January 02, 2004

So, how was the MLA?

Given the rather heated exchange in the comments to this thread, I'm curious to hear from readers who attended this year's MLA. Was it high, low, or medium-slow? Best academic conference ever? or the last time, cross your heart and hope to die, that you ever agree to participate in your discipline's annual three-ring circus? Give it to us straight, or tell the truth but tell it slant, or just make stuff up (no, don't lie, but feel free to exercise artistic license).


Don't miss Chun's response to my query. He's an M(L)Animal.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 2, 2004 05:44 PM

Boy, oh boy, do I ever wish I could answer this question. I was *there*, but spent three days trapped in a hotel room conducting interviews. I made it to precisely one panel, and even had to run out on the discussion in order to make it back in time for my next interview.

Here's the best I can do for a review: San Diego is a lovely town. There are many swell hotels there. My friends and colleagues are all doing well. There are tons of brilliant grad students and recent PhDs who deserve fantastic jobs. And that one panel was quite good.

Posted by: KF at January 2, 2004 07:04 PM

I've been to almost every MLA since 1992, and I think this was the biggest dud of all. I heard that 8,000 people were there (usually I think it's closer to 10,000), but it was hard to find them.

I have a few theories about this:

1. Budget cuts: fewer hiring committees and smaller travel allowances, fewer editors, fewer new books. (I was really surprised at how empty the book fair was, and only one of the editors from the CHE was at the reception.)

2. Terrorism: the state of high alert, the inconvenience of inspections, and the risk of terrorism, especially on cross-country flights.

3. San Diego Sunshine: the weather was too nice to attend sessions, plus there were lots of local attractions.

4. Three Locations: the convention was divided between the Hyatt, the Marriott, and the Convention Center, with lots of diversions between them.

5. Malaise: Who the hell knows what we're doing anymore? It's getting hard to believe what we do matters as much as we used to think back in the 90s (I noted a decreased note of grandiosity in the talks). The sessions I attended had few people in the audience, and the overall feeling was apathetic. A big "whatever."

Unless things look different next year (or I have a job-related reason for going), I don't know if I can drag myself to another MLA. What's the point? It's even hard to find anything worth the trouble of mocking.

Posted by: THB at January 2, 2004 07:14 PM

Two comments and no one has mentioned clothing? Posers.

Posted by: ogged at January 2, 2004 07:25 PM

Well, I only attended one panel (and that one was very good). Otherwise I was catching up with friends and distant colleagues (and enjoying San Diego).

However, I did stay in the main conference hotel, and while this may sound silly (though it might please ogged), I was paying attention to the clothes people were wearing mostly because of an earlier entry published here: http://www.invisibleadjunct.com/archives/000360.html

(For the record, I just wore jeans and a jeans jacket the whole time I was there.)

I have to say, most people looked both normal and better dressed than the average person waiting at the airport or walking around the city. But two things struck me about a large percentage of MLA attendees that made them stand out: dark clothes and small-framed glasses.

As I mentioned in an earlier comment to an earlier entry, there were many interesting panels on English literature to choose from if you weren't a slacker like me:

Posted by: George at January 2, 2004 07:35 PM

THB -- I second roughly everything in your assessment. The little of the conference I got to see seemed pretty deserted, which I agree likely had to do with budget cuts, the terror threat (how many times walking through various airports this holiday season did I need to be reminded that we were at Code Orange?), and the general loveliness of San Diego.

The multiple-venues problem mostly impacted the book exhibit (which was quite empty, as you say), I think, as the English/foreign-language sessions are almost always held in separate conference hotels. In talking with an editor I know, I came to the opinion that the decision to put the exhibit in the conference center, rather than in the ballroom of one of the hotels, as is customary, was a disaster. No one could apparently be bothered to walk the 200 yards past the Marriott to find the books.

And *that's* a sad commentary on the state of the profession.

Posted by: KF at January 2, 2004 08:07 PM

Forgot to mention, apropos of IA's current top post: The University of Texas football team was *way* more visible than the academics. I'm not sure what to make of that.

