My take on MLA12

During December and January, I made the long sojourn from London to Seattle. While taking the time to appreciate the Space Needle, the Fremont Troll, Pike Place Market, and copious amounts of coffee, my main reason for the transatlantic journey was to attend the annual MLA convention. I’ve never been to Seattle, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see a new city and also take in my first ever MLA.

So…how was it?

My points of reference when it comes to academic conferences are exclusively English; the last one in which I gave a paper was the excellent Villains and Villainy conference run by interdisciplinary.net and held at Mansfield College, Oxford.

Around 20 academics from around the world (Japan, USA, Slovenia, Poland, Canada, Ireland, the list goes on) and various disciplines (sociology, cosmology, psychology, creative writing, literature, film, law…) met to discuss the implications surrounding concepts of villainy in their given field. It was an intimate affair in grandiose surroundings – all turrets and ancient portraits and hand-stitched cushions on hand-carved ornate wooden chairs. The 20 of us each gave papers spaced out over two whole days.

20 people. 20 papers. 2 days.

The MLA convention?

8,000+ people. 700 sessions, each with multiple presenters. 4 days.

For a man from a small island on the periphery of a not-so-big continent, this was quite daunting. How on earth do you make any sort of impact among the masses? How does anyone get anything done amid the maelstrom of information swirling about in such an academic storm?

I had given myself a minor advantage: familiarity with my surroundings. I arrived at the Sheraton (the headquarters for the MLA) on the 29th of December, on the next day taking a trip up to Vancouver to see an uncle, enjoying the abundant natural beauty on the train journey between the two cities. We were back in time to enjoy the New Year’s fireworks at the Space Needle. Over the next few days before the convention rolled into town on the 4th, I got my bearings within the downtown area; my hotel room began to feel more like an apartment. Coffee replaced tea as the daily source of caffeine. Seattle became a comfortable fit.

But when the hordes came rolling in, it turned out that familiarity created only a small buffer. I still needed to find my voice, my place, and my footing.

I came to realise the importance Twitter would play in my own personal MLA. Meeting the people I’d shared tweets with became a priority, if only to put a face and a voice to the various avatars and twitter handles. It also served as a further projection of my voice – snippets of papers I considered important, considerations of strengths & weaknesses observed. It gave me a platform to integrate with what stands as probably the most welcoming community at the MLA – those engaged in DH academia.

How welcoming are they? Well, I’m not a Digital Humanist. I’m just a guy who uses Twitter and Facebook, and integrates technology into his classroom when it makes sense (and when I can factor the time to plan how I’m going to do so). I can’t code; I don’t have the inside scoop on the latest programs and software; I have little knowledge of projects aimed at promoting and encouraging engagement with Digital Humanities.

I am, more, a Humanist in a digital age: of a generation where I have two lives, real and virtual (ignore Baudrillard, I mean in the straightforward sense). If my life is engaged in the two spheres, I don’t see why my academic endeavour should be any different. So while I ride some of the same avenues as the DH crowd, I do so on a bicycle while they’re cruising in sports cars. Oh, and a lot of the time I have no idea where I’m going.

Did that matter to them?

In a word, no. They didn’t turn their noses up at what I had to say. They didn’t exclude me from their work, or their ideas, or their social circles. Knowing or spending time with me, I would imagine, would be of very little professional or academic benefit to them, and yet they did so. This should put all you shy people at ease in regard to the often repeated criticism of the MLA convention – that people only mingle with those they need to impress/connect with. In my experience, that simply isn’t true – especially in relation to the DH community.

Perhaps more surprising to some would be the accessibility and welcoming nature of the MLA organisation itself – I met Kathleen Fitzpatrick (the director of scholarly communication) several times; I even got to have a long conversation with MLA president Russell Berman on Friday night – which, given the chasm of experience and standing between us as academics, is a mark of the quality of the man. We didn’t discuss jobs or people, we talked about the ideas playing fundamental roles in education today. It was a good chat, and it struck me that he must have incredible intellectual tenacity – we were talking at around 10 p.m., an hour after his presidential address, and after people had been (it seemed to me) talking at him for the hour passed.

I also had the opportunity to talk with executive director Rosemary G. Feal a whole day before the convention began. Alas, fear and panic beset me. This is a problem with the real/virtual divide: the Twitter evidence of what Prof. Feal looks like isn’t conclusive, hence my reticence to approach her. The opportunity passed, it turned out it was her, and I never got another chance. That conversation will have to wait until Boston.

So the overall nature of the convention was very warm. But maybe you don’t care so much about that, so I’ll move onto the papers themselves. Invariably they were of a decent standard, but I was expecting more pizazz. A lot of the papers were straight, stand-up-and-deliver 20-minute talks. Very few used PowerPoint or YouTube, let alone more sophisticated software, to enliven their presentations. There seemed to be a gulf between DH talks – where there was a very deliberate showcasing of technology’s potential in academia – and those very much outside the DH bubble.

The impression I got was that the rather stale presentation style is on its way out, and that can only be a good thing. The sessions at the MLA should represent the best out there – in terms of stature or potential – and provide an example of how things can (and should) be done. To only cater to one very narrow band of people who can engage with a read paper is to reduce the effectiveness of one’s scholarly pursuit.

What I’d like to see is a merging of what the DH peeps are working on and the research other scholars are conducting. In time, this won’t even be much of a debate. DH will be the mainstream. But for now, it would be good to see the sizable number of academics offering ‘dry’ papers trying a little harder. Their students will expect visual, aural, and digital engagement. That is their right; that is the world they inhabit. Not utilizing the environments so natural to them is, to me, a silly way to go about business.

One thing that intrigued me was the difference in points of reference to theory. The vast majority went with Marx, some with Derrida, and a few with Barthes. There was, literally, no mention of Lacan (except for a witty joke Brian Croxall made about jouissance at the Friday night Tweetup), Baudrillard, or Zizek. Given their importance in academic work over here in Europe, I found this surprising (especially given the continued attention paid to the Occupy movement, and Zizek’s prominent connection to these issues).

Of course, with 700 odd sessions, there may have been many mentions of them – it’s just that I wasn’t there. It simply surprised me in some talks when I thought they should have been mentioned (for example, in a paper on the end of the university as an idea, no mention was made of Baudrillard). Perhaps they don’t have the same cultural currency in the States, or maybe they’re out of fashion – I don’t know. It made me reticent to refer to them, for fear of making a point only I might understand/appreciate.

I found the convention to be very fulfilling, as a person and an intellectual. I made friends, talked about ideas, and gained knowledge of new and exciting areas of thought. I was made to feel part of an organization so vast as to be easily the biggest I have entered.

Seattle provided the perfect setting for an intriguing entity to conduct its annual business of congregation, merging new and old, bringing disparate elements together, forging new and promising land in uncertain times. I was happy to be there, in it, a part of the fiber of MLA12.

I do have one question, though.

Why do they play the Beatles so much in Seattle?

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