After a ten-year hiatus, I moved back to Chicago a few months ago to finish up the duration of my fellowship. One of the things I was most looking forward to was the 2014 MLA hosted in a cluster of downtown hotels. More than anything, I was glad to have a chance to see and present at the MLA a solid year before being on the market at MLA 2015. That said, I’ve heard enough MLA horror stories, even in my undergrad years, to leave me shaking in my boots. Then we also have the fact that Twitter imploded with MLA rage in the months leading up to this year’s convention. The first that I caught wind of the issues on Twitter was when I became wrapped up in tweets about the UC Riverside less-than-a-week’s-notice-to-interview debacle. I am sure most of us would be miffed to have such short notice for any cross-country interview. I’m not going to enter into the debate here (you can see a few different angles by following the link) aside from saying that I feel genuinely sorry for anyone faced with such steep last-minute, quite possibly insurmountable costs.
The debate over the interview notice led to a plethora of MLA horror stories ranging from the general advice not to wear one’s wedding ring to the more unusual advice not to be seen in a winter coat (for fear the coat might be frumpy? I’m not sure I can even begin to follow that one…). Many were filled with dread for the famed MLA elevator talk and even more hearts filled with dread over name-tag glancing (having difficulty filtering the affiliation judgements from genuine curiosity). In the end there were even some productive discussions about universities switching to Skype for interviews (as is protocol in several other disciplines) and allowing the MLA to move from meat market to ordinary (though quite large) conference. There was also a very informative MLA history on Facebook by MLA’s former president Michael Bérubé that showed support for moving away from MLA interviews, but also urged us not to be so nostalgic about the MLA being perfect before the interview system (given that jobs were previously shared through a Good Ol’ Boy network): “Some Stuff About the MLA Convention Just in Time for the MLA Convention.”
All in all, I headed into the conference as leery as I was excited. My heart belongs to the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) because their multi-day panel layout allows for some of the richest discussions I’ve ever been apart of at any conference, but I’m a general lover of conferences. I (or rather my paper) was once heavily grilled at the 20th and 21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium, but it ended well and left me with a true feeling of being able to land on my feet and defend my work. I was also there away from my usual comparatist colleagues, which is always unfortunate given what a joy the conference reunion provides, but even without the usual comforts (not to mention a horrible bout of food poisoning from a San Francisco Indian restaurant), once again, it was a success. I really went into the MLA expecting nothing but the best.
And I got the best–the best an enormous meat-markety conference full of terrified meat could provide. No, really, it wasn’t bad in the slightest. The elevator experience was pretty normal–walk in, smile, turn and face the front, walk out. I can handle that. I tried to look at a few name tags, but then I realized my eyes were squinty trying to make out the tiny font and maybe my face looked scrunched and angry, so I looked away and smiled. I wondered if everyone on Twitter thought everyone was scowling at them because everyone was just a bunch of four-eyed vision-impaired dorks like me, uh oh.
One thing that was kind of an MLA fail for me was the MLA bouncers checking badges to go into conference rooms. I thought this was kind of a ridiculous waste of manpower. Plus, I had my badge in my pocket and a pile of stuff in my arms, so it was just a huge hassle and made me feel like I was going through customs. I’ve never ever experienced a bouncer at a conference before. I wondered what he would do if I just continued to push past…would I be MLA-tackled? I like to really push things time-wise (read, I’m always ten minutes behind), so running down the hall to put things on a table to find a badge to run back to the guy to get in (terrified maybe my badge wasn’t in my bag–what if I forgot it at lunch!?) left me a little terrified and more frazzled than I needed to be before giving a paper.
I really honestly can’t even believe the MLA elevator is such a big issue but no one had warned me about the MLA bouncers. I certainly feel like if there is a broke grad student out there trying to get into the MLA, they should just be able to sneak in. I mean, participants must register and usually that’s the bulk of a conference, so I don’t generally see the need for a bouncer. Plus, in my panel there were about 20-30 people and another dozen or so empty seats, from my experience at MLA 2014, there was a lot of room to spare. Honestly, I don’t know what the bouncers get paid or how that works but if there are dozens of rooms being guarded for four days for eight or ten hours a day and, as I imagine it, the MLA bouncer is paid $8 to $15 bucks an hour, then that’s definitely some money that should just immediately be redirected to the graduate student travel funds. I am, of course, making all of these numbers up, but you get the gist.
Alright, on to my panel. I admit, I had enormous fantasies. I was presenting on Cixous and I was really hoping that some Cixous Allstars would appear. I desperately hoped that I would recognize them from their blurry vintage university photos. Then, of course, they would love the paper and I’d get to bypass the MLA meat market altogether because they would just pull money off of the giving tree and hand over a tenure-track job at Awesome University. Daydreams are important, people, important!
But really, it was great. Presenting a paper at the MLA is actually exactly like presenting a paper everywhere else. People were kind. They clapped for each of the people on the panel with me. My co-panelists chatted with me right before everything started and they were super nice too. We didn’t have that long for a discussion (and this was even with our fourth panelist absent), but everything that needed to be asked was asked. There was more lingering and chatting in the hallway. Then the panelists and our organizers (and eventually friends of various panelists) met at the bar for drinks. I made one Twitter friend and one Facebook friend. It was a hit by all means. This seemed to be the norm across panels. I didn’t witness any abuses.
If there were one single thing I’d change (alright, aside from the bouncer) it would be the layout of the panels. The ACLA usually goes across three days for a single panel (12 participants total, four per day, short discussion daily). This allows for such deep and engaging conversation. It allows you to go home at night and ponder a paper and come back the next day and inquire about something. It allows you to ease into a relationship with even more co-panelists. It’s just the perfect layout. I couldn’t recommend it more.
I think, all in all, if you want the MLA to be a success you need to remember a few key things. First off, just worry about your own interviews or your own paper. Someone is going to always have more interviews. Someone is always going to have written their paper ages ago then had it edited by G-d himself (they will likely also feel the need to tell you that). Just worry about yourself. If you really compared yourself to others all the time as much as people compare themselves to others at the MLA, well, you wouldn’t be able to buy anything at the grocery store because your cart would never be perfect enough looking. Don’t psych yourself out. Secondly, people are superficial. It’s not awesome or ideal, but it’s a fact. I have no idea why people like to believe academics, academics in the humanities, are going to be different. Look your best and feel confident; that’s really all you can ever do.
I’m not saying worrying about how you look won’t turn your stomach; I woke up at the crack of dawn to make sure I would have time to curl my hair properly, but that is also the nature of the beast. No one else in my family is in the academy and I know they would prep the same for job interviews and big work meetings. I’m also not saying to spend a fortune (even if it’s a graduate student fortune) on your clothes. I wore a dress from Walmart to my college graduation. No one knew. It was something like $12 and looked fantastic. Work with what you have. Most people, even if they are judging you based on your clothes, aren’t actually able to judge where they come from or how expensive they are. They are just looking for a polished look.
Lastly, smile. If you’re in a room with a pile of other tense people, why make it more tense? Even when we went for drinks after my panel, even when my co-panelists were all breathing a sigh of relief, we were still in a very formal place, a place of residual I-just-presented-at-a-big-conference-I’m-travel-weary tension. So, I tried to break the ice by asking what city people wanted to live out their days in (read, die in). It led to some interesting answers which in turn led to more interesting tidbits and it got us laughing. I probably could have or even should have remained in super pro mode and kept talking about books and theorists, but sometimes displaying your sense of humor is as or even more important than displaying your wits.