December 17, 2003

"'Dude, Where's My Reliable Symbolic Order?'"

Some held that the [Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness] should go to a title reflecting scholarship that keeps up with recent cable-television listings. They nominated the paper "Taking Away the Threat: Cribs and The Osbournes as Narratives of Domestication," by David S. Escoffery and Michelle Sullivan, of Southwest Missouri State University and the University of Pittsburgh's main campus, respectively.

Others contended that the winner should be 'très 1990s,' just like Mr. Ross's own bad self. They argued strenuously for "Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (but I Owe My Job to k.d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies," by Kim L. Emery of the University of Florida.

Following tense e-mail exchanges, the judges awarded the prize to Amy Abugo Ongiri of the University of California at Riverside for her paper "Jethro, Mama, Sassie Sue, and the Midnight Plowboy: Hillbillies, 'Common Sense,' Urbanity, and Blaxploitation Film" -- on the grounds that the title was so achingly hip that nobody had any idea what it meant.

-- Scott McLemee, "Signifyin' at the MLA," Chronicle of Higher Education, December 19, 2003

The Chronicle has announced the winners of its First Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative MLA Paper Titles. Categories include:

Award for Transgressive Punctuation

Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness

Award for Best Slavoj Zizek Knockoff ("which went by acclaim to "'Dude, Where's My Reliable Symbolic Order?': Gross-Out Comedies and the Rewriting of the Expressible," by Luther Riedel of Mohawk Valley Community College, in New York")

Most Provocative Panel Title

Most Provocative Paper Title

All titles come from the program for the 119th MLA Annual: "no paper titles were made up," and no names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate the winners.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 17, 2003 10:55 AM

I remember one of the first MLA panels I attended in the early 90s. I was a young graduate student in English at that time. As I recall, the title was "Live Sex Acts."

Needless to say, the papers were anything but sexy. I haven't missed more than a couple MLAs since then, but I think of them as obligatory, paranoiac, institutional non-fun pretending to be a riotous, subversive bacchanal. The paper titles protest too much. The MLA is like a prom for geeks, except nobody gets laid.

Posted by: THB at December 17, 2003 11:26 AM

"The MLA is like a prom for geeks, except nobody gets laid."

THB, with that line I believe you have begun and ended this thread in one fell swoop.

I'm still laughing as I write.

Do I detect an award winner, IA?

Posted by: Chris at December 17, 2003 11:47 AM

Have you ever been to the ultra hip Hotel W in Times Square? It has heroin chic black hallways and an entrance lobby entirely enclosed in running water. This was one of the designated hotels for the MLA in New York last year. When a friend of mine dropped by to meet me in the second floor bar, she couldn't stop laughing at the stodgy academics among the hip decor and the mannequins dressed in tinsel.

The cliché about the MLA is that the participants have less sex than the average convention goer but drink more. I've always thought this gave the academics too much credit.

Posted by: Frolic at December 17, 2003 12:21 PM

About the lack of sex. When I was last an undergrad (1980), the English majors all did seem sort of depressive and sexless. The guys were sort of trapped in sensitive new age guy land. Some were gay and my guess is that they weren't the sexiest members of that community, in some cases having become gay as an obligation of liberation.

Music majors tended to the plumpish. The hottest women were studying French, Spanish, and Italian, but that did me no good since they were looking for hot Latin guys strictly describable as not me.

Posted by: zizka at December 17, 2003 12:44 PM

"The MLA is like a prom for geeks, except nobody gets laid."

And if you get a tenure-track job, does that make you prom queen or king?

Great line.

Posted by: chuck at December 17, 2003 01:47 PM

It's quite telling that the academic establishment believes that papers referring to "The Osbournes" (a fad that peaked in early 2002) or playing on the title of "Dude, Where's My Car" (a film that came out nearly four years ago) are even "hip" in the first place.

Pop-culture is flighty indeed, so most adults don't have the time or the interest to follow its fast-paced parade of ephemera. That's understandable. So then why refer lamely to it? And why use such references at a conference, where you're basically telling your peers that your paper can't hold the interest of professionals unless you garnish it with stale pop-culture croutons? To make students think you're "cool"? To distinguish yourself from the stodgy old guard? To assuage an unspoken fear of one's work being irrelevant?

Pop culture is certainly a fair target for scholars, but most of them go about the business with such hilarious self-consciousness and misunderstanding of its reception among non-scholars that, again, they only wind up giving the general public more reasons to think that professional academics are monkey-dancing buffoons.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 17, 2003 01:52 PM

I went to a conference, not MLA, that featured a paper titled, "Are we going to prom or to hell?" It was a conference for graduate students, so the audience still had very strong memories of prom. It discussed the movies "Election" and "Heathers," and it managed to be a good and funny paper, because it mainly just talked about the funny parts of the movie and then sandwiched in a little token psychoanalysis.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at December 17, 2003 02:14 PM

It's not a great line because, by definition, no one would get laid at a prom for geeks. You could say it's "like a prom for geeks in that no one gets laid," but that, while accurate, doesn't sound as superficially witty.

It's also, as I can attest, a revealingly inaccurate description of the sexual mores of MLA-goers.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 17, 2003 02:47 PM

"There are full professors here who read nothing but cereal boxtops," says a character in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise.

When academics do nothing but watch tv while diddling themselves, you get the MLA convention.

Posted by: Stompanato at December 17, 2003 02:50 PM

Oh goody - Chun's going to defend these people as highly sexed hotties.

Posted by: Geraldine at December 17, 2003 02:59 PM

I am one of those people; and yes, I am a highly sexed hottie.

Please check out my site if you're interested.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 17, 2003 03:18 PM

I beg to disagree. When geeks gather in quantity there is quite a bit of sex that takes place. Seems geek pheromes only work on each other (see Simpsons thread on other effects of geek pheromes). Geeks absolutely would get laid at the prom if only other geeks attended.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 17, 2003 03:40 PM

Chun, you can speak to the following conjecture: MLA action must surely be characterized by ironic detatchment. After all, these lovers are at once both passionate subjects immersed in a visceral text written (inter alia) with discarded tweed and starched hotel linen, yet simultaneously they constitute an audience of postcartesian readers aware that their yearning for detatchment is subverted by their very position(ality) as authors of the acts they mean to problematize, qua acts -- indeed, the very yearning for `actness' generates the irony, as the acts are self-consciously (inter)textual, thus refuting the pre-Kantian hope of pure awareness of the act in itself, and generating two distinct audiences from the same intertwined subjects.

How can anyone, well, perform with all that resting on their, um, shoulders?

Posted by: loren at December 17, 2003 04:06 PM


Most people can't. I'm trying to be discreet here.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 17, 2003 05:00 PM

Alright. Yes, perhaps I'm just oversensitive about this issue. I'm a regular MLA-goer -- though not usually a presenter -- and am simply tired of celebrating "let's make fun of dorky literature professors" season. I'll acknowledge finding much of what takes place at the conference every year to be personally and professionally repugnant -- yes, the horrible clothes! yes, the ridiculous papers! yes (and it seems to me revealing that no one has really mentioned this, particularly in this forum), the miasma of angst and self-satisfaction created by throwing together desperate grad-students and job-seekers with the creme-de-la-creme of rock-star professordom -- but despite my own feelings about the annual trek to the Slough of Despond (TM), well, nobody can talk bad about my mama except me.

