There are things that I think can be fixed at the MLA. For one, it would be great to find ways to get those presenting in traditional panel formats (not everything can be pecha kucha, after all) could present rather than read directly from the page. After all, we’re all teachers. Why do we think that we need to communicate to one another in a different mode than we communicate to our students? Second, I think that the MLA can do more to embrace openness. In particular, the MLA should avoid paywalling information related to the conference, such as the program. Part of this trouble is due to the program being published as an issue of PMLA. But it shouldn’t fall to the crowd to hack and republish the simple PDF. If we are in hard times (and boy are we!), then we should be doing everything to make information about ourselves public. How can we expect people to understand what it is that we do in this profession if we don’t let them see what it is we’re discussing? (See Kathi Berens calling for the same openness on her blog.) But these problems are things that we can fix. They aren’t impossible. And on the whole, I’m feeling quite positive about the direction the organization is headed in.

I know that some people think the MLA is stodgy, solipsistic, and stressful. But that’s not my MLA. And I’m glad I was present.

EDITS: Added the photo at the Cork Bar, courtesy of Kathi Berens.

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