This year, for the first time in years, I actually attended the MLA conference in person; I attended in 2009 in Philadelphia (to present) and 2007 in Chicago (for job interviews). For that past two years, I have been attending virtually, thanks to the reach of social media. In fact, it was Twitter that convinced me that I should give the annual MLA conference another shot, took my blog and social media presence to the next level, and last year I felt particularly disappointed that I wasn’t able to get to Seattle. I spent much of the beginning of 2012 doing everything I could to make sure that I was 1) accepted and 2) able to attend.
Boston did not disappoint (other than the bitterly cold weather; bet many of us who complained about the long voyage to the West Coast were wishing we were back in Los Angeles). It was wonderful to attend the MLA both not as a graduate student interviewing, but also as someone more connected and integrated into a larger community. I actually knew people, and people knew me (which is still weird: “You’re ReadyWriting!”). I decided that I was going to choose the Alt-Ac path, meaning I chose DH panels and Alt-Academic panels over more traditional (and some might say, relevant) panels dealing with world literature, canon formation, etc. I don’t regret it; the highlights for me were in particular Bethany Nowviskie’s beautiful presentation about alt-ac positions and the digital humanities and Sara Werner’s talk about making your own luck on the alt-ac path.
I’m not sure if I met enough “new” people; the focus for me this year was connecting with those whom I only knew through social media; I did appreciate Cathy Davidson’s comment to me, “I hate calling it ‘in real life’, that somehow what we do in social media isn’t real life.” It was important to me to meet and see and physically connect with these friends and colleagues, if only so I can say thank-you for the support that they have offered me and kindness they have showed me over the years. But it was also time to plot, plan, and share in a physical space; the short time focused our energies to begin projects that will be (hopefully) nourished and sustained from a distance over the upcoming year. New people sought me out, but I have to admit that I didn’t seek out anyone that I didn’t already “know” through social media. But there’s always next year.
One thing that I missed about being there in person (as opposed to following along on Twitter) is that I feel like I missed a lot. Now, this is a problem in general at large conference with many, many concurrent sessions, but it’s not just that; on Twitter, I could sit, watch, manage, and interact with various streams, going back and curating these conversations, looking up others’ conversations and curation, and taking a little bit of time to digest and process. At the conference, there just wasn’t time. Perhaps the volume of tweets at this conference (if you’re interested in some fine-grain analysis, you should check out this post on social media use at both the Linguists annual convention and the MLA). Academics are increasingly not only using Twitter, but also using tools like Storify to curate the tweets surrounding a number of sessions. I couldn’t even keep up with the Storify stories that were appearing! There was little time to process and digest, go back and reflect, and make meaningful mental connections and observations.
Thus the disjointed nature of this post. Other blog posts and articles about the MLA have tried to tie the experience together under one dominant theme or observation; I’m still trying to process mine. One of the other problems is that I went straight from the MLA to DHWI, so my brain has been strained quite a bit. I then go right back into the semester, so I’m hoping that perhaps by Spring Break I’ll have had a chance to make some sense of my experience. And already, I have to start thinking about pulling people together to propose sessions for next year (mine, Building Bridges within DH, was standing-room only!).
But we don’t have to deal with heavy workloads and lax-to-non-existent deadlines. At all. Ever.