MLAlienation and my part in it

December 18, 1998

No British experience can compare with the MLA, says Diane Purkiss

I tried to join the Modern Language Association in 1991. The association swallowed up a big fat money order and never replied. So I did not try again until I noticed they took credit cards.

Why did I risk my cash again? Well, the MLA is the largest professional body of its kind in the United States, representing 10,000 language and literature scholars. It seems to me important to stay in touch with colleagues in America and with their preoccupations, since these ultimately affect what we British academics do too.

In an era when it is virtually impossible as a British academic to get a book published unless it can also be published in the US, and totally impossible to get promoted unless you publish, it seems wilful to ignore the MLA.

There is no British experience remotely comparable to attending its annual conference. The biggest British conference I have ever attended was around 350 people. Around 10,000 people will attend the annual MLA conference in San Francisco. Nonetheless, it must be said that the MLA is also slightly po-faced and earnest about itself. Serious, efficient, but not much fun. The lack of sense of humour is detectable in this year's conference programme.

My vote for worst session title goes to "Does Gender have Feelings? Feminism, Consumption and Passionate Writers", but "Lunar Ecstacies" is nice too, and "Dandyism in Diaspora" is both fey and inscrutable. Worst session concept? Perhaps "Waxing Historic, Literary and Cinematic: Wax Figures (from Flowers to Mannequins) in (Post-)modernism".

One of the conference's main themes is an exploration of how academics might "go public": move beyond the narrow confines of the academy to work in a wider field. The possibility that these exhortations to go public might be lessons in whoredom is not canvassed. And for some reason Britain seems to be a model. Not only is Cambridge historian Jay Winter speaking about his work on a television series about the first world war but there is also the first American showing of the TV adaptation of David Lodge's novel Nice Work. TV: the way out of the academy. Do as thou wilt.

This is a nice ambiguity: Lodge's story is about the struggles of an academic to remain in academe despite the difficulties of getting a job in a British university during the Thatcher era, but the programme is an instance of a television series made from the work of an academic.

Perhaps Britain is a model because we are deemed to have valuable experience in dealing with severe graduate unemployment. The conference will be characterised by handwringing about the plight of those PhDs who cannot get teaching jobs in American universities because of the jobs shortage. Sessions entitled "MLAlienation" are accompanied by desperate workshops in which the phalanxes of unemployed PhDs are urged to try something else, such as market-gardening or stockmarketing. Nice Work, which deals with a time when there were no jobs in British universities, might alert Americans to the possibility that things are not too bad.

Of course the conference is also a cattle call for those attempting to find a first job. Mine was perhaps the first generation to experience MLAlienation and mass unemployment. As a result British academics of my generation are now all revved up like BMW 7-series saloons, impatient with the Morris Minors ahead of us, determined to be superstars.

Really the MLA is several hundred British-style conferences occurring simultaneously, with a sound-and-light show and a job fair strapped on. That said, we Brits are learning. Maybe someone one day will think of giving us our own MLA and conference.

Diane Purkiss will soon leave Reading University to take up a chair at Exeter.

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