Each year, we all anxiously await the conference city's local newspaper's "Gee, Look at How Silly These Academics Are!" article, and each year, we are not disappointed. Each year's version recounts the same old nonsense we're busy recapitulating here -- ridiculous paper/session titles, bad sartorial choices, no sex. Each year's article could be cribbed from the last, and no one would ever really be the wiser.

The point, as far as I'm concerned, is that these articles are nothing more than a recycled, sneering, hipster version of the same old intellectual-bashing exercises that mainstream US culture is perennially embarked upon. Is it too much to ask that the freaking Chronicle -- our own paper-of-record, one would have thought -- resist getting in on the action?

Yes, ridiculous, yes, sexless, yes, dorky. But who isn't?

Posted by: KF at December 18, 2003 04:00 AM

Ah, KF, me poor child! Think'st thou that it's "intellectuals" we be bashing at the MLA? Clear your brainlet for a moment, wee one...incoming...The people at the MLA are not intellectuals. They are idiots.

And Chun - I don't have to trip over to your website to figure out just how hot you are, honey. In fact, you are SO hot I fear I'd lose control of myself (and I do SO value control, like all us tight-ass critics of the MLA) if I so much as clicked on your name. Sorry.

Posted by: Geraldine at December 18, 2003 07:44 AM


Posted by: KF at December 18, 2003 08:00 AM

If you actually read the Chronicle thing, it looks like it is making fun of the routine newspaper article about the dorky professors, and also saying that maybe the professors want to get mentioned in that article.

Posted by: Austinsible at December 18, 2003 09:28 AM

You're right, Austinsible, the Chronicle piece is tongue in cheek, but it looks to me like the discussion here has taken an uglier turn. I'm with KF.

Posted by: Matt K. at December 18, 2003 10:01 AM

KF: "Each year, we all anxiously await the conference city's local newspaper's "Gee, Look at How Silly These Academics Are!" article ..."

In Canada they make this a much simpler task for the hecklers by lumping most of the humanities and social science association meetings into one big congress. This way critics can reap economies of scale.

KF: "Yes, ridiculous, yes, sexless, yes, dorky. But who isn't?"

Political scientists: we are the paragon of animals, models of virtue and wisdom, noble in reason, infinite in faculty, hardminded scientists yet humane and literate scholars, and we get on the scene like -- well, anyway, we choose to be ridiculous, sexless, and dorky, so that others don't feel inadequate and resentful.

Posted by: loren at December 18, 2003 10:36 AM

When the culturally catastrophic trivialization of the humanities which the MLA represents is attacked strongly, suddenly the people who cast themselves as liberated defenders of free speech and subversive behavior purse their lips and get all Latinate [QED] and McCarthyite ["ugly"] about it.

Well, as even this thread attests, the hurtful people who say mean things about the MLA convention are pretty much everybody who pays any attention to the matter. Even the paper KF considers academia's "paper of record" - the Chronicle - has long since given up any effort to respect the most prominent annual gathering of America's literary scholars. It's up to those who continue to defend the event to tell us why we shouldn't respond to it with disgust.

Posted by: Coleman at December 18, 2003 10:58 AM

"It's up to those who continue to defend [the MLA] to tell us why we shouldn't respond to it with disgust."

And that's _not_ ugly? Or McCarthyite? Look: the MLA is an academic convention. It's location and schedule is a matter of public record. Go or don't go. Register or don't register. If you don't want to register there are always a few sessions open to the public. Or you can try to sneak in. Whatever. But don't tell "American literary scholars" or any other professional group that it's up to them to defend their activities before some silent, moral majority. That _is_ ugly. And McCarthyite.

Posted by: Matt K. at December 18, 2003 11:18 AM

No it's not. No one is being asked to snitch on friends. No one is being called to testify before Congress. No one is being denied a job based on a political opinion as a result of this blog-comment conversation.

Rather than react defensively to the general public having a laugh at typical MLA paper titles, professional academics would do well to consider their criticisms. Academia's inability to be frank about how absurd some of its conferences are is yet another example of how poorly the field understands its own problems.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 18, 2003 11:27 AM

"No it's not. No one is being asked to snitch on friends . . . No one is being denied a job based on a political opinion as a result of this blog-comment conversation."

Don't bet on it. I'll be interviewing people at MLA, and, trust me, we've "Googled" every job candidate to establish whether they are a good "fit" for our institution. Watch what you say. You might also be surprised how easy it is to get the dirt on people with a few phone calls to chairs and advisers (whose loyalties are complicated, to say the least).

We're not exactly a top-tier university, but we have the luxury of rejecting seemingly excellent candidates because they've said something that seems dangerous, offensive, or just inappropriate from the perspectives of either the Right or the Left. "Are you now, or have you even been a supporter of the academic labor movement?" "What are your views on affirmative action?" "Which theorists have had the greatest impact on your work?"

Generally, the best candidates have strong credentials but no opinions that anyone can discern. Or their opinions are so abstruse that no one can understand them, but they are afraid to admit it.

Posted by: Anonymous Member of Job Search Committee at December 18, 2003 11:47 AM

I repeat: the MLA is a professional convention. Its audience is _not_ the general public. We don't ask particle physicists to defend big words and opaque paper titles. Why literary and language scholars? Because while we recognize the expertise inherent in a field like particle physics we _all_ feel we have some intuitive claim on language and literature? Because language and literature are about our opinions and emotions? Not. Get thee to Literary Research Methods 101.

It's also worth noting that there are 700-900 sessions at MLA ever year, only a fraction of which could even remotely be capable of eliciting the descriptor "absurd." Have you ever been to an MLA or even looked at the program?

To borrow a line from KF, I see little in what you call "this blog-comment conversation" besides "a recycled, sneering, hipster version of the same old intellectual-bashing exercises that mainstream US culture is perennially embarked upon." Note that the use of common abbreviation (QED) is immediately tagged as "pursed lipped" and "Latinate." Sad.

Posted by: Matt K. at December 18, 2003 11:52 AM

Obviously that sort of thing goes on within the context of academic job searches. But I maintain that newspaper articles and anonymous blog-comment conversations that criticize academic culture are not examples of "McCarthyism." Nor is asking academics to admit that their field can sometimes be quite absurd, and then calling them on it when they're not brave enough or honest enough to do so.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 18, 2003 11:53 AM

Thanks for the notice you've given my article -- which, by the way, is now available for free at

I am certainly puzzled by the idea that the piece in question is "anti-intellectual." Then again, failure to treat with all due solemnity the routines of academic life tends to cause problems for anyone hypnotized the droning noises of "professionalization." Academics often seem to think they have some monopoly on the capacity to judge intellectual seriousness. But I'm sure a goldfish swimming in his bowl knows as much as he needs to about the depth of the ocean.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at December 18, 2003 01:24 PM

I rather doubt the concept of "ocean" exists in a goldfish's umwelt, Scott. The fact that these few paper titles out of hundreds offend your parochial sense of what literature professors should do is not particularly surprising; but the Chronicle hasn't gone broke by perpetuating ignorant stereotypes.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 18, 2003 01:50 PM

Nice leap into an unwarranted assumption, there, Chun. And yet it didn't get you out of the bowl.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at December 18, 2003 02:02 PM

Well, an "unwarranted assumption" would be the exact type of thing that wouldn't get you out of the bowl, right? I guess they don't give you the Microsoft-style brainteasers at the Chronicle job interview. But do you know what I bet is a de facto prereq? Unsuccessful attempt at being an academic. You see you'd be delivering papers at the MLA if it weren't for all the "queer theorists" and "blaxploiticians," right? It'd make me bitter too.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 18, 2003 02:09 PM

Ahem. Your friendly neighbourhood blog host here.