Posted by: KF at January 2, 2004 08:09 PM

I attended the MLA as a presenter and a job candidate and found it to be more thinly attended and depressing than usual, particularly at the headquarters hotels. The book exhibit seemed dwarfed by the huge convention center and poorly attended, though some publishers' reps told me that the time that I arrived (mid-morning on the 28th) isn't typically busy for them. Climate control was much better at this year's exhibit, though, especially when contrasted with the sauna in which I vividly recall having waited to talk to an editor in my wool flannel suit while juggling my briefcase and long wool overcoat at last year's convention in New York.

But the scene at the headquarters hotels, especially the Hyatt, was just beyond paranoid this time. Perhaps the dispersion of the New York convention had, as a friend of mine put it, made it seem that amongst the tourists, the convention wasn't even there. And for a job candidate, the appearance that the convention isn't there is a very good thing. As was the case in San Diego this year, there's usually something noxious about the headquarters hotels in their gruesome juxtaposition of the profession's privileged, disenfranchised, and everyone in between, with each person scrutinizing the other's name tag to place him or her on the hierarchy of affiliations and to speculate on employment status. The dramatic contrast between typical academic style and the job candidates' comparatively swanky clothing makes the latter immediately recognizable, to the potential consternation of anyone conducting a secret or even open-secret search: is that thirtysomething with a "good" name tag a graduate student? an adjunct hoping to benefit from the "good affiliation"? a tenure-track professor stuck in a snakepit or unhappy to be "relegated" to the second tier? What of the well-dressed person with the "bad" name tag who seems especially circumspect in the hallways? And will your hair be out of place, or that fixedly cheerful I'd-love-your-awful-4/4-position-in-the-middle-of-nowhere job candidate smile momentarily gone, just as a member of a hiring committee unexpectedly appears? Will you be overheard making an unflattering remark (the kind, of course, we all know not to make in such venues) just as a powerful person appears? This kind of paranoia is endemic to the setting, but my sense was that at the Headquarters Hotels I was the recipient of more vaguely unpleasant looks from tweedy men than usual this year--but was fortunate not to discover any of them on my committees.

And how about those charming episodes that happen in transit: the awkward conversations in the SuperShuttle between individuals of radically different ranks and affiliations; the hotels with elevators that choose their direction at their own free will, confusing both job candidates and "well affiliated" senior professors but prompting the latter first to lecture to the former on how to operate it properly and then to be unable to do so himself? (These were actual incidents from conventions, the latter this year's.)

This simultaneous curiosity about and suspicion of other conventioners seems especially characteristic of the headquarters venues, and the parts of the convention that I enjoyed most were those at which I was either 1) out with friends, or 2) waiting in a hotel other than a headquarters for an interview. In the latter, I had nothing but cordial interactions with other candidates, even as we lined up by the dozens at the single house phone at five minutes on the hour. (I finally resorted to my cell.) I suppose it's easy to be nice to other candidates when you all know that you're not there for the same interview, but the changed context--everyone in the lobby was a candidate or a tourist, not a potentially powerful conventiongoer on the way to a panel--seems to me to have been what mitigated the paranoia and made the MLA seem like some semblance of a normal place.

Posted by: A Tired Candidate at January 3, 2004 03:30 AM

Well, even though I'm a full prof, I didn't have any trouble with the elevators. I hadn't been to an MLA for several years & I found this one quite relaxing. I went to several sessions & presided at one (on Wallace Stevens) & with the exception of a couple of panelists who went on too long, I thought the sessions interesting & intelligent. I can well-believe there were fewer people this year--there wasn't any of the crush I remember from previous years.

Fashion observation: men with close-cropped hair. Flowing locks really dated you at this conference.

Posted by: chujoe at January 3, 2004 08:37 AM

Dare anyone forecast the fashion and social/professional climate of the AHA to be held this week in our besieged capital? Do any paper titles invite scorn or mockery? Or are there any panels not to be missed?

Posted by: Samba at January 3, 2004 09:26 AM

Samba -

All I can speak for is my own fashion trends at AHA next week. I'll be the one wearing the headband, the c. 1979 athletic shorts, and the French national basketball team jersey with "Braudel" written on the back. The latter was a throwback jersey I found on ebay for 10 euros.

