Absolutely confabulous

January 9, 1998

At the Modern Language Association's annual conference, 9,000 literary scholars gathered to debate papers whose titles guarantee media ridicule while graduates chased that elusive first job. Tim Cornwell meets a confused and worried tribe.

Elaine Showalter, the feminist scholar, author and self-described freelance hack whose work appears in everything from The Times to Vogue, presides over the Modern Language Association's annual meet from the Royal Suite of the Royal York Hotel. This is where The Queen stays when she is in Toronto, and she is said to love it. Her portrait hangs in the sitting room, and next door is a dining table that probably sits 20. No mini-bar here: instead a generous supply of complementary liquor, largely unused, on the sideboard. The MLA may enshrine post-colonial studies, but the suite's imperialist scale seems thoroughly appropriate. Showalter cuts a regal figure, and for 1998 she will helm the Mother of all Literary Associations.

"MLA?" queries the woman stamping passports at Toronto Airport. For four days between Christmas and New Year's Day, some 9,000 MLA members take over the industrial hub of Canada so completely as to be inescapable in every restaurant and hotel elevator. They fill block bookings at ten hotels, trade gossip in adjoining seats on the Air Canada flight and in adjoining tables at Le Select Bistro. Toronto's cold has kept the numbers down this year, but the MLA is still a tank regiment of literary scholars ranging from associate professors at obscure US colleges to heavyweights such as Showalter, Edward Said or Stephen Greenblatt.

And yet. The culture wars revived briefly this winter, as conservatives pounced on a sexuality conference at the State University of New York where representatives of the sex industry led discussion of S&M and sex toys. But at the MLA itself, famous as the birthplace of "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl", as the home to literary radicals, feminists and queer studies, to self-parodying flights of political correctness, there is a lot of navel-gazing going on.

The talk at this year's meeting was not of some brave new theory but of jobs, economics, teaching, and there was a good deal of thumb-sucking about the profession and the MLA itself. One of several sessions on the subject was called "MLAlienation", with titles such as "The Neurotic Structure of the Academic Job Market".

The MLA is the most visible of the United States's academic associations; it is also the most maligned. A group that seemed to delight in defying "common sense", in being the lightning rod for right-wing attacks on academia, may finally be tiring of disrespect. "I think that even on the extreme left, which still exists, there is a recognition that we have to speak to a wider public," Showalter says.

The MLA, which was founded in 1884, boasts 30,000 members in 100 countries, although most are from the US and Canada. Showalter says there is nothing like it in Britain, as the umbrella for an entire field. Though conservatives have formed breakaway groups, the MLA remains the great melting pot for literary scholars. By some accounts, the papers presented at its annual conference are actually a side-show to the main event, the job market. But PhD students who come to the MLA as interviewees come back in later years as interviewers.

At the book fair, every university press from Oxford to Nebraska is there. Besides showing their wares (though the convention traditionally ends with a scramble for cut-price books being unloaded) they are looking for new authors. "This is where most of the connections that lead to book contracts are made," says William Murphy, humanities editor with the University of Wisconsin Press. Authors pass out copies from bags of books; others dole out sample chapters to editors. Nancy Grey, a Duke University graduate student, is patrolling the booths between job interviews, picking out a publisher at whom to pitch the idea for an anthology.

It is hard to pin a mood on this huge gathering. But it may have been captured in a paper by George Levine of Rutgers University on "The Culture of the Profession: An Investigation of Academic Tribes". "We are frustrated and angry and saddened," he writes. For all the "intellectual excitement" in wandering ever farther from established texts, he says, "it would be hard to say that our culture is very happy". Humanities scholars, he suggests, have lost the wars of language: "deconstruction" and "postmodernism" have become "cursewords", and "it matters a lot that the media are unsympathetic when so much of our work depends on tax dollars".

One delegate says the MLA has turned "conservative". But Reed Dasenbrock, of New Mexico State University, calls it a lot more "prudential, let's not stick our head out," amid a sense that MLA faculty have paid in state funding battles for being politically provocative. Levine and others argue that the over-production of PhDs is causing uncertainty in the profession, while some colleges have already pledged to downsize.

The convention opened with a report showing that from 1990 to 1995, 55 per cent of 7,598 PhDs in English and foreign languages failed to get full-time, tenure-track posts in their first year. That may not seem so tight by British standards, but it feeds talk of a job crisis. Part-timers now account for 40 per cent of faculty at US colleges. There are complaints of the squeeze on tenure, and graduate students protest about too much teaching work for too few rewards.

MLA veterans say there is more interest in teaching than there has been for many years, reigniting the old debate over the needs of teaching against research. Annabel Patterson, a Yale University professor, called for the dissertation to be ended and replaced by an essay and evidence of a "thoughtful encounter with teaching".

Dissertations are "unlovely objects", she says. The better ones are typically a single article puffed up with "empty wind". Others boast a huge idea, a heavily theorised introduction and three puny, unpersuasive readings of loosely connected "texts".

MUST-READ TITLES.

"You can guarantee that as I speak some reporter is thinking nasty thoughts after a scan of our programme," George Levine, of Rutgers University, moans to a session of the MLA conference. Almost every year, journalists pick out titles from 2,000 papers in the 350-page programme for the sole purpose of ridiculing academics.

In that same spirit, a sampling of titles follows:

* "Tennis Balls: Masculinity and Henry V; or, According to the OED, Shakespeare doesn't Have any Balls" -Rebecca Ann Bach, University of Alabama, Birmingham, from a programme on Shakespearean Masculinities.

* "He's Got a Hot Ass: Leonardo da Vinci and Duchamp's Homosexing of the Mona Lisa" -Paul Franklin, Harvard University.

* "The Architextual Structures of James Joyce's Ulysses: Colonised Homes, Hegemonic Schools, National Taverns, and Heterotopic Brothels" -Robert Bennett, University of California, Santa Barbara.

* "Limit of the Nation: The Hymen and Griselda's Smock" -Kathleen Davis, Bucknell University, from a programme on Chaucer's Queer Nation.

* "Post-World War II Westerns, the Cold War, and the Politics of Asexual Reproduction" - Stanley J Corkin, University of Cincinnati.

* "Metaphors We Live By in Academe; or, Why Is a University Like a Box of Chocolates?" -Evelyn J. Hinz, University of Manitoba.

* "Reconstructing the Bible Belt: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Rednecks" -Harriette Andreadis, Texas A&M University, from the programme Voices in the Wilderness: Teaching Queer Studies in Strange Places.

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