The Modern Language Association of America, by way of being one of the largest intellectual institutions in the world, is initiating an innovation at its 2019 convention, by way of being one of the biggest bunfights in the world.
Let me present this idea in the MLA’s own words:
Humanities in Five: A Contest
Scholars present their research in five minutes using language accessible to the general public. No notes, no podium, a timer, and local journalist judges.
There is so much to savour in this little announcement, especially when juxtaposed with the convention’s Presidential Theme: Textual Transactions. The president herself explains: “Textual transactions are the mutually constitutive engagements of human beings, texts, and contexts. Transactions are more than mere interactions, in which separate entities act on one another without being changed at any essential level. In transactions all elements are part of an organic whole and are transformed by their encounters, the way various organisms in an ecosystem shape and are shaped by one another.
“This theme, then, invites us to move beyond simple dichotomies that can limit the ways we think about texts: those we read and write about, those we teach our students, and those we require our students to write. It presents an opportunity to rethink the theoretical and institutional structures that reinforce divisions between the production and consumption of writing, between learning languages and understanding the cultures in which they are embedded.”
Hmmm. What was that again? Five minutes. Language accessible to the general public. No notes. Judged by journalists.
I can hear the speakers now. Um, er, like, y’know . . . The cat sat on the mat. The mat was on the floor. The floor had nails pointing up. The nails spiked the cat through the mat. The cat screeched and died.
That’s some text. There’s a series of transactions. What more could anyone want? Next please . . .
At this point I guess I should back up a little. What, for heaven’s sake, am I doing messing around with the Modern Language Association? Well, it’s an accident really. After my excursion to The Wodehouse Society convention, I got to wondering just how many similar literary groups exist and whether they have conventions. Oh boy! Curiosity can be dangerous. It killed the cat after all . . . yep, the one that sat on the mat.
I consulted Dr Google – as you do – about single-author fandoms and as expected I was presented with a plethora – e.g. the Jane Austin Society (of course), the Evelyn Waugh Society, the Anthony Powell Society, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, the Thoreau Society, the Don De Lillo Society, the Carson McCullers Society etc etc etc. What I didn’t expect to turn up, though, was the Call for Papers website provided by the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania “as a courtesy to the academic community”. I couldn’t go past it. This carries pure gold.
The site invites institutions planning conferences, conventions, seminars, symposiums and any other kind of talk-fest to post invitations to academics, wherever they might be, to submit papers on particular topics to be aired at the various planned conferences, conventions, seminars and symposiums. This led inevitably and inexorably to the Modern Language Association of America, of which, in my abysmal ignorance and to my eternal shame, I had never heard until the moment when I scrolled down the UP site.
At first I dismissed these many hundreds (maybe thousands, because I looked at only a small sample) of postings as not suiting my intention, which was, for the amusement of myself and my vast worldwide following, to skate lightly over a few author fan sites as a hook to discussing the latest activity of the band of serious thinkers at my club , which is to read, as a group, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. (I’ll have to come back to that some other day – after all there’s plenty of time, 12 volumes of it.) But I couldn’t let things go. Some (most?) of the conference subjects revealed in my quick survey were too tempting to my taste in irony, satire and mockery.
I can’t even list all those that took my eye. But what about this one: The Fates of Frankenstein, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh – a two-day conference about “adaptations and appropriations of Shelley’s novel” [on the occasion of its centenary].
Or how about: Death and Celebrity, University of Portsmouth, the posting for which offers quotes by John Milton (“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil”) and Henry Austin Dobson (‘Fame is a food that dead men eat’) – you know the latter, the 19th century English poet and essayist. Of course.
And: Seagull Books’ call for book chapter proposals on Professional Wrestling: Politics and Populism.
Not to mention: The Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on the theme Do You Believe in Magic?: The Narrative Construction of Magical Worlds, Creatures, and Characters – “As is often the case in the examination of the mainstream literary cannon [sic], works incorporating “traditional” magic, Afro-diasporic voodoo and Santeria, and other mystical cosmologies are frequently dismissed as non-literature in an increasingly secular and data-driven world. But by violating the laws of empirical reality, magical narratives challenge the preferred Western emphasis on science to make room for cultural, religious, and social practices inexplicable in scientific terms.”
And then I suppose this had to happen: The Popular Culture Research Group at Liverpool Hope University “is delighted to announce” its eighth annual international conference, Theorising the Popular, which aims, inter alia, “to highlight the intellectual originality, depth and breadth of ‘popular’ disciplines”. Let’s have a conference about conferences.
However, many recent calls for papers were from organisers of proposed sessions at the 2019 Modern Language Association convention. First there was this one: Formal Transactions and the US Empire – “How do transnational and transcultural transactions among literary forms resist the hegemonic, violent and global dominance of the US Empire?” 300-word abstracts and biographies are required by 15 March 2018, so you’d better get cracking.