I think I'll be inviting mockery personally this year, one way or another, from search committees, passing tourists, and perhaps even wandering pets.

You can be sure the AHA will feature the critical mass of hundreds of panicking and paranoid job candidates milling about the hotel lobby.

Posted by: better left nameless at January 3, 2004 10:48 AM

Here is something a little off topic, and probably a bit whiny. I am envious that the MLA was held this year in San Diego. As a member of the AHA, I had to travel to Chicago last year (cold!), and am going to DC next week. (a little less cold, but still cold enough!) If we must have our major conventions in January, why not schedule them in warmer-weather cities? San Diego, Honolulu, or Miami would be nice venues. Instead we get Chicago (last year), DC, Seattle (2005) Philadelphia (2006), Atlanta (2007), DC again in 2008, NYC in 2009, and finally (!) San Diego in 2010. Don't be surprised if 2010 ends up a banner year for attendance at our annual love fest.

Posted by: DM at January 3, 2004 04:18 PM

On the other hand, when the MLA (or the AHA) is held on the left coast, the costs of travel can be, well, extraordinary. I shudder to think about how much I spent. In fact, I would speculate that after all was said and done, a new coat and slacks, air faire, can and shuttle faires, hotel accomodations, and food, I spent close to an adjunct salary for a course for a semester. And for what, I ask! So I could be asked over and over: 'so your degree is in comparative literature ... what exactly do you compare'.


On the plus side, I did win 2 rounds of beers playing pool on the night after my interviews were over.

Posted by: Chris at January 4, 2004 01:12 PM

"On the other hand, when the MLA (or the AHA) is held on the left coast, the costs of travel can be, well, extraordinary."

Don't forget about those of us who live -- yes, really! -- on the left coast, for whom the vast majority of big-conference travel involves such extraordinary expenditures. When such expenditures are accompanied by sub-freezing temperatures and various forms of frozen precipitation -- well, insult to injury, salt in open wounds, etc. At least San Diego had the courtesy to be sunny and warm.

Posted by: KF at January 4, 2004 04:11 PM

Not everybody likes sunny and warm, and if you do and live on the West Coast, well you have it all the time. Snow and cold are great too. Me, I hate sunny and warm. I tend towards skin cancer and a too skinny physique to pull off shorts and a tie. Give me a place where I can wear a jacket and V-neck and tie and I am much, much happier. If there is a roaring fire and a warm drink at the end of the day, so much the better. Besides, when I go to a conference, I am not going to see the sights (although show up early for the mummers parade when AHA comes to Philly, trust me, it is worth it). I am going to meet my friends from grad school and elsewhere in the profession, go to some (hopefully) good panels, maybe (but probably not) interview for a job, and check out the book exhibit. I'm more interested in food, friends, and finding out what the hell is going on in the profession. Does San Diego even have decent cheap food?

Posted by: David Salmanson at January 4, 2004 04:41 PM

San Diego has some quite affordable and good ethnic food (Persian, Indian...) just a few blocks from the convention hotels.

My experience of the MLA this year amounted to interviewing two candidates, after which my chair observed that I appeared to be on the verge of imminent death (brought on by the flu, not the candidates). I'm from Southern Cal, so my mom just drove over & rescued me. I've yet to ask the colleague who delivered my paper if he survived the experience...

As for clothes, everybody seemed to be wearing standard-issue business suits. I did see one occasional contributor to this site wander by (the gentleman from Hope College).

Posted by: Miriam at January 4, 2004 06:21 PM

I just happened on this posting from somewhere else, and I am struck by the fact that I have read the post and all of the comments, and STILL have no idea what MLA (or AHA) stand for, or what the subject matter was at this convention. It was certainly academically oriented (and this tells me someting about academe), and maybe included something about English literature, but NO ONE says ANYTHING about the purpose of the gathering.

A similar posting for an engineering convention would be filled with technical references that would allow the reader to at least figure out the profession sponsoring it. Was this one a fashion convention, or a professional job-hunting convention, or maybe for travel agents in academia?

