Bonhomie and gossip, then disturbing discussion about the state we're in

January 13, 2011

For Lennard Davis, the Modern Language Association convention is "an annual gathering of the clans, a chance to take the patient's pulse in the relevant disciplines".

In fact, said the professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, "it's a bit like Brigadoon", the Scottish village in the 1947 musical that materialises once every 100 years.

It also takes the form of a huge college reunion, with people grabbing the chance to get together with friends, and often partners or spouses, from graduate school who now live thousands of miles away - sometimes to the neglect of the panels on "poetics of paratexts" or medieval literature.

Smaller humanities-based organisations, from the American Humor Studies Association to the Harold Pinter Society, also get their once-a-year opportunity to come together.

But despite the good cheer of such reunions, this year there was no escaping the reality that times are tough - particularly for those seeking a first foothold in the profession.

Although there is no obligatory retirement age for US academics, Professor Davis explained that "the baby boomers were predicted to start retiring by now, but the effect of the economic crash on their pensions means they can't afford to".

For one graduate student who was delivering a paper and will be seeking a job a year from now, "it is like the fall of Rome: graduate students are the fastest proletarianising group in the US today. We get into debt to attend conferences like this, but it's hard to see any bright prospects or job security 10 years down the line."

Such a message seemed rather incongruous in the glitzy foyer of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Los Angeles, but the job statistics and other longer-term trends are indeed grim.

Noting the cuts to language programmes everywhere from the State University of New York at Albany to the University of Southern Carolina, incoming MLA president Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University, warned that "the elimination of languages is the slippery slope to (George Orwell's) 1984".

The crisis in scholarly publishing was also discussed. With library sales for many books down to about 150, the traditional scholarly monograph is under severe threat - with huge implications for academic visibility and career-building - and publishers are struggling to forge sustainable business models for digital products.

But whether or not the vandals are almost at the gates, the MLA put on an impressive show for its 126th convention. More than 8,000 people were on site, including 350 exhibitors from university presses and over 3,000 panellists in 821 sessions.

Portuguese pooches and Bloomsbury's underwear

It is a sign of the sheer scale of the MLA convention that it included so many sessions and papers whose titles or subtitles were obscure, intriguing or just plain baffling.

How many people are interested, for example, in "Measure and measurement in the age of Milton", "The life of dogs in the Lusophone world" or "The dangers and delights of data mining"?

Some session titles had a surreal inventiveness even if they gave little clue as to their content. What was one to make of "The enkindling reciter", "Bloomsbury's underwear" or "Of dissolved frogs and cider rules"?

And what was there to be said about "Oscar Wilde in Los Angeles" beyond the fact that he never set foot there? But perhaps the prize for the most bizarrely amusing title should go to "What would Jesus google?"

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