Professional Conventions: The MLA

When a town is invaded by 10,000 profs gathering at “the largest meeting of humanities professors in the world”

By some cruel fate, San Diego’s Marriott Hotel served in late December of 1994 not only as the headquarters of the Modern Language Association Convention, but also as the headquarters of the Colorado State football team and their boosters who were in town for the Holiday Bowl. It may have been some college athletes’ version of a nightmare: to be surrounded by 10,000 professors. If there is one person in the world who can make a 300-pound linebacker tremble, it may be the professor he’s been avoiding all semester. Michigan beat Colorado State 24 to 14. Somebody ought to sue.

What happens when an army of literature and foreign language professors assemble for “the largest meeting of humanities teachers in the world,” the Mother of All Scholarly Conferences — the MLA Convention?

  • Do professors sit around, trading academic jokes: “Did you hear the limerick about the Lithuanian linguist?”
  • If a Volkswagen is found in the hotel lobby in the morning, do they round up the usual suspects: those zanies from the Dickens Society?
  • What really occurs at “The Wallace Stevens Cash Bar”?

Not that I didn’t already have my suspicions. If the truth be known, I’m literature professor at a California university and I’ve done an MLA Convention or three. Several years ago, I took my first wife to one in New York. She walked in the front door of the Hilton, walked through the lobby, overheard two or three conversations, and sailed out the back door. She never looked at me the same way again.

That thought weighed heavily on my mind as I checked into the San Diego convention site and pinned on my plastic name badge. Moreover, I had to wonder: Was this any way to spend my holidays — with the very organization that fomented the Great Footnote Debacle?[1] “Where’s the Wallace Stevens Cash Bar?” I asked a puzzled bellhop.

No one knows how many literature professors are on the planet. I’ve asked. By my own methodology, I calculate that there are approximately 325,000. Of these, some 32,000 belong to the Modern Language Association; they may be viewed as the cremé de la cremé of literature professors, according to some.[2] The 10,000 or so who attend the MLA Convention, then, may be regarded as the froth on the cremé de la cremé.

Though usually willing to laugh at their own foibles, they’re a sensitive lot. Strangers accosted me in the elevator when they saw that my name badge identified me as a member of the press: “You aren’t go to make fun of us, are you?” “That would be too easy,” I replied.

a downtown aswarm with absentminded profs in their well worn tweeds and soup-stained ties

Whether the annual convention takes place in New York or Philadelphia or elsewhere, when newspapers, CNN, National Public Radio, and other media cover the convention, they do so in a predictable way: presenting a comic vision of a downtown aswarm with absentminded profs in their well worn tweeds and soup-stained ties. For the media, the convention’s high-rise hotels become Towers of Babel where dithery intellectuals deliver papers with ludicrous titles, extol the virtues of Esperanto, and discuss such erudite topics as “disembodied metaphors” and “pronoun envy.”

Let’s be frank: the MLA Convention is not the kind of convention where participants take the afternoons off for well organized and tax-deductible golf tournaments; bermuda shorts are scarcely seen.[3] Instead, it is the intellectual’s version of an all-you-can-eat banquet where a scholar can go into the equivalent of diabetic shock. From 8:30 a.m. to 10:15 p.m., over a four-day period, professors in literature and foreign languages could hear more than 2,100 presentations — on Shakespeare, the use of the letter “S” in medieval Spanish, African Literature, Slavic Poetry, Celtic Oaths, Chinese Chants, Yiddish Yammerings, Lapland Lyrics, and hundreds of other topics.

Huzzahs for the speaker. (Photo credit: Modern Languages Association)

To tell the truth, many of these papers might seem boring to the lay person.[4] And, of course, professors can be longwinded. Professors expect to be HEARD. Unlike the situation in other careers, when professors walk into their workplaces (the classroom) people start taking notes on everything they say. So, in a convention setting, when given twenty minutes to present a paper, the typical professor spends ten minutes discussing the paper’s title and the next forty minutes wondering (aloud) how to “sum up” the hundred pages that follow.

Of course, these soporific sessions are probably no different from those when research papers are delivered at meetings of the Poultry Producers of America (“Mite Control in Populations of Minorca Cockerells”) or the National Hematology Association (“Prophylaxis of Patients with Antiphospholipids”). Even so, there is, occasionally, the flash of brilliance: the paper that will remain memorable and change people’s minds about a literary work. Then, too, there were moments in San Diego that were the Fire Marshall’s Nightmare: 700 people jammed into rooms meant for 200 to hear riveting readings by the writers in attendance — Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Simon Ortiz, and others.[5] Then, too, there were the occasional “gunfights in the seminar rooms.”

In the classroom, a professor may try to shock slumbering students with the most outlandish assertions (for example, that Mussolini was the greatest philanthropist of the 20th century) and the only question that may be evoked is: “Will that be on the exam?” But at the convention, scholars find themselves in the company of other confident and competitive people who are also expert in their fields. Sparks can fly during the question-and-answer period.

