Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Straight Scoop on the MLA Convention

Over at Brainstorm, William Pannapacker, the newest member of the Chronicle's regular cast of blogging pundits, weighs in on this year's meeting of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia. I have been a fan of Pannapacker since he began writing columns in the Chronicle under the name "Thomas Hart Benton." (I think he has been at it for about a decade). I have blogged about two of his more recent pieces here and here.

Pannapacker's "Ghost of MLA Future" offers a comical shot at all those English professors who journey to a major U.S. city every holiday break to read papers about everything under the sun. I have always thought of the people who attend the MLA as the "cool" academics as compared to a lot of the frumpy old men who show up for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. People at the MLA are cutting edge. They talk about "theory." They are up on the latest fashions.

This year's MLA conference included papers on such cool topics as the Coen brothers, comic books, "Fiddler on the Roof," computer games, gay adolescent romance fiction, gender and agency in young adult narratives of teen witches, and even a panel on "rereading Jesus."

But we can trust Pannapacker to cut through all the academic posing and give us the straight scoop on what went on this past week in the City of Brotherly Love. Here is a snippet.

MLA members are easily recognized, like NASCAR Dads. On my way to Philadelphia, I spotted a couple in the Grand Rapids airport, then several more in Detroit. By the time I arrived on Market Street, between Loew's and the Marriott, it was an MLA Mardi Gras, with ID-badge lanyards instead of beads.

Apart from the well-known sumptuary regulations requiring that conference-goers dress primarily in black, white, navy, and gray, there were no obvious fashion trends on parade this year. No spiky shoes; no spiky hair. There were even fewer Foucault-clones: The glasses were less teeny; the heads less shaved. Depending on the panel -- and not just ones hosted by the Radical Caucus -- one could almost detect a proletarian feeling, given the number of blue jeans and old sweaters.

Even so, something about MLA people seems dour, almost hostile, to strangers, even though we are members of the same profession. Without a formal introduction, it's hard to make contact with people; they avoid eye contact and do not return smiles, although both are readily available -- if carefully calibrated -- once you are revealed as someone of importance (i.e., someone with a job at a good school, notable publications, or -- at the bottom of pecking order -- media connections).

One trick for appearing to rank higher in the system is to stride around, head held high, talking loudly on your cell phone. It's even better to walk out, huffily, in the middle of a panel discussion, muttering something about your time being wasted. Be sure to slam the door behind you, but not before people can hear you cackling with derision...

Be sure to read the whole piece.