Monday, January 4, 2010

Are We Really "Playing Mozart on the Titanic"?

At today's Inside Higher Education, Cary Nelson has a provocative essay--"Playing Mozart on the Titanic"--on academic conferences and the job market. Nelson's piece is particularly relevant with the annual meeting of the American Historical Association coming up later this week and Robert Townshend's depressing report on the job market for History Ph.Ds.

The context for Nelson's piece is the recent Philadelphia meeting of the Modern Language Association. (There is also another context, the promotion of his new book, No University is an Island). Nelson describes English professors at MLA conference sessions discussing the "loss of long-term central features of the discipline, from foreign language study to graduate student support to tenure track jobs for new Ph.D's." He thinks that these are helpful and absolutely essential conversations, yet:

...there was also throughout the MLA convention a strong sense of irrelevant business as usual, in the form of innumerable sessions devoted to traditional scholarship. There is a certain poignancy to the orchestra playing Mozart while the Titanic slips beneath the waves: We who are about to die salute our traditional high cultural commitments.

Nelson wants to reorganize conferences such as the MLA so that they "address the state of higher education -- and prepare its members to be effective agents -- in a much more focused, visible, and productive way. Then perhaps other disciplines will follow."

Interesting. Should this be the sole purpose of an annual conference in a humanities-based discipline? If it were, would anyone attend? When pushed, I wonder if humanities-based scholars really care about issues related to the state of the profession. It would seem that most people go to conferences like the MLA and AHA to interview for jobs, pad their vita with a conference presentation, or hang out with friends. But perhaps I am being too cynical.