Posted by: engineer at January 5, 2004 08:41 AM

The purpose of both (or at least the AHA, from direct experience -- I'm extrapolating about the MLA) is to schmooze, interview and be interviewed, and to be seen. If the location is nice and you can afford to go, it's also a mini-vacation if you're not involved in the interview process. (Note I didn't mention presenting in or attending academic panels -- I have yet to attend a truly good one at the AHA, and the halfway decent ones tended to be scheduled all at the same time. Small conferences are so much better for this! (The MLA may be different.))

I am not attending the AHA this year, and while in a vague way I regret missing the chance to see my friends and to dress up and eat nice food, I am most certainly not missing the expense, the feeling of wasted time, and the jaded job searcher's ennui (or apathy, I'm not sure which) that had come to replace my interview jitters.

AHA = American History Association
MLA = Modern Literature Association (I think)

Posted by: Rana at January 5, 2004 12:14 PM

The MLA is the Modern Language Association and AHA is the American History Association?

Anyway I was going to go to the AEA (American Economic Association) in San Diego this week but skipped it when I didn't get any interviews scheduled (I am a tenure track prof but would like to live elsewhere). The main purpose of the meeting seems to be inteviews. I've only been twice - once to be interviewed and once to interview. To get a paper on the program you need to be in the inside crowd of the current president of the AEA or one of the other participating socieities.

I will go to the AAG (Association of American Geographers) in March in Philadelphia. That is an entirely different story. There are almost no interviews at the meeting and every paper submitted is accepted....

Then ISEE (International Society for Ecological Economics) in July in Montreal... which is again an entirely different story (much smaller).


Posted by: David at January 5, 2004 12:58 PM

I am glad that at least some agree with me about the absurdity of locating a major convention in miserably cold weather. Here on the so-called left coast (as opposed to the "right coast"? yuck!), we may not have winter, but we do have a serious fall. Those of you worried about exposure to the sun, or your less-than-impressive bodies, could easily handle these parts in January. And yeah, I go to these conferences for various professional and social reasons. Nonetheless, it is nice to go outside once in a while, and not have to worry about cold bitter enough to give you a headache. (I did wear a cap last time, but who needs it.) While the MLA can do whatever it wishes, I would be thrilled if the AHA would become more creative in scheduling its annual meeting.

Posted by: DM at January 5, 2004 02:04 PM

I think you're right, David, about the "L" in MLA -- thanks for the correction.

I agree with the comments about the torment of winter AHA locations. There's nothing wrong with DC, Chicago, etc. in a general sense (I do love the museums), but it is tiring being a Westerner and always having to fly cross-country to get there, let alone having to procure and pack great wads of heavy winter clothing. (For a long time I had no lightweight interview clothes, in no small part due to this.) I've heard the weighting of conference locations toward the cold and northeastern is because it's cheaper to go in the "off season" and also because there are more colleges and universities east of the Mississippi, but it's annoying, whatever the reason. The conference is a torment enough as it is; why add flight delays and wind chill to the experience?

(Another reason to be glad that I'm out of the market this year.)

Posted by: Rana at January 5, 2004 07:49 PM

As a veteran AHA attender but also someone living in the middle of the country (and hence finding almost all AHA locations equally inconvenient), I should note that attendance at West Coast AHAs is substantially less than at eastern ones. Maybe if the many California academics would give up a few days at the beach and attend conferences held in the Golden State, more conferences would be scheduled there.

Posted by: In the provinces at January 7, 2004 02:32 PM

Indeed. The nerve of us many California academics, spending all our days surfing, sunning, and playing our favorite Brian Wilson tunes. No wonder we can't get anything done!


Posted by: DM at January 7, 2004 08:51 PM

Indeed. The nerve of us many California academics, spending all our days surfing, sunning, and playing our favorite Brian Wilson tunes. No wonder we can't get anything done!

Having just looked at the DC forecast (. . . for the AHA), I'm now reaching for the Pet Sounds CD as I pack my coat. Brrr.

Posted by: Samba at January 8, 2004 09:06 AM

DM, it took a couple of years in the Midwest for me to finally understand that "you must go to the beach Every. Day!" attitude. There, when the weather is suddenly (and briefly) good, everyone takes off work and generally acts like a giddy little kid playing hooky. As you well know, here we just shrug and get in the car for the long commute; ain't no California employer gonna cut _us_ any slack.

