Conference Man Returns to the MLA

January 31, 2005

Why does the Modern Language Association convention have this strange power over so many of us? I don't like going, but for some reason I have not missed one in a dozen years.

This year's convention was in Philadelphia, and once there, as in past years, I assumed my secret identity as the academic superhero Conference Man, who becomes invisible when he places the plastic tag with his name and affiliation in the pocket of his brown tweed sport coat from Land's End.

Unseen, I wandered the corridors, conference rooms, and cash bars. Perhaps I stood next to you and you did not see me. But I was watching and listening. At one point, I spotted the most celebrated English professor of the moment and sat down nearby:

  • Up-and-Comer: "Great to see you." (Said with a broad smile and gruff casualness meant to imply equality.) "Congratulations! You're everywhere these days."

  • Eminence: "Yes, I am compelled to wax voluble on topics about which I have almost no knowledge." (Delivered with an ironic smile at Up-and-Comer's presumption and an edge of insincere self-deprecation.) "And the food is loathsome."

  • Former Eminence: "Helloooooooo! So good to see you." (He's been lurking at some distance, and approaches Eminence with arms spread. His tone is one of exaggerated warmth.) "At least the first-class passengers made it here with their luggage." (Both laugh loudly. Everyone sees them and pretends not to.)

But why continue? It is enough to say the calibrated displays of enthusiasm and formulaic banter continued beyond the point of even sociological interest. Yadda, yadda. ... Everyone is excessively busy (as a result of being ever so popular), and the lower orders still provide inferior service.

Meanwhile, a young woman in a black skirt with frighteningly pointy knee-high boots, walks by, speaking on her cell phone: "I just gave my talk. I kicked ass! But there were only, like, six people in the audience."

It was then that I remembered my own soon-to-be presented paper. I had no intention of kicking anyone with my cap-toed oxfords, but hoped people would show up and listen. I always go to the lecture room ahead of time to estimate the possible size of the audience. It was a big room this time, and I removed the nametag from my pocket, hung it back around my neck, and prepared to make an appearance.

At the appointed hour, only about 10 people were in the audience. I tried to scale down my language -- which had been composed for a much larger group -- by taking out the more oratorical constructions and the broader attempts at humor. I added a few impromptu remarks that mostly fell flat. Blah, blah, blah. ... Everyone had heard a talk like mine before, but I had no professional language with which I could say something unexpected.

My speech was winding down, and, as my mind drifted back into the present, I tried to inject some humor and warmth into my final comments. The audience was gratified to know by my tone that I was concluding.

As the 10 people applauded politely, I remember the look of one woman whose scowl seemed so deep that she reminded me of a goblin from the Rankin/Bass animated-film version of The Hobbit.

And then it was over. I had been worrying about this talk -- as I always do -- for about three months. Still, I was grateful to have had the chance to meet my fellow panelists and one or two people in the audience. I immediately put my nametag back in my pocket, as did the others, and we left the convention to have dinner and talk. My performance was nearly pointless but for the connection it facilitated with a handful of people in one of my tiny scholarly subfields.

The next day I attended a panel on which a group of celebrity scholars made pronouncements on the future of the humanities. The room was packed with people expecting the latest marching orders toward the Next Big Thing: "What about globalization?" "Queer studies is still big?" "That's passé; disability rules!" "Yeah, right, all of that's so 30 minutes ago. Stanley Fish says it's going to be religion."

But there was nothing unexpected forthcoming from the celebrity scholars, just reaffirmation of the status quo. One of them boldly lamented that there is simply too much conformity among the younger generation of academics. "Where have all the Young Turks gone?" he asked.

I remembered my younger self being afraid to meet with anyone without having studied their publications in order to know their prejudices in advance. Most professors did not really expect detailed knowledge of their work and conformity with all of their beliefs, but I was terrified by the power they had over my life.

Anxious conformity is drilled into many graduate students much the way that soldiers are trained to march in formation. Professors don't shout obscenities at their students like Marine Corps NCO's, but every little professorial gesture and comment can become the topic of paranoid speculation by unemployed people who feel their futures hanging by a thread.

Never mind the dearth of maverick thoughts in the humanities; one just has to look at clothing choices to know that something is amiss at the MLA. Is there any place on earth with more men wearing black plastic glasses like Daniel Libeskind's?

On the last day of the convention, I went to a well-attended panel featuring the editors of a high-prestige scholarly journal. They tended to present themselves as the heroic displacers of the previous establishment, not recognizing that they had succeeded them in all but gender, race, and sexual orientation. Yes, they had upturned the old orthodoxies, but did they not also continue the tradition of publishing their friends and the students of their friends, who easily revealed themselves by the use of topics, code words, and citations? They called this "joining the conversation."

