Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Side Effects of the MLA’s Move to January
According to Inside Higher Ed, the Delegate Assembly has voted to change the date of the MLA, from the last week of December to the first week of January. The change in schedule will not take effect until around 2010.
Obviously this will mean some general logistical changes. Plane fare might be a little cheaper, for instance. And affiliate groups, many of which hold parallel conferences alongside MLA, will have to think creatively to work out scheduling. Inside Higher Ed doesn’t give specifics, but as I understand it the dates are not going to be as fixed as they currently are; instead, the conference will be tethered to the first Thursday after January 1.
But we can expect some more ‘attitudinal’ changes too. Allow me to speculate:
1. Take California. First of all, schools on the quarter system often start on January 2 or 3, and people from those schools are quite possibly not going to be able to come to MLA for the full four days—or at all. Many quarter system schools are located on the west coast, though there are alsp schools elsewhere in the country that also use it (the University of Chicago, for instance). Since folks especially on the west coast (though not those from the semesterly Berkeley) may skip the MLA as a result of the change, the cultural tone of the conference might become even more east coast/upper midwest than it already is. Then again, since so many people who teach at those places are from the east coast originally, it may not really make much of a difference in terms of ‘culture’ if MLA were to lose them. In fact, I suspect the real change might be that the regional MLA for the Pacific schools (PAMLA) might become more important, especially for job interviews.
Alternatively, we might see a pattern of California, Oregon, and Washington people coming in just for a day—to give a talk, or do some interviews—and then heading back.
2. Mood change. Second, the general mood of the conference is likely to change. The end of December means the fall term is still very much in one’s mind: grading, various performance questions ("did I get enough writing done this year?")—not to mention the often emotionally-disorienting holiday season. Though by December those of us teaching 14 week semesters are somewhat exhausted, the currently looming MLA forces you to turn it around and be brilliant (or at least, “brilliant") and energetically professional for a couple of days, even if you would strongly prefer to be on a beach somewhere warm, or at the very least locked up at home with Season 2 of some mindless TV show. Instead of the end-of-the-year, apocalyptic, resentful, but still somehow festive feel of the current MLA, a January MLA is likely to be more calmly proleptic—stoic lit crit “resolutions” for a new year, rather than excessive theoretical manifestoes of frustration directed at what has already passed.
3. Quality. Since people interviewing and giving talks at MLA currently tend to prepare for them in a rush in the last two weeks of December, it’s marginally possible that the quality of both job interviews and the papers presented at the conference will improve with an extra week.
4. Happy comparatists. Since the scholars who work on literature from other parts of the world—from Italy to India—are going to find it easier to travel to those places now (most people will have two full weeks off in December), participants in panels related to those literatures are likely to have a recent physical memory of visiting those places when they come to the conference. Comparatists will have that happy, “I was just speaking French with people in Paris, yesterday!” look on their faces. On the other hand, people traveling just before MLA might end up spending their entire time abroad worrying about job interviews and paper(s) needing to be written. All in all, however, I think the change will be a beneficial one.
5. No More “Kooky MLA” pieces in the Times. I think the change to January is also probably going to be the death-knell of the much-lamented “Wacky, Sex-Obsessed English Professors Are In Town This Week, and Their Papers Have Scandalous Titles That Will Amuse You" article that local newspapers often carry. While the end of December is a dead news week, the first week of January tends to be more lively. Most people—except for academics—are already back at the office, and editors will have bigger stories to assign. The MLA might come to seem more like other academic conventions. Which is to say, not particularly newsworthy.
Then again, the tradition of such articles might already be ending. This year, the only Philadelphia Inquirer coverage I could find was a rather non-sensationalist piece called “Poetry, Creative Writing are Hot," which focused on the modest uptick in the number of jobs listed this year. Susan Snyder did, however, sneak a little jab about paper titles into the piece: “Organizers have identified poetry as a major theme this year, but the convention, as usual, also offers talks on offbeat topics such as ‘Evil’ and ‘Sexual Norms in Trastamaran Spain.’” Hardly a pinprick.
For the sake of argument:
The MLA is a stupid conference without the intellectual depth or rigor of conferences in specialized fields or topics. It should be transformed into a two day job fair for job seekers. Scholars with interviews should not have to pay to attend the conference; any costs should be swallowed by the institutions asking scholars to attend for interviews.
Luther, one small point—if you’re just there for interviews you don’t have to register even at present. Those folks in the yellow jackets checking badges are not stopping you from going to suites in the ‘towers’ parts of the conference hotels to meet your destiny.
The exceptions might be for interviews that are conducted in the actual job center of the MLA. But I’ve never actually gone there, so I’m not sure.
As for your other point, yes, but shallowness sometimes has its uses. At this MLA I randomly walked into panels on things like “War Narratives in Arabic Literature” and “The Influences of Leslie Fiedler” really just to sample people’s intellectual wares. That’s only possible at a centralized event like MLA.
I was at the meeting during the discussion of the date change and was very impressed by the attempts by the Assembly to represent those who couldn’t be present (because of the current dates), but whose voices were heard in the survey. It’s been long enough that we have been hearing jokes about how MLA members tend to be grateful to get away from their families at the end of December.
Two more details from the meeting:
1) The reason the date change is not effective immediately is due to a weird constitutional problem. The constitution states that MLA must meet during every calendar year. The year of the switchover, it would go from, say, Dec. 2010 to Jan. 2012. Eye-rolling all around, but they have to change the constitution.
2) They have decided to make it a variable date, the first Thursday-Sunday after Jan. 2nd of each year, so that it will interfere as little as possible with the first week of school for those on quarter systems or at schools abroad, which tend to start earlier. This way, even those who are negatively affected by the date change might at least be able to come in by Friday afternoon and stay till Sunday.
Amardeep: You’re right, of course, that you don’t have to register to access interview hotel rooms. But you do have to register to access conference rates at hotels. And MLA tends to take place in expensive cities during the holiday season. I know our hotel room this year would have run several hundred more dollars per night without the conference rate—and Philly is a fairly reasonable city as these things go.
Given that so many job applicants are grad students or adjuncts, all receiving very little money for their work, I think interviews should be done by phone.
Yes, there were guards outside the Actual Job Center checking badges very aggressively. Also, the Actual Job Center is the only place for which MLA will provide sign language interpreters --interview in a hotel suite and you’re on your own.
I’d like to see grad students’ and non-tenure-track instructors’ home institutions foot the bill: Placement Budgets are long overdue.
And I hope that For the Sake of Argument initiates a series of LB comments that all start with the titles of Christopher Hitchens books.