I have to question whether it's the weather alone that makes a Western conference less well attended (and if it does, it wouldn't be the _California_ academics playing hooky); I'd imagine that it's the distance,too, especially for folks who can only get department funding for one conference a year (and would rather put it to a smaller, more productive one). The East Coast does tend to outnumber us.

Posted by: Rana at January 8, 2004 11:21 AM

I've never seen a reason to go to MLA, other than job interviews. The transient pleasures of running into people you knew from grad school, or from other conferences, is definitely a plus -- but is it worth the trouble and expense of attendance? Not to mention the fact that a huge convention packed with some 10,000 people is just alienating and weird. If I want to people-watch academics, I can do it just fine every day at work, thank you very much. On my vacations, I'd like a break.

As for the ostensible reason for the conference, the panels: every time I read the program, I get excited, and turn down lots of page corners -- it's like getting a good catalog in the mail. But then all the panels I want to see conflict with one another. Or, once I'm there, they disappoint. All in all, I'd get a lot more out of most panelists if they just gave me their papers to read. This is not to knock academic conferences entirely: I've been to a number of small conferences that were excellent. They all, however, shared certain characteristics: no (or very few) overlapping panels, a fairly narrowly-defined intellectual focus, and the aforementioned limited number of participants. By the second day of this kind of conference, there's enough continuity and cross-referencing that the whole thing feels like an extended seminar, and I leave feeling like I actually learned something, and that there's a connection between my work and other people's. Cocktail parties at MLA provide a different kind of connection, I guess, but not a preferable one.

I don't mean to sound unbelievably stodgy, but what social life as exists at MLA conventions is entirely overshadowed by the academic meat market. Small conferences are more fun socially, as well.

(I skipped this year's, in case anyone is wondering).

Posted by: Ruth at January 9, 2004 12:18 PM

To [#16] engineer.
A quick trip to google will tell you what these initials stand for.

As for:
" I am struck by the fact that I have read the post and all of the comments, and STILL have no idea what MLA (or AHA) stand for"
I have seen postings and comments for engineering stuff and some of it isnt any much better. RFC or POSIX anyone? Or perhaps the conferences like SIGACT and SIGPLAN are somehow more meaningful? And there is that thing with some penguin or demon like logo......

"A similar posting for an engineering convention would be filled with technical references "
If you cannot tell what MLA and AHA stands for, good luck figuring out technical references.

"Was this one a fashion convention, or a professional job-hunting convention, or maybe for travel agents in academia?"
Would it be fair if I were to say people doing multi-threading are in the tailor business?

Engineering and/or science types shouldnt be smug about how things are done in their world. If you understood some of the examples I have posted, you proberbly guess my background. Honestly, I dont understand much of the humanities stuff around here, but this stuff has been around for years. (MLA has been around for over a humdered years I think, comparatively ACM was started in 1970s) The humanities have their strategies for existance and their survival. We engineering/science types should learn a little more about them, understand their successes and their failures, and not be too quick to judge.

Posted by: at January 9, 2004 02:01 PM


I just returned from the AHA. Not only was the whole thing terribly expensive, we had Arctic temperatures to contend with. My field's large social gathering was dark (bad lighting, I guess), pricy, and a bit stuffy. Nonetheless, I think I accomplished enough at this annual affair. I am at the point in my career, when it is good to meet people. Once my professional life stabilizes more, I will reconsider the benefits of going to the AHA. When, for example, it is held on the coast opposite your home, factor in at least $600 for a weekend. That amount of money/funding can often be better spent elsewhere.

By the way, I am presenting fairly soon at a serious conference in California. Certain snobs from the midwest should know that all the prominent California academics will be there.

Posted by: DM at January 12, 2004 02:45 PM

I didn't realize the AHA was descending upon my little Washington, DC neighborhood until I went out to eat at my neighborhood sushi restaurant and found it over run with young historians in name tags. Ditto the Chipolte and Lebanesse Taverna. Hope you all had a good time!

Posted by: Matilde at January 12, 2004 02:56 PM