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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.

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What I Learned (Or Didn't) at AHA and MLA

Still processing the experience, I'm sure of a few small things.

January 6, 2019
 
 

I am a something of a slow thinker, a ruminator if you will, so I hesitate to try to say anything large and definitive about the experience of attending both the AHA Annual Meeting and the MLA Annual Convention this past weekend.

My hunch is a series of posts are going to come out of the experience, but I’m not entirely sure exactly what they are yet. I was made to understand now that the gatherings are not the chief loci for job market activities, they are considerably more sedate. In addition to considerably fewer people walking around in flop sweat. Nonetheless, they are both overwhelming and I don’t entirely know what to say other than, it was a trip.

There’s a few things I can declare with some confidence, however:

1. I still cannot tell the difference between a “meeting” and a “convention.” The events looked identical to me.

2. The AHA has a superior credential badge to the MLA. While the MLA’s hung around the neck by one of those simple elastic-y cords, the AHA badge featured a vibrant orange lanyard sponsored by Cambridge University Press. It also had a bright green ribbon with PRESS stamped in gold at the bottom, presumably to alert attendees to stop talking if any of us approached.

3. I made sure to tell anyone who was curious that I wasn’t really press, a fact which was borne out by seeing the actual Inside Higher Ed journalists, Scott Jaschik and Colleen Flaherty turn around articles about panels it would take me a week to process in a matter of hours.

4. It is really great to meet people in person whom I’ve considered colleagues (at least in my mind) but who I’ve previously only interacted with virtually. I’ve long considered Maria Maisto a hero for her work with the New Faculty Majority, and I’m glad to have had the chance to shake her hand. 

I also met Amy Lynch-Biniek of Kutztown University and Tenure for the Common Good, and was able to persuade her to write a future guest post about a panel we both attended on the “Conditions and Classes of Academic Employment.” What she has to say will be smarter than whatever I could say.

5. The best job in academia is being Stanley Fish. The pleasure Prof. Fish seemed to take in declaring there’s no such thing as free speech in academia, there is only “free inquiry,” and these issues are really rather simple in front of a conference room attending a panel on free speech on campus, was simply enormous. It makes one believe he may say these things primarily to get a rise out of the people in the room. (I hope to write more about this panel in the future, but like I said at the top, I’m a slow thinker.)

6. Meeting readers of the blog is really fun and it made me think I should get out of the house more often, and thank you to everyone who came up and said they appreciate what I do here.

7. Whomever designed the exhibition spaces for convention hotels must hate exhibitors. Both the Hilton (AHA) and Hyatt Regency (MLA) feature subterranean spaces best described as Neglected Basement. Natural light is a rumor. Time, an abstraction.[1]

8. Having your book cited in front of you by a panelist will make you almost fall out of your chair with surprise. This happened at a panel on “Lost Texts in Rhetoric and Composition” when Prof. John Schilb of Indiana University was discussing his lost text, On Writing by Roger Sale[2], and offered a comparison to more contemporary texts like, for example, “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner.”[3]

Seriously, I almost died.

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Here’s the big picture experience I’m still making sense of, the feeling I can’t quite put my finger on.

Witnessing the breadth and depth of activity at these events is pretty amazing. Over and over again I was thinking how smart these people are, how much they seemed to care about the work they are engaged in, how invested they are in trying to perpetuate academic values.

Almost concurrently with that thought I would remember that the system these people are working within is very poorly designed to advance these values. Even the success stories are being wrung dry by the system, and of course a significant proportion of what could be the next generation of scholars will be flushed out of the profession before they have a chance to make their contributions.

In theory, gatherings like these should signal the health of the profession, but my experience of academia causes me to see the opposite.

All of this good work is happening in spite of what’s happening, rather than because of it.

 

[1]That said, the wares from the publisher were delectable. Despite my planning I do not have enough extra space in my suitcase to get all of them home without separate shipping.

[2]I’d ordered a used copy of this book before the panel even ended. I feel confident I’ll be blogging about it at some future point.

[3]While at the MLA convention I found out that the book is already in a third printing. Exciting!

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