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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Going to MLA, Gonna See What I Can See

My first time at my field's annual convention.

January 2, 2018



I started my graduate studies in 1994, finished in 1997, and following a detour into corporate America, returned to the college classroom in 2001 and have worked in English-related academia since, and yet I’ve never been to the annual Modern Language Association convention.

Until now.

From Thursday through Saturday (depending on what happens with this approaching winter storm), I’ll be haunting the hotel floors seeing what I can see. As a career contingent instructor, I’ve never had occasion to attend MLA, no presentations, no job interviews, no institutional funding to travel. MLA is a parallel world I always knew existed, but never had reason to visit. I’m a little anxious and looking at the list of events, overwhelmed.

On Saturday, I will be participating in a panel discussion titled “What Tenured Professors Can Do about Adjunctification.” 



The other panelists are activists and organizers on the issue of adjunctification, while I am more properly identified as a witness or chronicler, but I hope to offer thoughts worth hearing, though I will probably listen more than talk.

I’ve written a number of pieces about what I think tenured professors can do about adjunctification, chief among them being working to appropriately value the labor of teaching, to not allow courses to be taught at bargain rates by contingent faculty. To me, it seems inevitable that to achieve this schools and departments will have to stop doing more with less. The convention happens at a time when higher ed seems particularly vulnerable to threats coming from a lot of different directions. The top two trends in yesterday’s IHE piece on the challenges of 2018, eroding support for higher ed, and challenges to the business model, have been present for so long it’s difficult to continue to see them as trends, rather than permanent states.

We are in the midst of a transition to a post-institution age, so sometimes I wonder about discussions about how to maintain institutions that may not be around much longer. On the one hand, I want us to be bailing out the leaking engine room with everything we have, but what if it’s actually time to make for the lifeboats? 

Whatever the future of higher ed holds, the start of figuring out a way forward probably involves conversations where people get together and determine our shared values, so hopefully panels such as this one are useful.

That said, I enter my first MLA something of a convention/conference skeptic. My frame of reference is limited to two visits to the AWP conference which seemed to feature a lot of jockeying to get close to people of importance and influence, along with a great independent publishing trade show. The year I was badged by the University of Illinois, I passed through the halls freely. The year I was badged by McSweeney’s, I was somehow a person of much greater interest, as lots of people wanted to see if I knew Dave Eggers.[1]

There’s a lot of time and money being sunk into these experiences, so I hope to be proven wrong, to understand the necessity of these kinds of gatherings. There must be a lot of energy generated by so many people in one space. I’ve flagged a number of discussions and presentations I’m eager to attend.

But I’m mostly interested in thoughts from the more experienced conference attendees. What should I see and do?

And if you’re attending this year and would like to recommend a panel, please put it in the comments for all to see, including me.

I’ll be reporting what I do see when I can, though I tend to be a slow thinker, so it may be next week.

Share a positive thought for good weather and safe travels for all those heading to New York City.




[1] I do.


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