That said, there are a few common threads in the ways that academics talk to one another about the profession that often drive me up a tree (weird idiom, that), and they’re getting to me worse than usual right now.
One of these is the “academic administration = dark side” motif. There are a whole range of valid critiques to be launched at the administrative bloat that most institutions have undergone in the last couple of decades, and it’s certainly true that many of those administrations have often fostered, if not wholly created, adversarial relationships with the faculty. But the suggestion that a faculty member who agrees to serve as chair or who moves into a deanly position has automatically “gone over to the dark side” just irritates the hell out of me. There are jobs at the interface of the faculty and the administration that simply have to be done, and if good people either don’t want to do those jobs or, having elected to do those jobs get alienated from the faculty by being told that they’ve become part of the evil empire — well, then we deserve the bad administration that we get.
Another of these threads, and the precipitating reason for this rant, is the annual round of “MLA as circle of hell” griping. There are absolutely some horrific aspects of the MLA experience, to be sure. The job market experience is a miserable one, even at the best of times, and these are clearly not that. And the combination of the job seekers’ anxiety and the superstars’ aura produces a kind of miasma of despair that hangs over the hotel lobbies, clogs the elevators, and drives everyone into the bars.
I get that. I really do. But I’ve also had some of the most amazing conference experiences of my life at the MLA, and automatically equating the conference with its most painful aspects can only result in a most counterproductive form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe that the MLA is a miserable experience thoroughly enough and you’re bound to have a miserable experience.
Even more, thoughtlessly engaging in the kinds of organizational trash-talking that in fact inherit a great deal from the “administration = dark side” motif — the MLA as an organization is somehow malign, and its staff working against our interests as scholars and teachers — is both unfair and ignorant. I’ve served for the last year and a half on an extremely labor-intensive MLA committee, and I’ve also done a bit of informal consulting with the organization and its staff over the last few months. And I’ve been consistently impressed by several things: the degree to which the staff attempts to put the expressed needs of the membership first; the incredible poise and generosity of the staff under direct confrontation by some genuinely assholish members of the organization; the real flexibility of the organization when presented with concretely articulated desire for change.
All of this goes to say that both the conference and the organization are precisely what we make of it. Some folks have argued that the conference would be much improved by separating it from the job market; the MLA is not only not opposed to such an idea, but is actively listening to suggestions, and thinking in an active way about what the conference will become when interviews go the inevitable video-conference way of things. Some of us griped a lot about the lack of internet connectivity at last year’s conference; those concerns got passed through committee channels, and the MLA has committed to providing wireless access on a test basis for the next two years. Some people have complained about the incredible tedium of paper-reading sessions, and the MLA has responded by actively promoting innovative modes of presentation.
That last, however, is evidence of our own responsibility for making the conference what it is: the organization has had a real uphill battle in getting scholars to take on those innovative modes. We claim to hate the way things are, and then we cling, kicking and scratching, to the status quo.
So: if you haven’t come to the MLA for years because you believe it to be a nightmarish experience, you might rethink that; the conference isn’t at all what it used to be.
And: if you have been to the last few MLAs and aren’t seeing the changes you’d like to see in the conference, you might figure out how you can make those changes happen, instead of simply complaining.
But in any case, I would really like the MLA-bashing to cease. The conference is imperfect, but it’s what we make of it. And given all the bitching that we do about it, it’s little wonder that the mainstream media finds the conference ridiculous enough to write about every year: we give them all the ammunition they could possibly need.