I only have a minute, so I'll make this brief and direct: please stop with the personal attacks before things turn even nastier. Actually, I'd better make it even more direct: Chun, I'm especially talking to you.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 18, 2003 02:37 PM

IA, I think if you look at the last couple of comments and indeed the column this is based on, you might revise your view about personal attacks and who's making them.

Too often we pass over these insults in silence.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 18, 2003 02:48 PM

Just for the record: good lord, no! Not everyone wants to get in the bowl. There is a larger world, you know.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at December 18, 2003 02:50 PM

The thing that's depressing about the AP(hil)A is the combination of geekiness and meanness. Almost every time I check into the convention hotel, there's an older, angrier guy giving the person behind the desk a hard time for something that's completely out of her control and wasn't her fault to begin with. Or being snide with the waiter for not knowing what merlot is. If you'd like me to stop laughing at you for giving a paper on the conceptual analysis of sport-hunting, you'll have to give up on the attitude, Captain Tweed.

Posted by: at December 18, 2003 02:53 PM

I have to agree with Chun and Matt and KF here: the majority of the paper titles at any given MLA are ordinary, run-of-the-mill academic paper titles that concentrate more on informing potential session-goers of the papers' topics than on demonstrating how hip the presents are.

And yet you would never know this from the sort of robotic annual MLA-bashing media piece we get each December. As far as those articles are concerned, 97% of all academics must be trendy stuck-ups writing impenetrable essays on worthless pop culture trends.

I think it's vital for academics to be capable of self-critique and self-mockery. But that's not what happens with these sorts of articles: they're not about what some quirky profs do. They're quite definitely a means of smearing all literature professors.

To be fair to Scott McLemee, though, I did read his piece as a bit of internal self-mockery--even if I'm sure it will be seized upon by others as a club with which to beat the Academy.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 18, 2003 03:03 PM

I enjoy my own major professional conference (and did so while a graduate student, which gave me strength to soldier through the Interviewing Era). There's definitely plenty of room for systemic critique of academia in general and conference culture in particular, but those elements I most dislike (mostly a lack of certain intellectual options) are ones I'm working to ameliorate. Still, I'd rather attend a flawed conference, mingle with friends and acquaintances I haven't seen all year, hear a handful of really thought-provoking papers, meet new people, and go a little crazy in the exhibition hall once a year... than not.

Meanwhile, there's no way in hell that anyone names a paper "Dude, Where's My [Anything]?" and doesn't expect people to enjoy a good chuckle. I appreciate the way the Chronicle has provided these gems for those of us who don't attend the MLA or read its program. ;)

Posted by: Naomi Chana at December 18, 2003 03:04 PM

The "goldfish bowl" comments don't lend much support to the "internal self-mockery" hypothesis, Ivy. Nemo me impune, etc.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 18, 2003 03:17 PM

But "dude..." isn't really funny. It's painful: look at me, I'm hip, I'm with it. Like academics trying to be all hip-hop. "Why are. you. all. [checks phrasebook] up in. my grill?"

Posted by: fontana labs at December 18, 2003 03:46 PM

Comrade homie fontana, there's a phrasebook? Dude!

Posted by: ogged at December 18, 2003 04:37 PM

I think what it comes down to for me is this:

Why is it that the MLA and its attendees can analyze every imaginable social phenomenon (often beyond language and literature) and pass resolutions taking official political stances, but when the society it studies attempts to study and analyze and critique it right back, we get this hurt, defensive reaction?

I mean, come on, guys. We are not mandarins. But this is why the general public thinks we are. This is why they think we're pompous, humorless Frasier Crane types who sneer at yokels who dare question our wisdom. It's easy for us to forget that were it not for the rest of society writing big tuition checks, funding scholarships, and paying taxes, there'd be no place for papers on "narratives of domestication" in reality-TV shows in the first place.

Let's count our innumerable blessings and grow thicker skins.

Posted by: J.V.C. at December 18, 2003 05:15 PM

What can I say?

If the critique of the Academy from the outside were better nuanced, I'd be more inclined to listen to it.

But when I'm constantly hearing from commentators that I'm a grade-inflating, Left-politically-indoctrinating, trivial-subject-studying snob sneering at American mainstream culture . . . and I'm none of those things, how else should I react?

When I hear a legitimate critique of the Academy, I'll own up to it (there are lots of good ones on IA's site and at many of the sites she recommends). But the critique that a small fraction of the paper titles/topics at MLA are frivolous and trendy isn't anything even close to legitimate in my eyes. It's nothing more than nitpicking.

P. S. It's the same problem I have with the use made by anti-Academy critics of course descriptions: a handful of whacked-out or extreme descriptions are transformed into the clear academic standard for course design--even though these descriptions are in the minority and even though no course description I've ever seen is a 100% accurate description of the course being sold to students.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 18, 2003 05:38 PM

Yes, some people make mean-spirited and mischievous and downright malicious attacks on academics and academia. Many of these attacks involve unfair and inaccurate generalizations based on a couple of anecdotes that are supposed to stand in the for the decline and fall of everything.

But I don't put Scott McLemee's piece in the above category. I read it as a tongue-in-cheek exercise which pokes fun at academic foibles in a light-hearted way. As Naomi puts it, "there's no way in hell that anyone names a paper 'Dude, Where's My [Anything]?' and doesn't expect people to enjoy a good chuckle." And by the way, "Dude, Where's My Reliable Symbolic Order?" did make me chuckle. It's not the "Dude" by itself, but the "Dude, Where's My [Car]?" that makes it funny.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 18, 2003 07:01 PM

And then there's the light-hearted banter displayed by comment #27, goldfish.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 18, 2003 07:04 PM

I am about to become involved in a dispute about whether or not an MLA title is funny. May God have mercy on my soul.

My point was just JVC's, in 6: that the reference is so ham-handed that it doesn't really work as a joke.

But on the other hand I think

"Swampman of La Mancha"

is a very funny title, so don't take my assessment of the funny too seriously. ('Swampman' is the hero of a Donald Davidson thought experiment; the article is by Deborah Brown.)

Forgive me. I'm on a grading marathon.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at December 18, 2003 09:34 PM

Best to ignore Chun the Indefensible; he gets off on riling people up. As for Matt K.: Dude, you're way too defensive. If you want everyone to be solemnly appreciative of everything academic, you've come to the wrong playground.

