The End of MLAlienation?

My younger self would be surprised that I look forward to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association.

When I started going to the MLA, I was a new graduate student and didn’t know anyone. I wandered around the vast hotel (now mixed up in my memory with The Shining), attended sessions, and perused some books—I was learning a lot about the profession—but said hardly a word to anyone during those four days; it seemed like there was no way to initiate conversation. Everyone was talking in an unfamiliar code.

The conference seemed hierarchical, too, and anxieties about the job market—and the severe cost of attending the event—only compounded what I remember calling “MLAlienation.” I am sure one of the reasons I became engaged with the academic-labor movement toward the end of the 1990s was the desire to belong to a community within the MLA.

A lot has changed in 20 years. For one thing, I am no longer a graduate student with maxed-out credit cards, wondering whether I have a future in the profession. I can eat a meal at a restaurant without fretting like Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  If I go to a panel, there’s a good chance I will know several people in the room, and—just as important—we’ll have something to talk about. We’ll speak the same professional language. Also, as one becomes more established in the profession, it’s easier to initiate conversations, because there is less of the inhibition and falseness that often come from the desire to impress people who are senior to you.

The MLA convention itself has changed a lot, too. For one thing, it’s far more diverse and informal. I vaguely remember the conference’s being a bastion of blue blazers, button-down shirts, and red ties; the radicals wore tweed and turtlenecks, but it all seemed like a homogeneous and exclusive community at the top.  The format has changed as well. Panel discussions are still a wonderful form of professional theater, but they have been supplemented by a variety of other events: poster sessions, roundtables, workshops. There’s greater openness to experimentation.

For example, yesterday I attended an “unconference” session on digital-humanities pedagogy, ably headed by Adeline Koh and Brian Croxall. Online it had begun weeks ago, but the meeting started with about 40 of us, sitting in a circle, pitching proposals for discussion, such as the relationship of the digital humanities to graduate education, MOOCs, Ferpa, role-playing, and composition courses. We voted to determine the most popular topics, then broke into smaller groups and, with gentle prompting, began freewheeling discussions. The results were posted online, but, more important, I met several people for the first time, and so did the others in the group. I knew a few of them already from Twitter.

It’s hard to overstate the value of social media for building relationships in the profession.  Today’s graduate students can arrive with a network of Twitter contacts and relationships built through dialogues on blogs. There’s also a new platform for conversation, called MLA Commons, that was launched just before the convention. So the MLA is increasingly a chance to build professional relationships that were initiated online.

And the barriers to those relationships are lower than ever. Twenty years ago, it felt like one needed to be introduced to someone; now one can just follow people on Twitter, dialogue with them on MLACommons, and introduce oneself at the convention. The hierarchies have leveled considerably; the conversations feel less exclusive; and I think it’s become easier for new members of the profession to feel from the beginning that they belong to the MLA community.

Unfortunately, it’s also the worst of times for the profession. The academic-labor system has not changed since the 90s; in fact, it’s much more exploitative. Graduate students and contingent faculty members—and even many with tenure—are right to be worried about their futures.

It may be small consolation, but I think there is a stronger sense of solidarity than I remember feeling at any time in the past. There isn’t the same need to protest the MLA or the seemingly indifferent elders whom I once thought of like Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.” (I hope the change is not merely a function of gradually turning into one of those tenured elders.)

If there’s one thing I hope to experience at this MLA, it’s confirmation that we—graduate students, contingent faculty members, tenure-stream faculty members, administrators, alternative-academics—are all in this together, that our interests are interlocking, and that we can continue working together even more effectively to preserve the things we all care about.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker.

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