Three-ring circus of the literary intelligentsia

December 18, 1998

"Come to the next MLA," the aptly named American academic Morris Zapp, professor of English at Euphoric State University, advises a young lecturer from Limerick in David Lodge's novel Small World. "Anybody who's a conference freak is sure to be at the MLA." Lodge called the Modern Language Association the "Big Daddy" of conferences, a "three-ring circus of the literary intelligentsia". In a novel comparing the modern conference to the medieval pilgrimage, the MLA is where all roads converge.

Nearly 20 years on, Lodge's depiction of the MLA is acutely funny. It is hardly surprising that it fell to a British academic and writer to exploit the fictional potential of a gathering of 10,000 professors of language and literature and their students. For any struggling British professor of English, the MLA is a thoroughly United States phenomenon. It is viewed through the same crusty lens as the American car or GI: oversized, oversexed and (to our relief, tinged with regret) not over here.

Just imagine: an association of university teachers with 30,000 members, 90 full-time staff, an $11 million budget and a syndicated radio show.

The MLA gathers this year in San Francisco, meeting as always in the gap between Christmas and the New Year. In 888 sessions and roughly three times that many papers over four days, participants will busily theorise everything from Ivanhoe to email, from animal autobiography to new British fiction. But gone are the days when the MLA was denounced as a nest of "tenured radicals". The profession is confronting an upheaval far removed from queering the canon or political correctness. It's the job market, stupid.

Teaching assistants are pushing a radical platform this year that would require the MLA to get tough on the use of low-paid, part-time labour in the sweatshops of literature and language departments. Their complaints, of a gipsy lifestyle chasing ill-paid temporary lectureships, will strike familiar chords in Britain.

Much of the real action this year will take place behind closed doors, in 20 hotels. The MLA operates as a massive jobs clearing-house, aka the "meat market", where newly coined PhDs compete for university posts in a gruelling marathon of first-round interviews with future employers. In recent years, many have emerged shell-shocked. Only a third of PhDs in the modern languages are finding tenure-track jobs in the year they get their degrees, according to the MLA. The real pain felt by graduate students helped spark a strike this month by teaching assistants at the University of California at Berkeley and other campuses.

In the MLA, the insurgents are led by Mark Kelley, leader of the Graduate Students Caucus, who is busy fomenting revolution. The association, he says, has allowed a two-tier class system to emerge in US universities. It is a "country club for the tenured facultyI we want to return it to its insurgent roots".

The 1998 MLA president, Elaine Showalter, professor of humanities at Princeton University, says the problem simply is "that we don't have enough decent jobs to go around", and options outside the academy must be considered. At Showalter's invitation, PhDs-turned-journalists, webmasters and Hollywood producers are turning up in San Francisco, while she urges better writing, broader training and "do-able" careers outside universities.

"Part of it is to let graduates see some of these ideas about how our destiny is the university are very artificial, that there are lots of possibilities," says Showalter, whose forays into the media include television criticism and articles for Vogue. "There is a tendentious group hostile to the discussion, but no one is forcing anybody. When people with skills have more than one option, they have more value in the marketplace."

Showalter's ideas are echoed across academia, where there has been tut-tutting from professors over their graduate students' demands. The MLA, they say, cannot start laying down the law to English departments about whom to hire.

Kelley views the practices of English departments as unethical, accusing them of taking administrative decisions to produce PhDs then exploiting the surplus by replacing well-paid tenured posts with far cheaper contract work. "Screen-writing for PhDS? That is so frightening as to be almost comic," says Kelley. "It's farcical. Showalter wants us to learn typing and phone-marketing skills so they can get us off their back."

The Times HigherJdecember 18 1998i modern language association A guide to the people, controversies and prizes of the 1998 convention of the MLAin San Francisco, December -30

WHAT'S THE WORD? - THE MLA'S OWN RADIO SHOW

What's the Word?, the MLA's radio programme, is carried on radio stations across the United States. It is a three-interview show on literary topics such as censorship or the Bible spiced with music, melodrama and modernity.

The idea was conceived in the wake of the abuse heaped on the association in the early 1990s, when right-wingers accused the MLA of neglecting canonical greats such as Shakespeare in favour of more obscure leftist literary critiques.

The first six shows were recorded at the National Center for the Humanities in North Carolina. But a focus group gave it a devastating thumbs-down: the shows were boring and the scholars talked too far above them. The MLA turned to a professional producer, who reminds academics that they are not talking to colleagues.

The second time round, a sample audience was bowled over. "The reaction has been very, very positive," said radio committee chairman Michael Holquist, of Yale University.

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