Posted by: language hat at December 18, 2003 09:34 PM

"Aw come on, it was just a joke, lighten up, loosen up, fer chrissakes _laugh_ a little man"--isn't that what we always hear when the joke goes too far? I have a shelf full of campus novels and academic satire; "solemnly appreciative" I'm not. But Mr. McLemee is no David Lodge. That said, I never really had a problem with his article. I did have a problem with how quickly the subsequent discussion of it slid into a trough of anti-academic invective--a pattern familiar to too many of us I suspect. I'll avoid naming names so as not to rekindle the flames (I have the feeling we've about worn out our good host's welcome), but go back and reread some of the posts before and immediately after KF's intervention and tell me that things weren't turning--I still stand by the word--ugly.

And that's it from me--

Posted by: Matt K. at December 18, 2003 10:02 PM

Actually, LH, if you read the thread carefully, you'd notice that I was an MLA-gigolo, so I actually get people off. Professionally.

Posted by: chun the unavoidable at December 18, 2003 10:29 PM

Out of curiousity, exactly where would APS meetings rank in lack of sex (i.e., the American Physical Society)? As for MLA, at least members of the opposite sex do not recoil in horror when they ask what you study and you tell them. If one is not extremely careful, mentioning physics is better birth control than Army-issue eyeglasses.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 19, 2003 03:35 AM

Wow. Go away for a few hours and look what happens...

Okay, I want to re-stipulate to a few things that I already admitted in my original post:

1. I'm a bit sensitive about this issue.
2. There is MUCH to critique about the MLA, most particularly the academic class dynamics that the annual job market both encourages and enforces.

Added to that, I want to agree with Austinsible and Matt K. that the original article that started all this is tongue-in-cheek. But the purpose of my post way up there at #15 was to point out how quickly we got from "aren't these paper titles silly?" to "people who go to the MLA are idiots," which seems to me to indicate, if not the intent of the annual MLA coverage in the mainstream press, then certainly the effects that such articles wind up having. And one of the reasons for this academic-bashing result is that the articles always choose a smattering of ridiculous titles (and again, I'm willing to stipulate to the ridiculousness of some such titles) in order to paint a picture of the whole. As Matt points out, there are 700-900 sessions each year, indicating something on the order of 2500 paper titles from which to choose. If even 100 of those titles are ludicrous in the extreme, does a 4% rate of ludicrosity adequately reflect the field as a whole, warranting varying degrees of "people who go to the MLA are idiots" responses?

Posted by: KF at December 19, 2003 03:44 AM

I'm not willing to go with KF, an apparent Deleuzian ("hypocrite alert," Brentmeister General), on the "ludicriousity" of these various titles. They speak to specific disciplinary concerns, often in a humourous manner, but they reveal depths that such as Scott McLeemee cannot delve. These papers are delivered by those in whom the line of Westernesee runs pure and who've been given sight beyond that of Chronicle staffers.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 19, 2003 04:28 AM

It's also worth noting that there are 700-900 sessions at MLA ever year, only a fraction of which could even remotely be capable of eliciting the descriptor "absurd."

hahaha. have you any clue how pompous you sound right now?

Without any real hope, I'd just like to suggest that the reason people mock the MLA and academics in general, is that we can be 100% sure that we'l get a reaction, and the reaction itself will be funny.

Posted by: dsquared at December 19, 2003 08:17 AM

Chun seems really desperate to make sure people think he is intelligent.

There, there, Chun. We're sure you are at least slightly more intelligent than you are acting. You'd have to be.

Posted by: Nobodaddy at December 19, 2003 08:28 AM

I don't really care about the MLA titles (as a a young boy my mother taught me the following mantra: Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. Something that people who attempt to use clever titles, and people who write articles about those clever titles understand but apparently nobody else does.) Wasn't anybody the least bit bothered by Anononymous Job Committee posters patently illegal questions, the fact that the search committee is googling candidates "did you write in a letter to the college newspaper your Freshman year that ....", and generally hiring the most mediocre people possible?

To me that's scary. But if you think the biggest threat to the academy is silly paper titles, why don't you ask MLA to make serious paper titles a requirement?

Personally, I think naming an award after Andrew Ross is in itself brilliant.

Posted by: David Salmanson at December 19, 2003 09:41 AM

I have to agree with David Salmanson. I was surprised that everyone kept getting worked up about a humorous article, but no one cared that a search committee member revealed that they research their candidates to find opinionless drones.

While the anonymous search committee member warned us about the power of Google and gossip to destory a career, he or she should probably know that they are not as anonymous as they think. IA, do you know the poster's IP address? Does it belong to a university? Care to tell us which one? (OK, maybe we would all sink to the same level then.)

Posted by: Frolic at December 19, 2003 10:54 AM

I share your sentiments, David, and have it on good authority that there are people enthroned at the Right Hand of God (Job Committees--yawn) who are not neutered simps pushing mediocrity by spreading paranoia. I mean, do we really *want* to work with people who have to check to make sure their balls/ovaries are there when they up in the morning?

It would probably be healthy to neither ignore nor fetishize the sometimes tediously human penchant for hierarchy . Steering between the two is simply prudence.

Posted by: Adjarian at December 19, 2003 11:05 AM

I'd invite anyone here to come say hello during the Chronicle's reception, held on Monday in the Grand Hyatt starting at 5:15. My guess is that most people attending MLA are neither paranoid nor afflicted with exceptionally thin skins, like tender little babies.

The experience of the past day or so has been interesting. I have been repeatedly called insulting by people who then begin to froth a bit while denouncing me as an idiot, a homophobe, a failed academic, etc. The latter in particular is amusing. It tends to confirm one's darkest suspicions about the insular narcissism of people whose chief virtue is not intellectual seriousness but a certain docility (as Bourdieu puts it) in their relationship with institutions.

Now, that's not meant as a blanket denunciation of academics. (Some of my best friends, etc.) In fact, I spend about 99 percent of my time reading scholarly work, and writing about it such a fashion as to make it better understood -- not simply beyond the academy, but within it. To be candid, I do wonder sometimes whether it is worth the trouble. The lack of curiosity, let alone intellectual vitality, among academics is often really astonishing. Maybe it's just exhaustion? Or rather, the ennui of life as alienated cogs in bureaucratic engines?

Anyway, once in a while, I will write with tongue in cheek. The effect, it seems,is to bring out paranoia in full blaze. An item of perhaps 400 words is part of the "anti-intellectual" jihad of "hate" against longsuffering professors? For what it is worth, the whole point of my little article was to suggest that some MLA participants themselves appear to have entered a kind of symbiotic relationship with the media, giving papers those titles precisely in an effort to win that little moment in the spotlight. Hence the idea of giving them the red carpet treatment through an awards ceremony, a la the Oscars.

Not one person seems to have detected that implicit element of criticism within the piece. (It seems a lot more damning than pointing out that professors are sometimes would-be hipsters.) Calling it "anti-intellectual" reveals a really impoverished conception of the life of the mind.

Now, I'm sure a lot of people really do grasp that point clearly enough. If you do -- or even if you don't -- then by all means say hello at MLA.

Just do me a favor. If I ask you what papers you have heard that are interesting, please don't translate my question. What happens every year is that people respond by saying: "Hmmm, what's 'hot' this year?" And then they proceed to tell me what is "hot." They dilate upon what is "trendy."

