William Pannapacker: Why I Still Attend the MLA Convention

By William Pannapacker

Now that I’m a tenured professor, coming to the MLA convention is an opportunity to reconnect with mentors, colleagues, and friends. It’s a chance to stay in a very nice hotel (the Marriott is wonderful so far) and to join a new scholarly subfield by giving a presentation.

When you have a good job, an expense account, an accumulation of relationships, and you’re not under strain of interviewing, the MLA conference can be an enormously rewarding experience, even in the midst of “hard times.”

Nevertheless, I think this year’s MLA convention will have fewer attendees than it normally does. There are several obvious reasons that, together, seem like a perfect storm and an indication of things to come:

The weather is nice in Los Angeles (as opposed to Toronto or Chicago), but who really goes to a convention for the weather? I generally never see much besides the airport and the immediate vicinity of the conference hotel.

The real problem is that a West Coast location demands a long flight for a large number of attendees—and flying in the United States has become almost intolerable, particularly in the winter. But even if one has the fortitude for a long flight, there’s a lot less money out there now for academics to travel.

And, with the ongoing decline in the percentage of faculty members on the tenure track (the ones who are likely to have some travel funding), the profession is composed increasingly of adjuncts and graduate students who generally don’t have travel funding or enough personal wealth to come to a conference that’s likely to cost $1,500 or more.

That’s more than many adjuncts make for teaching a whole course. (By the way I recommend Ralph’s grocery store at 645 W. 9th Street as way to cut costs.)

In the past, graduate students and other job-seekers would accept those high costs as necessary to interview for a position. The MLA nearly had a monopoly on the hiring process. But, as Marc Bousquet observed a couple days ago on Brainstorm, financially strained institutions, if they are hiring at all, are less likely to spend $5,000 or more to send a team of faculty members to the MLA convention for first-round interviews.

Of course, the more wealthy and prestigious institutions will continue to send teams and want face-to-face meetings, but it seems likely that, in the near future, most screening interviews will be conducted over the Internet.  The cost issues will trump any dissent about the quality of the process.

So it seems likely that, even with a recovery in academic hiring, the scale of the MLA convention may gradually decline, regardless of where it is held.

I’ve been a critic of the MLA convention in the past.  I’ve never liked the way it encourages hierarchical behavior that makes the widening gulf between the academic haves and have-nots all the more painful and alienating. I’ve never cared much for people reading papers, either, or the posturing that sometimes takes place afterwards. But I will be saddened if the MLA convention fades away or fragments into smaller regional, or topical events.

I’ve been coming to MLA conventions for almost 20 years. My first one was in New York in 1992—my second year of graduate school.  I remember wandering the book fair and seeing the name tags of people whose work I had read. I felt privileged just to stand near them, even if nothing was said. The major panels seemed like rock concerts; it was the age of the academic superstar. Even though I knew no one, and hardly spoke to anyone during the whole four days of the conference, I felt like the MLA was very important: It defined the values of the profession and identified its leaders.

You had to be part of the culture of the MLA if you were going to become a professor. And, in those days, I had more confidence about the future of the profession: My generation was told there would be lots of jobs by the end of the decade, and there was all the time in the world to luxuriate in the “life of the mind.”

I was not yet living with the fear of unemployment, but six years later that was all I could think about. By then the MLA convention was no longer a place to join the intellectual conversation so much as it was a venue for alerting the profession that it was betraying its younger members.

Every year I look at the job candidates and think of how good they are: so polished, smart, and prepared. Most of them deserve jobs, and most will not get one.  It makes me ashamed to have been hired in relatively easier times.

It remains unclear whether the MLA can be a significant force for change in the profession, but it is gratifying to see the extent to which the organization now confronts the difficulties faced by the majority of its members, who can no longer be regarded as people who “just aren’t good enough” for a tenure-track job.

I believe the MLA’s leadership gets it now. The whole conference is dedicated to addressing the challenges faced by our profession, regardless of our subdisciplinary loyalties.  Hopefully, this MLA conference—exclusive as it may be—will help to build more solidarity in our profession.  We are beginning to see ourselves as in this together.

That alone is a good reason to be here.

William Pannapacker is an Associate Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  He is a Chronicle columnist (under the pen name “Thomas H. Benton”), and this is his third year live-blogging the MLA convention.

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