Meditations on my first MLA

This post is a longer version of a tweet that I posted this morning, where I said that MLA is basically the humanities version of Dragon*Con. I’ve always had the impression that MLA was this horrible nightmare that everyone hated. On Friday I spoke with a tenured professor in my department, and s/he said that when she got tenure, the first thing s/he did was cancel his/her MLA membership. And I can totally understand why this perception exists. MLA has historically been the place where people go to seek jobs, so the place has a pervasive atmosphere of fear and anxiety and gloom. And being on the job market myself, I am certainly not immune to that.

However, in many ways I’ve been having a great time at MLA. I’ve seen lots of old friends, I’ve gotten to meet all kinds of people I previously only knew through the Internet, and I’ve heard all sorts of fascinating papers on a diverse range of topics, including some that exposed me to completely new ideas. (For example, I only attended session 146 because my first-choice session was full, but I ended up hearing some fascinating presentations on Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts, a subject I know nothing about at all.) And livetweeting has been a ton of fun, especially due to the conference’s generous provision of tables reserved for the use of tweeters and bloggers. But even beyond any of that, I just enjoy being in an environment where every single person is a humanities scholar. If I just choose a random person to talk to — and I have, several times — it is a certainty that we will have acquaintances in common or that we’ll have shared interests.

Now despite all this, I think I can guess why people dread this event so much. It’s because we humanities scholars tend to be introverted, shy people, and therefore we tend not to be comfortable in a large anonymous event full of thousands of strangers. I think I’m more used to this sort of environment because I’ve been going to comic book conventions since I was in high school. So I have this experience of being in a situation where it’s okay to talk to people I don’t know, because I feel a certain preexisting kinship with them. And really MLA is that kind of situation for me.

MLA also has certain other similarities to a comic book convention — there are panels and an exhibit hall, and everyone wears a costume, though unlike at Dragon*Con, everyone at MLA is cosplaying as the same character. And while not everyone is here because they want to be here, at some level everyone who is at this conference is deeply passionate about the humanities, in the same way that everyone at Dragon*Con is passionate about geek culture in one way or another.

Clearly there is a lot to dislike about this conference, and I am not willing to say, as Roger Whitson says about THATcamp, that I will always love MLA. But I also can’t say that I hate it.

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