I do not care at all what is hot and trendy, and would never use such terms in my writing without displaying conspicious levels of sarcasm. Talk about what you found interesting, important, an addition to the conversation. I'm as concerned with the actually developing substance of scholarship as any of you are. After all, I spend at least as much time as you do reading it.

But if you do insist on talking about what's hip, hot, and happening, I will regard you as part of the nominating committee for next year's Provokies.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at December 19, 2003 11:29 AM

"But the purpose of my post way up there at #15 was to point out how quickly we got from "aren't these paper titles silly?" to "people who go to the MLA are idiots,"

They're not necessarily idiots, Scott, though they can be at times. Byt what they really are, as the hiring committee member reveals, is EVIL--albeit in the banal respect proposed by Arendt all those years ago.

Let me put this simply: Jesus-F'ing-Christ, I'm getting "googled" by prospective hiring committees? IA, HELP! You quoted something I wrote on another list about an article in a major news publication on academic labor etc., and when I am googled your citation comes up.

Listen Scott, every year I go to this goddamn slog fest and I take out my earring, I shave off the goatee, and let my hair grow out a bit so I appear approapriately disheveld (I usually keep itI wear clothes I wouldn't otherwise wear under almost any circumstances. The whole damn conference is a sewer filled with petty, nasty, biting rats. I go, do my interviews, buy a coffee, avoid everyone and everything, and stay in the hotel room and watch tv until, mercifully, I can fly home, beaten again.

Seriously, IA, can you get rid of that post?

Posted by: Chris at December 19, 2003 12:59 PM

Listen, the "anonymous committee member" was, I'm pretty certain, a regular poster here who was trying to make a point about the academic hiring process, not an actual member of a search committee (or if he is, not one who'd do something like that). The bits about "academic labor" give it away.

Nobodaddy, I've been very bitter since I was revealed as a fraud at the last Mensa social I went to; please don't rub it in.

Note that part of what Mr. McLemmee was criticizing us for was an unwarranted sense of self-importance. I know some of the people whose papers he mentioned, and I can tell you the last thing in the world they had in mind was attracting the attention of the annual MLA window-peekers. It may appear that way to a certain sensibility, but it's wrong to make generalizations about intent from that (very local) impression.

Finally, I'll let the reader judge whether McLemmee's opinion of the intellectual vitality of academics is accurate. These people write the books he spends 99% of his time reading, deliver the papers, and teach the courses. I find especially poignant his insistence that our horizons are constrained by habitus in a way that he, a writer for a newspaper, is not.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 19, 2003 02:45 PM

"We don't know who discovered water, but it probably wasn't a fish."
-- Marshall McLuhan

Anyway, the invitation stands. I hope people at MLA will make it to the Chronicle reception. Invisible Adjunct is an excellent site, and I'm sure it draws a lot of readers who don't weigh in at all. Something about the anonymity of this format brings out the worst in people who are (let's say) a few prongs short of a completely functional fork. So it's easy to sympathize with those who lurk without joining in. (With hindsight, your decision looks very smart.) In any case, I hope some of you will make it to our cash-bar, or whatever it's called, on Monday the 29th.

The past day has been....well, "instructive" seems like a neutral enough word.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at December 19, 2003 03:19 PM

If anonymity brings out the worst in posters, why does the excellent site's host remain anonymous? It's because anonymity is only a vice in those who disagree with you, who also must be unhinged somehow. You'll note that a majority of the people criticizing your column used their real names (Kathleen Fitzpatick, Matthew Kirschenbaum).

There's an elementary moral here: if you want to tease people, especially unfairly, you should be able to take it in turn. Stanley Fish has written in your very own pages that many academic journalists are failed academics, and it's a common enough stereotype. I have no idea how true it is in general or in your particular case; but if you trade in stereotypes yourself, you must not act surprised when you receive them in kind.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 19, 2003 04:22 PM

Boy has this been a great discussion. I couldn't believe it when someone actually seriously used the term "McCarthyite" to attack a light humorous piece of journalism.

How would you describe a group of people who claim to be smarter than everyone else yet have ventured into a life filled with poverty, chronic discontent and grumbling, a deluded sense of self-importance and who take what is genuinely worthwhile about their lives -- say, being able to read "King Lear" with a deep understanding and knowledge -- and transformed it into an unreadable, jargon-filled professional opportunity which has forgotten the original impulse behind writing Lear and seeing it performed? "Fools"... yeah, that's the right word.

Go ahead, call me a McCarthyite.

PS And scientists aren't subject to this ridicule because their research's end-product is recognized by every quasi-intelligent person who turns on their television set or ingests a PPI pill. That should be obvious, but I didn't see it stated anywhere in the discussion.

Posted by: JT at December 19, 2003 04:25 PM

Yes, JT, all science is applied science.

No one is claiming to be smarter than anyone else, but I wish that people would realize that just because everyone can (and should) read does not mean that the immensely complex problems raised by literature are immediately transparent. "Jargon," by definition, is the language of professional study; and there's enough general-reader literary criticism to keep you going for life.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at December 19, 2003 04:52 PM

JT: "scientists aren't subject to this ridicule because their research's end-product is recognized by every quasi-intelligent person who turns on their television set or ingests a PPI pill. That should be obvious, but I didn't see it stated anywhere in the discussion."

There were times reading this thread when I was about to post an admittedly academic ("... but on the other hand") version of your position here, JT, but I haven't because I find myself genuinely torn:

I'm a philopsher and social scientist by training, but I like to keep up with what goes on outside of my chosen fields. Sometimes I read work in literary theory and cultural studies and find it dense and utterly unrewarding: you fight though a lot of verbiage and esoteric connotations to find a rather weak and uninteresting argument. 0n these days, I'm inclined to be rather blunt in my pronouncements on the relative worthiness of, for example, big words and hard math in computer science and physics, on the one hand, and convoluted constructions, waves of jargon, and elaborate puns in the humanities and some parts of the social sciences, on the other. I'll then be smug as I turn to some nifty simulation or experiment in politics, economics, or computer science that speaks to my interests, or some tight, terse argument in philosophy.

But then I'll wander back to other fields and find something in literary and cultural studies that really does seem to repay my careful reading: these are works that make (what I find to be) a really, really interesting point about how we treat some symbol, or ritual, or set of texts; and how we should criticize and reformulate prevalent interpretations of said symbols, rituals and texts, once we've thought critically about some assumptions and arguments. On these days, I get rather testy with complaints about the esoteric and theoretical nature of much humanities scholarship, and then I'm rather more inclined to side with Matt and Kathyrn here.

My personal experience, for what it's worth.

Posted by: loren at December 19, 2003 05:00 PM

Is a site like the one below "ugly" or "McCarthyite"? Just looks like self-deprecation to me.

Posted by: Eric W at December 19, 2003 05:52 PM

*steps gingerly into room*
*looks around carefully*
*speaks very softly*

The question no-one has asked here is Why the MLA? This sort of thing can be found in many large conferences. The structure of most of them is to have a dozen or more simultaneous panels. The nightmare is that your panel will find itself outnumbering its audience. So you advertise. You advertise with a panel title or a paper title that will stand out and perhaps entice a conference goer who hasn't any other grounds for choosing what to hear in that time slot. But you don't see pieces mocking panel or paper titles in other conferences Just the MLA. But dependably the MLA.