There’s the now legendary story of a young linguist who was presenting his years of research which showed that while many languages use double negatives to indicate a positive statement (for example: “I’m not having nothing”), there are, he asserted, no known examples of double positives being used to indicate a negative statement. From the back of the room came a booming retort, a weary and cynical “Yeah, yeah.”

Until he arrived at the 1993 convention in Toronto, scholar Donne Raffát didn’t appreciate how his involvement with the MLA might put his life in danger. Raffát had organized a series of panels on Salman Rushdie, the author whose novel “Satanic Verses” had led to the “fatwa” or death sentence pronounced by Iran’s Ayotolla Khomeini. Writers Margaret Atwood and William Gass and others were scheduled to join the MLA in denouncing the threat to intellectuals and to free expression that was posed by fundamentalists in the Rushdie affair. But before those events took place, fearing reprisals, Canadian security forces stationed plainclothes police every ten feet along the meeting room’s perimeter and sent in dogs to check for bombs. “It wasn’t until that moment,” Raffát told me, “that I realized how really vulnerable writers and intellectuals are, when faced with the power of entire governments.”

In San Diego, less dramatic circumstances reminded scholars that they cannot take refuge in the Ivory Tower. While convention delegates conversed in hotel meeting rooms and met over meals at bistros in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter, some didn’t overlook the physical circumstances of the convention and the presence of individuals who emptied the ashtrays and swept the floors, made the beds and cleaned the rooms, cooked the food and served it. “It’s no secret that the hotel and restaurant industries often depend upon undocumented workers,” George Mariscal observed to his fellow MLA members in a series of hastily arranged meetings. “That custom not only seems socially-sanctioned, but a standard business practice. How then can we deny health services to what other countries call ‘foreign guest workers,’ and how can we deny schooling to the children of these workers we depend upon and employ?” For that reason, the MLA joined a number of other scholarly organizations in passing a resolution not to hold future conventions in California if the state’s Proposition 187 is implemented.

There is an “upstairs/downstairs” quality to the MLA Convention in other ways. I had a comic glimpse of the “upstairs” side one evening when I was on my way to another panel, fell in with the wrong crowd in the elevator, and ended up at a cocktail party in a hotel room jammed with boozy intellectuals. “This is another part of the convention,” my host rationalized while pouring this reporter his third glass of Irish whiskey.

When literature scholars are “off duty,” what they talk about are movies. And when they are “off duty,” they can be brilliant and funny — or so it seemed when I was buttonholed by yet another bleary-eyed professors who felt impelled to explain: 1) the special logic behind Demi Moore’s move from vamp in “Disclosure” to Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter,” 2) how Susan Sarandon has not really changed that much in the switch from “Thelma and Louise” to Marmee Dearest in “Little Women,” and 3) how Michael Douglas’ penchant for stories about “besieged white males” can be explained by his father’s having to wear one of those short Roman skirts in “Spartacus.”[6]

“Will Teach Shakespeare for Food.”

Downstairs, a well dressed young man stood for several days outside the convention hotel, wearing a signboard that read: “Will Teach Shakespeare for Food.” Upstairs in the seminar rooms, scholars engaged in airy disputes. Downstairs at the Job Center, hordes of young and anxious PhD’s wandered around looking for work.

The lucky ones had “interviews” and met with potential employers in “the pit” (a large hall full of folding tables and chairs) where they answered that hackneyed question which has been put to job applicants for years: “Where do you see yourself twenty years from now?”[7] The unlucky ones, the young PhD’s without interviews, clustered around a bulletin board in the Job Center looking for last-minute postings of job vacancies. I was there on the first day to check the listings and stepped in front of a few people, explaining I was shortsighted. “We were, too,” came the quip from the back.

Two days later, I had lunch with Chris Packard, Deborah Williams, and Ann Brunges — three graduate students from New York University who expected to be on the job market next year and who were in San Diego to learn the ropes. I mentioned the facts I had gleaned from MLA publications and elsewhere:

  • For the last few years, graduate schools have turned out more PhD’s than there are jobs, creating a backlog where there are far more job-seekers than there are positions for them.
  • In 1993–94, there were 44% fewer positions than the already low figures for 1989–90.
  • Of the positions vacated by retirement, about one third are filled, one third remain unfilled, and one third are converted into part-time positions.
  • 38% of all university positions are now staffed by part-time faculty, “temps” who often receive no benefits.
  • In 1993–94, funding for higher education increased (on average) a modest 2% — rising in 36 states and falling slightly in others; California stood apart from the pack by registering a walloping 25% decrease in public support for higher education.

It wasn’t a pretty picture. I asked how they felt they would do in their own job searches.

