Things are getting a bit under my skin right now. Maybe it’s exhaustion; yesterday’s travel went as smoothly as it possibly could, with some real cushiness along the way, but it was still a long day, and the time zone change is kicking my butt. I’m prone to being a bit crankier than usual, it’s clear.

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.

3 thoughts on “<rant>

  1. sounds to me like all that reverb posting is working to good effect – you’re all “be the change you want to see in the world,” to which I say sing out sister. It’s always easier to bitch than to work for change and academics (self included) are addicted to our so-called “free time” (probably bc the vast majority of us are underpaid, so the only true perk of the job is the schedule) – so giving up that time to work–with focus and productivity–on making change happen…well, that’s just way less fun than complaining and making bitter jokes about “administration” and “institutions.” Further, as someone who did administrative work for any number of years (in combination with teaching), I resist the idea that administration = dark side. AND (sorry, my own rant now occupying your comments space) I’ve seen genuinely awful administrators, the likes of which don’t exist in too many places (I hope); it is my experience that often those who complain about “evil administrators” have very little real experience what what bad administration looks like–instead, they’re whining in the wilderness of their 2/2 jobs and ignoring the darkness engulfing those who teach 4/4, with deans who insist that only the bottom line matters–so stuff the bodies into the classroom willy-nilly.
    whew. sorry. and I’m not even AT the mla!

  2. Very profound stuff like usual. As someone in my first year as chair, which I took because there was no one else to do it (I am in a department with only two tenured faculty, and the other one directs the university honors program). But I have learned a lot this year about how things work. Some of it has disturbed me, and some of it has enlightened me. I think it’s fantastic knowledge about my career/job that I could get no other way.

    And I have to admit that part of what bugs me about MLA is that it feels very high-schoolish to me (like much of academia). I have only gone twice, and it felt very cliquish, which is fine to a certain level, but that can cross a line into making others feel excluded. Like everyone who doesn’t tweet about it isn’t worth interacting with or meeting up with. Or like anyone not at the bar at a certain time is some kind of loser. Or if you’re not teaching at a certain kind of school. I have gotten to the point where I just don’t go to large conferences anymore, or rarely. To be fair to MLA, many big, organizational conferences feel like that, like the scan of your nametag is done to put you into a group of being worthy of time or not.

    Though, my feelings about MLA might be tempered by the last time I was there and had several people look at my nametag and say, “Oh, I applied for your job.” I never knew how to respond to that.

  3. I’m one of those you mention who hasn’t been to the MLA in more than a decade. I am looking forward to the experience. Digital humanities didn’t exist when I last attended MLA during graduate school. Rosemary Feal is the only MLA official with whom I’ve had any contact. It’s evident she’s working hard to move this massive convention toward technologies and mindsets that promote sharing between fields and among people.

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