Some of this may be pack journalism. Once one journalist discovered that you can write a piece just off the MLA program, without even having to sit through any of the papers, others followed. Scott's managed to get his published ten days before the papers are read (which might mean nine days before they're even written).

But something makes the MLA a target. It's the conference the cool kids pick on. It's the conference with cooties. It would be interesting to know why.

*tiptoes quetly away*

Posted by: jam at December 19, 2003 08:27 PM

"Seriously, IA, can you get rid of that post?"

Can you email me about this ( Thanks.

"Listen, the 'anonymous committee member' was, I'm pretty certain, a regular poster here who was trying to make a point about the academic hiring process, not an actual member of a search committee (or if he is, not one who'd do something like that). The bits about 'academic labor' give it away."

Yes. The "anonymous committee member" may or may not be a regular poster here (I suspect he or she is), and may or may not be currently a member of an actual search committee. The comment is clearly meant not as an endorsement but as a criticism of the search committee google -- and also meant as a caution against leaving too many traces on the internet.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 19, 2003 08:38 PM

It should not surprise any of you that departments google job candidates. Or that they make phone calls to chairs, advisers, and former colleagues.

Candidates frequently lie about their credentials. They also misrepresent their values (teaching vs. research) or their major interests. Candidates tailor themselves to fit positions, and committees need to screen out the more obviously unsuitable candidates. This is not new; it's just easier than ever before.

Seemingly suitable candidates are more often rejected for credential inflation and spinning their specializations than they are for political views. Not that political views do not matter. Personally, I'd prefer to interview people with strong views, who have taken risks for their beliefs. But I know that putting such candidates forward will cost something. There will be departmental factions that need to be placated, there will be doubtful administrators. Departments need that capital for other things like consolidating adjunct positions into full-time hires, keeping down the size of classes, and so on.

Do I endorse "Internet McCarthyism"? Of course not. I wish academic freedom wasn't being eroded so rapidly. I think people--even job candidates--have a right to their views. On the other hand, search committees need the best information they can get about potential colleagues, who, all too often, misrepresent themselves. We need to move forward with confidence that any candidate we bring to the campus isn't going to be sandbagged by a Google search by someone who doesn't like the candidate, or supports another candidate, or whatever.

Getting an academic job is a bit like getting appointed to the Supreme Court. I'm exaggerating, of course, but that's where we are going. Everything you write can be used against you. My original post was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the serious point is that academic freedom is being eroded by a hypercompetitive job market. If there were not so many qualified candidates, well-meaning committees wouldn't have to worry about having their choices shot down for arbitrary reasons.

Look at the witch hunt that has just taken place on this thread. Poor Scott McLemee. I thought his piece was amusing, and the MLA, in all its absurd super-seriousness, can use a little dig in the ribs. But then a damaging flame war results. It's a good example of what might happend if we brought someone like Scott forward as a candidate for a position in a politically tense department in a financially-stressed institution. His ephemeral--and really harmless--article will follow him for years, and so will this discussion. Who has enough capital to risk bringing someone like him forward now, when half the department isn't on speaking terms with the other half, when administration turns the heat off in our offices on weekends, even though most of us are there writing to get tenure or pass post-tenure review?

I obviously can't tell you who I am. But I am sympathetic with the situation of adjuncts and job candidates. I am trying to complain about how things are, not stating how things should be. Nothing would please me more to discover that our quiet tenure-track faculty have lots of important things to say, but they are biding their time until they are protected by tenure.

Posted by: anonymous committee member at December 20, 2003 09:12 AM

noticing a funny typo in my last post, but also a gaffe that needs remedy: that should be "Kathleen" not "Kathryn" (sorry KF).

Posted by: loren at December 20, 2003 09:24 AM

I would just like to note, for the record, that the word "McCarthyite" was introduced into this discussion not by myself or anyone else critical of Scott's article, but by the author of comment #21, in the course of lambasting me for taking issue with the tenor of the dicussion here. In other words, _I_ was the first one dubbed McCarthyite--for suggesting, in the wake of comments such as "Clear your brainlet for a moment, wee one...incoming...The people at the MLA are not intellectuals. They are idiots" that the thread had gone bad.


Posted by: Matt K. at December 20, 2003 10:07 AM

Gentle Readers,

I haven't been around much in the past couple of days, and won't be around today either. I don't want to close the comments for this entry, but I also really don't want to check the blog tonight or tomorrow morning only to find a fresh batch of nastiness. Please crank it down a notch. No, make that two notches.

Thank you.


Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 20, 2003 10:44 AM

Matt K. at 69 is right. I think people are still emotionally responding to comments 16 and 21, even though Geraldine and Coleman have disappeared.

What this blog needs is a designated scapegoat, so we can stop casting about looking for the blameworthy and hurting innocents in the process. I nominate, in no particular order: George W. Bush; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Chun the Unavoidable (as long as he doesn't campaign for the spot); the Man; and Bennifer (that's Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez).

I, for one, think liberal use of phrases such as "sorry bud, lost control of my bennifer there," or "this might be bennifer talking, but..." would do wonders for our camaraderie. Something to ponder for the holidays.

Posted by: ogged at December 20, 2003 11:29 AM

If the Red Sox manage to pick up A-Rod, how do you all feel that may affect "Benifer"? Now here's a paper I would go and hear: "A-Rod, The 'Curse', and Benifer: Postmodern Celebrity and Baseball's Greatest Rivalry: an Ideological Analysis"

p.s. I for one am very appreciative for the info Anonymous Committee Member provided. I admit it, I was dumb and didn't consider that the petty rats on the committees (not ACM) might be googling me.

Posted by: Chris at December 20, 2003 03:32 PM

Um, if people can now Google you to check your worthiness for a possible romantic relationship, it really shouldn't be a surprise that job candidates are going to be Googled. If Google has become an important research tool (if nothing else, it's good for finding paper titles :~) ), why shouldn't a search committee member use it to learn about a candidate? Google is firmly entrenched -- I regularly hear people say that they remember getting work done without Google, but danged if they can remember how -- so we need to get used to the idea. It's just that we need to get committee members to Google for the good as well as the bad.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 20, 2003 03:59 PM

And I suppose as a preemptive maneuver perhaps Google yourself and see what you get, then go about fixing it if you need/want to. Me for example, in order on Google:

1) Interview with Aramis Martinez (from my internship at UIUC)
2) a comment to an IA thread
3) a comment to a Crooked Timber thread
4) a site hocking posters of Chicago Cubs players (because of Aramis Ramirez and Edgar Martinez)

and so on (apparently I'm a biological researcher somewhere as well!). Oh well, guess I'm not that important after all, so I should be safe :^).

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 20, 2003 04:07 PM

I googled myself. If others have similar results to mine, then most, at least, need not worry much. If you have a very unordinary name, and have left an embarassing paper trail, googling committees will be able to find you. If your name is as ordinary as mine (and if you have a serious paper trail), then those googling you will need to be persistant. Even with my middle initial, it took some time to separate me from the mass of others who share my relatively ordinary name. Remove the middle initial and it gets harder.

Curious others would have to think of the proper keyword to make the search easier, and it still might not narrow the scope that much.

