My husband and I alternate spending Christmas with my family in Singapore and his in the US. And it just so happened this year that the Annual MLA Convention and I converged in Boston, near where my in-laws live.
For those unfamiliar with the MLA and its conventions, MLA stands for the ‘Modern Language Association’ – a really massive organisation of scholars and teachers of literature and languages (mainly at the university-level and, it seems, more of literature than language). The annual get-togethers are equally massive, even though only a fraction of the members attend, and in addition to featuring the usual/conventional panels, talks, etc., they are also where universities often conduct job interviews. I am sure there are numerous individuals who thoroughly enjoy MLA. As you can tell from that sentence, I don’t. Perhaps it’s the negative emotional associations: the mingled elation and dread at seeing so many of us (‘I am part of a community!’ to ‘I am not a special snowflake!’), the fact that attending MLA in the past has meant dressing in an uncomfortable suit and struggling to impress at job interviews, the inevitable unsatisfying lattes one finds oneself trying to derive comfort from while sitting elbow-to-elbow and ear-to-ear with others of your ilk in a hotel lobby Starbucks, the despair and boredom and, of course, guilt (I’m supposed to be finding al of this fascinating!) instilled by a mediocre or ill-delivered presentation. And of course, there was the time when the conventions occurred between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so you could feel even more unsatisfied at being there.
You get the idea.
I went MLA for a day to see old friends and acquaintances from my grad school days at Berkeley. Many were interviewing for jobs (one of the only reasons to go to MLA), and a few others were presenting or just in the area. I initially intended to ignore the registration fee and simply gate-crash, but Aaron Bady (who has expressed his own far-from-gruntled sentiments about MLA much more eloquently than I) warned me that the previous year, MLA had hired people to stand outside rooms checking for badges. As I’m always the one who gets caught whenever she decides, for once in her life, to break the rules, I began contemplating buying a badge. Then Aaron referred gullible me to an online fake-MLA badge making site, which I was very excited about, until an attempt to use it produced hilarious, but decidedly unconvincing results.
I ended up purchasing a registration, grudgingly. And went to several panels that day to try to make myself feel that it had all been worth the money spent.
That evening, as several friends and I sat in a restaurant discussing the varying quality of panels and the general unpleasantness of MLA Conventions, someone brought up the fact that, over time, MLA was becoming less impersonal. It’s true. I spotted more individuals whom I recognized and presenters whose work I had read. If things continued to progress, I suppose one day we would be like the older academics in the audience at a discussion session I sat in earlier on Victorianists and Romanticists putting aside their differences and acknowledging the fuzziness of the boundaries drawn between their objects of study. It was one of the more entertaining MLA sessions I’ve attended. After five-minute “provocations” from well-known scholars in both fields, discussion was opened up to the audience. There were audience-members who responded with genteel eloquence and wit, and offhandedly referred to experts or other audience-members by first name. Other audience members seemed to know who they were. They sat in clusters and even made quiet jokes with other another during the session. They seemed to be on the inside. After countless years of being in academia, being involved in societies and organizations pertaining to their fields, attending MLA convention after convention year after year, they had finally arrived in white-haired splendour.
At least, that was how it felt to me then and after. If one thinks of the world of literary academia as a giant high school–the kind you see in movies where the cliques are clear-cut and seniors rule–then how comfortable you are and the number of people you know at the MLA convention functions as a marker of whether you’ve made it or not: if you’re still a gangly freshman or if you’ve finally made it through.
I was glad I got to see friends. But out of lingering disdain, I did burn my MLA badge afterwards in my in-laws’ fireplace. It gave me a little bit of satisfaction. Not much.