There's no need to invoke Lord Acton here on the tendency of power to corrupt. All of this is only to say that the leading figures of our profession are "all too human." They would not have risen to their positions of eminence without some egotism and stubbornness to go with their ideological convictions. They are often good haters with whom people fear to disagree.

Of course, those qualities, nurtured in a self-enclosed world of allies and imitators, have made it difficult for them to anticipate -- or even acknowledge -- the larger changes that will eventually displace them.

Sitting in that audience, I realized that something had changed since the first MLA convention I attended back in the early 90s. There were more than 200 people in that ballroom, but there were fewer affirmative hums and head bobs than I had witnessed in the past.

Had these speakers ceased to represent the expansion of opportunities beyond the old establishment? They seemed imprisoned by the grudges of an outdated culture war. There were some audible sighs at points when the speakers paused for spontaneous applause. I heard someone mutter, "Meet the new boss."

What did these speakers have to do with the majority of teachers in higher education who struggle with the attrition of tenure, elimination of benefits, larger classes, decaying buildings, and poorly prepared students?

Only one person on the panel, a student of one of the senior editors and a member of my generational cohort, acknowledged with the customary humility of the post-boomer academic that she constantly worried about her "blindness to her own blindnesses." She was the only one for whom I applauded more than politely.

Many academics feel it's not safe to talk about professional issues such as these in an open way. Deviations from conventional pieties are seldom spoken at conventions; one fears being overhead by the wrong person. But discontent is easily found on the Internet.

One writer, "Chris," commenting on the Web log of Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University, summed up the unsaid feeling that permeates every recent MLA convention like toxic gas: "Academics tend to be on the left right up until their own security and status is threatened -- by the outcry of their own class of homeless -- and then they become bourgeois to the core: please, Mr. Giuliani, can't you do something to get rid of these people, they're not very pretty to look at, and they intrude upon our cocktail parties."

So maybe "Chris" exaggerates the situation. Since the late 90s at least, a good many people in the MLA have stepped forward to acknowledge the unfairness of the current academic labor system, and some of us are making good faith, if fruitless, efforts to improve the situation. Nevertheless, it is worth recognizing that such exaggerations express an emotional truth that has been building up for a long time: "We are two professions."

For some reason, every year I visit the "Scary Place," where hundreds of candidates are interviewing for a dwindling number of positions. "The Pit" reminds me of how very fortunate I am to have a tenure-track job and that only a little luck separates me from "Chris."

I didn't see anyone in the Pit that I knew this year, and, after a few minutes, I went to the men's room to collect myself and decide where to go next. As I washed my hands, I overheard someone vomiting in one of the stalls behind me. Conference Man saw his own younger face in the mirror. He wished he could say something reassuring the man in the stall. But his words would probably be misinterpreted.

Looking back, I understand why job seekers, hiring committees, and members of the MLA governance have to appear at the convention year after year. But what about the rest of us? We're all decent and humane people, right? Why should any of us care about the MLA? Why should we permit our perceptions of the MLA's values -- whatever they are -- to define the limits of our professional aspirations? There's a whole world of readers and students that want what many of us have to offer -- an enormous, varied population of people who have never even heard of the MLA.

It seems clear -- to Conference Man at least -- that the MLA, with all of its extremes, is not the best place to nurture the careers of young academics. The stresses induced by the MLA cause us to perceive one another as monsters sometimes. Perhaps we are monsters (or at least weirdly distorted homunculi), but the MLA is an annual ordeal though which we are all, at present, obliged to pass.

Still, if you obtain a foothold in the profession, it's worth remembering that there are hundreds of small gatherings where people with common interests can see one another and commiserate on the horrors of big conferences. The fact that PMLA advertises them is evidence that, in some respects, impersonal institutions can provide services that compensate, at least partly, for painful pathologies to which they sometimes contribute.

And, sometimes, even the MLA convention can facilitate relationships between people who otherwise might not meet so frequently. I always run into a few friends who can see me, even when my nametag is in my pocket. Perhaps it's wrong to wish for any more than that from a big academic conference.

Maybe that is why Conference Man hasn't missed an MLA convention since he started graduate school. But I think he would prefer to stay away for a while, if he possibly can. He will continue writing on topics that interest him. He will continue attending the smaller conferences. He will stay in touch with friends and colleagues. And, with any luck, next year he will spend the holidays, for once, with his family.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at