For what it is worth, I, too, am safe. I did a search of myself and found nothing embarassing, or even that interesting. Here's to be ordinary!

Posted by: DM at December 20, 2003 08:20 PM

Job-related googling is exactly why I travel under this mask (and pull my hat down over my eyes).

Posted by: language hat at December 20, 2003 10:54 PM

You too, huh Hat?

Posted by: Mr Ripley at December 21, 2003 06:11 AM

*nod* When you Google my full professional name in quotes, all the results have to do with me, and the most unusual thing they indicate is that I've written a few general-audience articles spinning a pop-culture topic for my field. Most of those hits are conference schedules, book reviews, and (naturally) my departmental and course websites. I Google myself now and again to make sure nothing more has popped up, and I encourage all of you to do the same.

Googling job candidates, which I too have done, doesn't bother me in itself. Googling job candidates so that we can hold a six-year-old strongly expressed political or ideological opinion against someone... is a lot more alarming. But I plan to stick with my current (not terribly secret) pseudonym until I get tenure, and then I'll re-examine the question.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at December 21, 2003 08:21 AM

I still use my zizka pen name, but a shrewd detective can look at my URL and deduce my real name. (He might even be able to guess what my middle initial stands for.) For about a year I kept my political and my "academic" sites separate, but after a month or two at IA I decided that my professional prospects were too slender for me to bother with.

Posted by: zizka at December 21, 2003 12:33 PM

Googling finds that I am, among other things, a confederate soldier from Arkansas and (without the initial) the slaveowner in the Dred Scott case. So in this age of political correctness about slavery and bigotry, I'm doomed.

Posted by: zizka at December 21, 2003 12:40 PM

Check out, which will run a search automatically and send you an email when something new appears. Very handy.

Posted by: ogged at December 21, 2003 01:08 PM

If I put my full name with initial into Google all but two of the listings are for me. There is a filmscript writer with the same initial. I'm the only person in ISI with both my initials and family name. Mostly the refs on Google are from own website or from libraries that added our edited volume or news items that cited a paper. My initials are DI so putting the initials a nd name in Google just turns up a lot of Italian websites :)

Posted by: David at December 21, 2003 05:42 PM

"Anonymous committee member" makes some scary comments in #67. The truth is, candidates who have submitted an application packet with letter, CV, dossier with up to 6 letters of recommendation, writing sample, transcript, not to mention student evals, teaching statement, and course proposals do not repeat not have a lot of opportunity, within the mesh of those items of documentation, to "lie" or "misrepresent" themselves or their abilities.

Yes, the letter can distort reality or even lie, the CV less so, however (particularly regarding publications and teaching experience); the dossier can be overly effusive, but the writing sample, dissertation title, transcripts, and teaching evals say what they say with little room for misreading.

If a candidate gets as far as an interview, it is unlikely that any glaring discrepencies were discovered. If there is some doubt, the task of the interview is to clarify that and move the candidate on in the process, or not. Merely "spinning the specialization" is not an indication of intellectual fraud or scholarly unreliability. Within reasonable parameters it can be prima facie evidence of intelligence, self-confidence, and agility.

Specializations are not meant to be self-imprisoning ghettos. Taking an invented example, the individual with a dissertation on Victorian realism who is applying for a vacancy for "British Literature and Culture, 1830-1920 and who can argue the implications of her/his research for work in early 20th century transatlantic modernism is a serious candidate. Maybe not ultimately the best candidate for the job, but to call the creative stretching (not the inflation) of one's academic profile "lying" and "misrepresentation" is both paranoid and lacking in all proportion.

If ever one wanted proof that the MLA job market is cruel and destructive in its present form, #67 is it. In this universe, candidates looking for a job are now the enemy: they lie, they misrepresent, and worst, they spin their specializations. The last term clearly seeks to tar the candidates with the image of "spin" from the world of political campaiging. Anon. Committee Member suggests that the "spin" of a job candidate opening out the possibilities of their intellectual development is equivalent to the spin put by the White House on the intelligence about WMDs.


Posted by: flu in san diego at December 22, 2003 12:37 AM

As a presenter for the session named “Most Provocatively Named Panel” by Mr. McLamee and the Chronicle’s awards committee, I’m a bit ambivalent.

On the one hand, I definitely don’t think that, as academics, we ought to be above reproach or even ridicule. And there’s no question that a sense of humor that includes the capacity to laugh at ourselves is absolutely requisite to health and happiness. It also helps us to engage with other people in a way that allows our work to actually matter. And, maybe most importantly for anyone (not just academics), it can keep us from getting so caught up in our own worlds that we lose sight of the larger context and fail to see our own excesses.

On the other hand, I’ve got to agree with KF, who has said elsewhere that, while we ought not to be above reproach and Mr. McLamee’s article may represent more of a gentle pinch than a slap in the face, “being pinched on the same spot year after year after year is just plain tiresome.” Many of us, especially in the humanities, have spent an awful lot of time being asked by friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people we happened to bump into at the grocery store just exactly how we can manage to justify what we do for a living. And we also must routinely confront similar challenges in the media. After a while, that gets old, even if we recognize the positive value of criticism. Hence, I think, the “defensiveness” of many academics when lampooned, no matter how gently. I gotta say, folks, we’ve got some reason to feel a bit tender when nearly the only notice anybody takes of us in the media or, indeed, in much of the world at large, is to question our professional worth.

Mr. McLamee has said his article was not meant to be anti-intellectual, and I believe him. I believe his article was meant to highlight what he sees as a phenomenon that is not instigated by the purest intellectual interests. But that doesn’t mean his article doesn’t smack a bit of being anti-academic, or at least anti-lit crit. And I have to say that the following comment from his first post seems to confirm that suspicion: “I am certainly puzzled by the idea that the piece in question is ‘anti-intellectual.’ Then again, failure to treat with all due solemnity the routines of academic life tends to cause problems for anyone hypnotized by the droning noises of ‘professionalization.’ Academics often seem to think they have some monopoly on the capacity to judge intellectual seriousness. But I'm sure a goldfish swimming in his bowl knows as much as he needs to about the depth of the ocean.”

I am one academic who definitely doesn’t think we have a “monopoly on the capacity to judge intellectual seriousness.” But I’m alarmed by the implication that what Mr. McLamee and his fellow committee members have exposed here is not only, as he has said elsewhere, that “some MLA participants themselves appear to have entered a kind of symbiotic relationship with the media,” but also a gauge of the “intellectual seriousness” of the authors. I’m alarmed because the inference here seems to be that academics writing provocative or tongue-in-cheek paper titles are, of necessity, not serious intellectuals. After all, judging the merit of a work by its title is (literally) a proverbially bad idea.

Speaking personally, when I choose to write about topics that place me on panels like “Orifices and Apertures in Chaucer,” I certainly am aware that I’m writing about provocative subjects. Nonetheless, though I can’t answer for every academic writer who’s ever chosen a controversial topic or written a titillating title (or even for all of those nominated for Provokies), I don’t choose to do research on provocative subjects specifically because I want media attention. I choose to do that work because I think I might have something interesting to say about the topic and I want to know whether other people agree with me. If there are people outside academia (including those in the media) who find the topic at all intriguing—-even as a target of satire-—well then, so much the better, since it means there’s more likely to be a wide-ranging and interesting conversation I can participate in. But that’s not my m.o. Whether that makes me a serious intellectual or not is probably not a judgment I’m qualified to make, but I resist the idea that scholars who write on topics that some people consider frivolous or salacious necessarily lack sincerity.

