Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Not MLA Post

I'm not going to MLA this week, and I'm very happy about that.

You see, I hate MLA. MLA isn't about intellectual exchange, it's about networking and reconnecting with friends.

The thing is, the best friends I had in grad school are mostly not in TT jobs. None of my undergrad friends went to grad school. So I don't have those folks to see. (I'm guessing of the 28 people who entered in my grad class, maybe half have TT jobs? The best people I knew in grad school, smartest, best teachers, best writers, kindest, etc, don't have TT jobs.)

I've mostly been to MLA in years when I was interviewing, so it's been a while. There are things you notice about MLA behavior, though.

1) The nametag glance: no one at MLA looks at anyone's faces until they've scoped the nametag. The nametag gives everyone a sense of their pecking order, and since it's so angsty what with the job interviews (and interviewers get as exhausted and cranky as can be, too), everyone needs to be able to sneer at someone else for whatever reason. And no one wants to talk to anyone who isn't important to them.

You're first check the name: Do you recognize the name? Do you need to suck up?

Then you check the school: are you interviewing with them? Are they an R1? A CC? Does your school tag outrank their school tag?

(You lose points in a big way here if you're from a flyover state. Everyone sneers at the state my tag shows, and no one is subtle about it.)

2) Everyone's drinking and having conference sex (except me, apparently). MLA has a reputation for hookups. I'm neither a drinking nor a hookup type person. What's gross is the older, upscale men with young grad students. Power play.

3) No one actually goes to listen to the panels unless someone famous is on it or, in the case of famous or crazy people, they hate someone on the panel and want to be rude. Most of the papers are last minute, rushed pieces of crap anyway, so you're not usually missing much. (I admit, I finished a paper at 2am for a 10am panel once. I'm not alone in this.) Count on your fingers the numbers of really good MLA papers you hear in a year, and you won't finish even one hand.

4) No one who asks a question at a panel actually asks a question; instead, "questions" are a time to pontificate at length about your own ideas. These may be brilliant or they may be crazy, but once someone has the floor, watch out.

5) Job interview angst. The whole conference is brimming with it, from arrogant a-holes to terrified and desperate folks, there's a definite odor of angst and desperation. Just thinking about it makes my stomach churn.

And so, while most MLA folks are doing their networking thing, I'm going to read some poetry, maybe some history, work on my syllabus, get some of the snow off my deck, and go donate blood. I hope your MLA is as wonderful as mine will be this year!


  1. oh, ewwww! especially the tag checks, old dudes with young women, and odor of despair.

    my main professional conference is coming up, and usually it is good, although a little overwhelming between the many choices of sessions and the mass of people in attendance.

    the people who use "questions" to pontificate are there, too -- seasoned presenters learn to spot 'em and develop defensive tactics. a presenter can't exactly say, "that is the stupidest goddam thing i've ever heard," so i kind of enjoy seeing a skilled response, redirecting the session to the actual topic.

    happy shoveling!

  2. I'm skipping MLA this year too. I never realized how much MLA gets wrong until I attended a conference that gets it all right.

  3. you're so right about the name-tag glance. and the jockeying for a brush with a Big Name. the only worse conference for these behaviors is AWP, which I don't attend anymore for these very reasons, but amplified shamelessly to epic scale.

  4. MLA sounds a good deal in your description like our big annual Pseudology conference, except for the conference sex: from what I hear, that somehow went the way of the dodo over a decade ago. In particular, once a generational old guard of (apparently) leering, gin-soaked older men retired or died, the whole idea of going to a conference partly to get laid seemed to vanish.

  5. I avoid the MLA when I can, as well (that is, almost always), but if we're ever there at the same time, let's get together and have a fabulous flyover meet-up.

  6. Ooh, AWP...same behavior, different costume. MLA attendees dress mostly in boring black, while many AWP attendees dress more dramatically. I hesitate to stereotype by saying they dress like poets, so I'll say they dress like amateur actors performing the role of the angst-ridden poet whose inner genius is neglected by the masses. AWP attire tends to be much more entertaining than that at MLA.

  7. Anonymous6:06 AM

    I kind of like the ASSA though I didn't feel like going to Denver this winter. I probably should have gone since I'm up for tenure and could use the networking, but I'm kind of burned out on travel and only one of my friends is going.

    I'm guilty of the name-tag check, but I swear it's just so I can match names of papers I've read to faces. I totally chat up people I've never heard of. I'm guilty of, "I love your work!" though.

    I don't *think* there's a whole lot of sex at ASSA, but those old guys have to get their young 3rd and 4th wives from somewhere.

  8. I totally agree about MLA -- and AWP, where the networking angle, I believe, is even worse. Everyone is trying to get to publishers and famous writers (to blurb). I've always heard about the conference hook-up, but never actually seen it in the flesh. I'm very happy to not be going to MLA as well; it wouldn't be snowing there.

  9. My stomach actually turned when you mentioned conference hook-ups. Sigh.

    Anyway... I AM going to MLA, but I'm not "actually" going. That is to say, I reserved a hotel room in case I got an interview, but then, I didn't get any. So my family and I are going to use the hotel room and go have a four-day weekend in L.A. just for kicks. I'm sure that I will feel a little creeped out being around all those dark suits, but since we're likely going to move out of California sometime in the next six months, I figured it would be a good chance to go south for a couple of days and stay in a nice hotel a little cheaper than normal.

    I might get a little depressed about going since I don't have any interviews. But I'm actually planning on avoiding the panels and the people as much as possible. I don't even know if I'll take my name badge with me. Not like anyone wants to talk to me anyway...

  10. Heh. Substitute "AHA" for "MLA," and it's the same deal.

    I agree with everything you say here--but, it's in ELLAYY!!! L.A., babies! City of the Angels!Sunshine, movie stars, the New Getty, and Disneyland!!!

    I wish I were there right now.

  11. Historiann, I'm so sorry, it's been raining in LA...and more on the way.

    Forgive me if I sound a little smug: My annual conference is filled with people who are essentially professional Academic Nice People. Glad to share, happy to see you, delighted to know what you're up to, and the important people *remember YOUR name*. I am not making this up.

  12. I absolutely agree. Everybody is on edge at the MLA. In my field's main conference, LASA (I teach Latin American literature), it's as bad: I've had people not talking to me, after we were introduced by a common acquaintance, because I was not important enough.

  13. I absolutely agree. Everybody is on edge at the MLA. In my field's main conference, LASA (I teach Latin American literature), it's as bad: I've had people not talking to me, after we were introduced by a common acquaintance, because I was not important enough.

  14. I have never heard one good thing about MLA and I am not looking forward to it (except that if I go, that means I have an interview so I guess I would look forward to that). Anyways, the nametag check and hookups=gross.

  15. Have you read Murder at the MLA? It's a fantastic indictment of the conference.