Down the page a bit (after the Metaphor of the Monster conference) came the one that set me on my course proper: Intertexts of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. “The American Association of Australasian Literary Studies welcomes abstracts for papers that pursue an intertextual approach to any aspect of literature, film, or performance related to Australia or Aotearoa/New Zealand. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to: Indigenous issues, immigration, health and well-being, and Australian identity. Comparative projects with other cultural traditions are also encouraged.” Given I’m fifth-generation (at least) Aussie, I suppose these matters would excite my curiosity. But really it was this that made me click: “Please note that we would like to be included in the MLA theme” . . . and the posting provided a link to the MLA Presidential Theme. I had to know. This is where we came in, folks.
Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association of America boasts more than 24,000 members in 100 countries. According to its website: “In addition to hosting an annual convention and sustaining one of the finest publishing programs in the humanities, the MLA is a leading advocate for the study and teaching of languages and literatures and serves as a clearinghouse for professional resources for teachers and scholars.” The annual convention, the MLA claims, is “the largest scholarly meeting in the humanities” and brings together thousands – more than 10,000 in some years – of professors and pedagogues to discuss new research, participate in workshops and, oh yes, build their professional networks.
The 2019 convention will be held in Chicago from 3 to 6 January (the 2018 event was in a blizzard-bound New York City, which curbed everyone’s enthusiasm not a little, and served as a perfect metaphor). As you know, I was briefly in Chicago last October and I naturally wondered where this huge invasion would be accommodated. I looked and looked on the website but nowhere could I find any mention of a venue. Maybe they wanted to keep it secret, given the rancour in academia over little disputes such as censorship, no-platforming, women’s discontents and slaughter of the innocents. The MLA itself has been hit by mass resignations over its apparent refusal to join the anti-Israel putsch. After all, I thought, they wouldn’t want to risk a repeat showing of the Blues Brothers (or the Democratic Party Convention riot of 1968, or the riots of . . . name a year).
I was wrong, though. The answer is simple – the usual rule kicked in: if you have a choice between a conspiracy and a muck-up, go for the muck-up – the whole damned thing is spread all over town. A writer for the The Chronicle of Higher Education explained in his intro to a recent piece on the decline of the convention’s book exhibition: “The Modern Language Association’s annual convention is not so much a conference as a traveling city. For four days each year, more than 5,000 members of one of academe’s best-known scholarly organizations take over a cluster of hotels to hold the largest conference in the humanities and social sciences. Members don the requisite nametags as they attend panels, convene disciplinary groups and subgroups, interview job candidates, bestow awards, and conduct a sometimes-raucous legislative forum, the MLA Delegates’ Assembly.” This might prompt you to recall the explanation of the difference between a conference and a convention that I offered in a story about hie-ing off to Washington for The Wodehouse Society Convention.
Not for the first time in my occasional collisions with academia, I was struck in all this not so much by the cloud-cuckoo-landness of what the dons and their wannabes think about – it’s only what I expect – but by the sheer desperation of many of the topics and attached notes. These people are actually struggling to find something different to talk about and something interesting and/or provocative to say about whatever it is they devise. I suppose the optimistic point of view is analogous to mining: out of the tonnes of dross emerges often enough metal of real worth. It’s a pain, though.
To be utterly fair, and with my tongue nowhere near my cheek, the MLA president, the very distinguished Professor Anne Ruggles Gere, seems to recognise this kind of layman’s frustration. In her President’s Theme letter introducing the 2019 convention, after explaining textual transactions, she writes: “. . . many of us are citizens of a nation that does not always understand or value our work. The theme of textual transactions also invites questions about two ways in which we read our own writing: by focusing on what we have written – testing it against our evolving purpose – and by considering the text from the perspective of potential readers. The latter speaks to considerations of how, and if, we communicate with the public. Keeping that public in mind and recognizing that our work is not always legible to colleagues in our capacious association, this call for proposals also invites attention to the means by which we share our ideas with one another.” She also refers to “the value the MLA places on careful thought and on precise, aesthetically pleasing language”.
Prof. Gere urges convention-goers to pay attention to the Humanities in Five session. I hope there’s a queue of potential lecturers snaking down the street, all eagerly pushing their way into the hall to provide five minutes-worth of “precise, aesthetically pleasing language” that the old hacks like myself who have been recruited to judge them don’t have to translate into English for the hoi-polloi.
The indicated politics and polemics, fairies and monsters don’t give me much confidence, however. One other special session is to be held on the legacy of a trans-sexual luminary and his/her narration of “trans embodiment. Topics may include: trans monstrosities; autoethnography; transgothic; somatechnics; diffraction; trans science/fiction”. No, it’s a mystery to me too.
Simply from a practical point of view the challenge to de-jargon this kind of stuff in five minutes is immense. The rule of thumb for the length of speeches is 100 words per minute, more or less, so that means the Humanities in Five lecturers, speaking without notes (or, I assume, without PowerPoint presentations) have to confine their thoughts to 500 words. That’s about what you get on an A4 page of single-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman typing.
What I haven’t told you is this: the call for proposals for Humanities in Five presentations seeks abstracts of 300 words. Abstracts!
Now look, I know I shouldn’t mock academic follies. It’s not sporting to bang away at sitting ducks. But really . . . as I always say, if you get a chance at a cheap shot, don’t miss.