Being provocative for the sake of provocation is, I will agree, rather silly. But avoiding provocation for the sake of being considered intellectually serious is equally silly—and probably self-defeating.

At any rate, one thing I will take away from this is a renewed determination to make the paper I present the best one I can possibly produce. Since discussion of a provocative subject and/or the writing of provocative titles in an academic forum draws such scrutiny, those of us choosing to investigate such subjects or write such titles should be particularly careful to write rigorous, well-considered work. And for reminding me of that, Mr. McLamee, from inside my fishbowl, I salute you.

Posted by: Andrea F. Jones at December 22, 2003 04:06 AM

My apologies to Scott McLemee (*not* McLamee) for consistently misspelling his name. Darn it--I honestly thought I'd double-checked that. This is yet another example of why I don't consider myself above reproach . . . .

Posted by: Andrea at December 22, 2003 05:08 AM

Don't know why I didn't think of this before, but I guess after more thought this isn't really even an issue for me. Increasingly in physics creativity in titling is encouraged, with the proviso that it is related to the topic of the paper. You can only read so many papers titled "Solar wind particle counts observed by (insert satellite name) on (insert date)" or "A model for (insert physical phenomenon)". Many people even use titles as the first step in an algorithm to decide which articles to read (read title, read abstract, then see if figures are interesting, then consider reading the paper). An interesting title is necessary to hook someone for more than the time it takes to think, "That's a boring paper. What's next?"

Thus, we now encourage people to try to be pithy because, in a sea of thousands of papers, it is a selling point. There is no reason that people should be discouraged from creativity; how much less fun would the Superbowl be without the commercials? This is no different -- you want to catch people's attention, and you want them to remember something you said. This is an effective technique, so use it.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 22, 2003 05:29 AM

A brief follow-up to Andrea Jones's post (#84), and then I'm off for the holidays . . .

Anyone who thinks that "Orifices and Apertures in Chaucer" is excessively and preciously trendy hasn't read their Chaucer lately. Scholars of Middle English literature have been dealing with mouths, rectums, vaginas, shot-windows, and the like for at least 50 years. :)

"Tee hee, quod she" indeed.

Have a good holiday season, people!

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at December 22, 2003 09:11 AM

Anyone who thinks academics can't laugh at themselves hasn't spent any time at an MLA bar (or even in an elevator at an MLA hotel).

I think McLemee's article is not nearly as interesting as the responses (including McLemee's own) that have taken place here. And the kinds of responses we've seen are the reason so many academics react negatively when they see articles like the one in question.

Many of the above comments seem to indicate that the authors believe the papers and panels cited by McLemee are actually representative of most of the work presented at MLA.

e.g. Geraldine writes, "The people at the MLA are not intellectuals. They are idiots" (comment 16). Coleman argues that the MLA represents the "culturally catastrophic trivialization of the humanities" and that "It's up to those who continue to defend the event to tell us why we shouldn't respond to it with disgust" (comment 21). J.V.C. writes that academia has an "inability to be frank about how absurd some of its conferences are" (comment 23). When KF points out quite sensibly that the handful of papers McLemee cites are a very small fraction of the papers presented at MLA (comment 49), dsquared responds with "hahaha. have you any clue how pompous you sound right now?" (comment 51). Bizarre.

Using the online MLA conference program, I've posted all the panel and paper titles for work classified as concerning English literature (still a fraction of the total program). Do they look like the kind of thing that should generate "disgust"? Have a look for yourself:

Posted by: George at December 22, 2003 09:51 AM

The problem with MLA is not the papers--some are good, some silly, most are of them are competent instances of research and applied theory (as Chun, Matt K, KF, and others have stated)--it's the social experience (to which I was referring in #1) that is so alienating. As we know it, the MLA is what happens when a handful of star academics get together with a couple thousand unknown but tenured wannabes and several thousand desperate grad students and job candidates. Add to this all the editors and their interns, the hotel staff, and the reporters. It's depressing and/or comical to observe, depending upon one's subject position.

Here's a column on the MLA I wrote last year that attempts to depict the humour and pathos. Maybe you'll like it (or perhaps find it anti-intellectual, hateful, offensive, McCarthyite, or whatever):

Posted by: THB at December 22, 2003 10:22 AM

Or as someone once said to me: going to MLA for the papers is like reading _Clarissa_ for the plot. Now that's funny.

Posted by: Matt K. at December 22, 2003 01:24 PM

I dearly love academics who investigate pop culutre. I work in that field, and trust me, PhDs have absolutely no workable ideas about how movies and TV shows are written, directed, edited, cast, produced or acted. Or distributed. Every single "investigation" into Gross-out Comedies, Black film, whodunits, MOWs, sitcoms or cartoons is worthless.

Posted by: Rachel at January 6, 2004 11:52 AM

" a handful of whacked-out or extreme descriptions are transformed into the clear academic standard...."

No, they're used as evidence of a *lack* of standards.

"does a 4% rate of ludicrosity adequately reflect the field as a whole, warranting varying degrees of "people who go to the MLA are idiots" responses?"

In a word, yes. What fraction of pure, unadulterated bullshit would you expect to find at a convention of physicists, metallurgists, water treatment engineers, or massage therapists?

Posted by: Ealph Phelan at January 16, 2004 04:08 AM

I won't pull imaginary numbers of bullshitters out of a hat, but I have no doubts what so ever that we could find them at conventions of physicists, metallurgists, engineers, etc. I have yet to see a field of human endeavor (business, medicine, law, religion, etc.) in which they can't be found--quality-controlling the humanities so that no cranks ever get a hearing is humanly impossible.

Second, why can't the cranks get their hearing? The appropriate solution to a bulllshitter is to counter their work with better work and convince people--not to scheme to get these "quacks" off the conference program.

Third, when we have a reliable, wholly objective standard in humanistic study that lets us tell bullshit from knowledge without any doubt whatsover, then we can start easily labeling the sort of work mocked in this thread as bullshit. But then again I have a bridge in Brooklyn which you might want to acquire . . .

There is horribly written, horribly thought out poststructuralist theory, yes. But there was horribly written, horribly thought out New Criticism, horribly written, horribly thought out Old Historicism, horribly written, horribly thought out belles lettrism, etc., etc. As a medievalist, I can't get too incensed at the idea that, at any given moment, in any given field, some less-than-spectacular claims are being made. I know too much history to think that I can determine what's objectively right--after all, in a century, much of my objective "rightness" will be seen as quaint misconception. I can make my arguments, critique what I feel doesn't work or misleads, and then hope that later generations will find that one or two of the things I've said remain useful to the needs of the future. But that's all I think any academic, no matter what their approach may be, can strive for.

It's easy to grab a bunch of panels from the 700-odd panels at MLA and decry them as bullshit and "evidence of a lack of standards"--but I'm going to want to see your alternate evidence, your alternate standards first before I give your viewpoint any credence.

Posted by: IvyLeagueGrad at January 16, 2004 12:38 PM