They felt frustrated, these NYU students explained, because graduate school wasn’t preparing them for what was needed at the convention. “After all those classes on Proust and 19th Century American Literature,” Packard said, “I think we should go to charm school. So much of this job business is about smoozing and marketing yourself.” Several bottles of white wines later, they laughed — too hastily, I believe — when I laid out my plan for the four of us to an enter an entirely different line of work and offer “One-Day Makeover Clinics for Job Candidates” at future MLA conventions.[8]

Of the young PhD’s, only some will find full-time positions; and because this is a “buyer’s market,” some of the best minds from Princeton and Yale will end up teaching introductory writing courses to Agriculture majors at small colleges in America’s outback. Other PhD’s will find there’s no room at the dinner table and have to go into other lines of work; among these, I know people who have become taxi drivers, technical writers, and editors at publishing houses. Still others will join a growing number of part-time instructors known as “Freeway Fliers.”

Originally a California term, “Freeway Flier” is now used across the country to describe a shuttling professor who make ends meet by holding down “temp” positions at various universities. Within this tribe there is the legend of one “Dr. Dramamine” who earns $30,000 a year by teaching eight classes at three different universities in southern Los Angeles, Riverside, and northern San Diego. Legend has it that he puts a thousand miles on his car each week. Nissan ought to name a university after him.

By now you may be asking: Why do bright young men and women want so desperately to be a part of this profession? They’re not stupid and if they wanted secure careers with a future they could have gone into, say, Intergalactic Contract Law or Multimedia Gene Splicing. And they aren’t trying to become a part of this profession for the glamour; their peers who went into business and law may have alerts set on their cell phones, but it’s hard to imagine a professor whose phone suddenly sounds so that urgent notice can be given about a new interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by a Snowy Woods.” And with a professor’s average salary at about $40,000 a year, they’re clearly not in it for the money; NFL linemen can earn that much in bonuses for one game by sacking the quarterback, and Captains of Industry net that same figure in just one morning while brushing their teeth.

The experience can be an addicting drug

Why do they do it, then? The answer is hard to explain, but it could be that nothing quite equals the moment in the classroom when you’re teaching a piece of literature and you see a student’s eyes suddenly brighten and you realize that “the life of the mind” has begun. That experience can be an addicting drug. So, young, would-be professors put up with six or seven years of poverty to do advanced work in graduate school; haunt the halls of the MLA Convention looking for the elusive teaching position; and queue up for jobs as Freeway Fliers just to have a chance to be in the classroom. You gotta love ‘em.

That’s what it’s like to spend four days of the December holidays in the company of 10,000 professors. With people who would say, even in the midst of a San Diego hotel full of football fans that Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The fact that it was the Christmas season may also explain the odd habit I developed at the MLA Convention. As I wandered through the throngs of people–scholars, critics, and footnote fetishists; feminists, poets, and multi-culturalists; job seekers, film buffs, and glib deconstructionists–I kept mumbling Tiny Tim’s words: “God bless us every one!”


[1] In the 1980’s, in a decision that wreaked havoc in academia but went unreported in newspapers, the “MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers” (the bible for writers of term papers) signaled that footnotes (like this one) were passé; gone was the need for foresight and agility on the part of student typists. Instead, the MLA expressed a preference for “parenthetical documentation” where notes appear in the body of the text! Those who still prefer footnotes are now branded as reactionary Fifth Columnists. Another group, preferring endnotes, has mounted a rear-guard action.

[2] This opinion is held by approximately 32,000 people.

[3] There seems no truth to the rumor that the Doris Lessing Discussion Group was seen swimming nude in the hotel pool at midnight.

[4] Patricia Meyers Spacks most recent book is “Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind.” I leave without comment the fact that Professor Spacks was recently elected president of the Modern Language Association.

[5] It can be unnerving when writers and their critics are both in attendance at the convention. My colleague Fred Moramarco was delivering a scholarly paper on Allen Ginsberg at one MLA convention when Ginsberg, himself, entered the room. Given Moramarco’s powers of corporeal evocation, I suggested that he deliver a paper on Emily Dickinson at the next convention.

[6] Now, in a more sober moment, I realize these movie discussions provide an antidote to the techno-babble sometimes heard at convention panels where, for example, books become “literary discourse embodying the problematics and dislocations of social constructs.” These kinds of comments show the real danger of giving Mac Powerbooks to people wearing all black clothes.

[7] An inappropriate reply: “Standing outside the MLA convention hotel, wearing a signboard that says: ‘Will Teach Shakespeare for Dessert.’”

[8] The first piece of advice would be: “Nose rings are a no-no.”

This essay was prepared for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and was set to run when, in January 1995, a reorganization was announced: Publication of the Magazine was suspended and six editors were fired. So, this essay never appeared. I did, however, get a handsome “kill fee” and my expenses were reimbursed — including a hotel bill swollen by the aforementioned bottles of white wine with grad students and by a late-night room-service order for an ungodly amount of macadamia nuts.

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27. December 2016 by
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