Beer, bad jokes and Brigitte Bardot's bikini

December 21, 2001

There is no single theme running through this year's Modern Language Association conference but ethnic identity and disability feature strongly, as do the practicalities of modern academic life. Harriet Swain scans the schedule

Modern Language Association conventions are not known for their humour, but David Galef, associate professor of 20th-century British literature and creative writing at the University of Mississippi, plans to challenge that serious image. His paper, "What's not funny?", will be "larded with jokes", many of them sexist or racist, in an attempt "both to offend and enlighten". He says people no longer listen to jokes properly. They hear particular buzzwords and are instantly outraged, regardless of what the joke is trying to say. He also believes that the line between jokes and literature is "more tenuous than is often thought" because many jokes are essentially "narratives".

It is impossible to find a pattern in the 800-odd sessions at this year's convention. Panels examine subjects from Homer to Harry Potter, John Donne to Margaret Atwood and from female protagonists in romantic epics to securing tenure. Some are as unappealing as "How boring was Soviet socialist realism?", others as intriguing as "Brigitte Bardot and her bikini".

Galef's paper, to be presented at one of two panels on ethnic humour, fits with the run of themes on identity and minority culture and questions of what makes literature and how it is communicated. Sessions examine American Indians, representations of Latinos in Disney films, ethnic food in American literature and food as colonial culture.

The role of women in literature and academia recurs so often that it seems it has escaped the minority ghetto. Papers range from "Clever girls: genetic engineering and gendered identity in Jurassic Park " to "Rape, rage, modernism and postmodernism". There are also sessions on issues such as family-leave policies in academia.

Most striking is the frequent occurrence of themes involving disability. Robert McRuer, assistant professor in the department of English at George Washington University, says this is partly because the disability rights movement is beginning to have an impact and partly because many academics are becoming interested in disability's role in wider debates about marginalisation. "We inhabit a vast array of bodies and minds," he says. "Disabled studies looks at how those differences are represented in literature, art and philosophy." McRuer's paper examines how "coming out" rhetoric is increasingly used in reference to disability issues. Other papers look at film noir and the disabled body, and old age as disability.

Some feel that the number of sessions on the practicalities of academic life overshadows those on research. Nabil Matar, professor of English at the Florida Institute of Technology, believes it could be because universities are becoming more customer-oriented.

The conference still includes many traditional topics but there are also new subjects, including a paper on e-poetry given by Loss Glazier, professor in the English department at the State University of New York, Buffalo. He will talk about a poem he has developed that has eight variations for one line and that changes every ten seconds "so you never finish reading the poem you started".

The events of September 11 are likely to get a few mentions, among them a paper by Paul Wellen of the National College of Business and Technology, on how the internet can enable westerners to gain access to "Arab and Islamic viewpoints" that challenge western norms. McRuer says he expects many academics to add a line or two about the international situation.

Matar suggests the impact of current events is likely to be more practical. "It may mean people get a little more drunk."

The Modern Language Association annual conference is being held from December -30 in New Orleans. Details: www.mla.org

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