The Party Report

When the liquor starts to flow, what do MLA attendees talk about?
December 29, 2004

The Modern Language Association's meetings are among the most packed of any scholarly group. From 7 a.m. breakfasts to formal sessions that end after 10 p.m., attendees cover a lot of ground.

But it's not all work. Universities and scholarly societies sponsor receptions to give attendees a chance to unwind. Most of the receptions are "cash bars," so you have to pay for your booze. And the spreads at most of the cash bars are non-existent. But the conversation never stops.

Here's a report on some of Tuesday night's receptions (all information about drinks of choice is courtesy of bartenders):

Host: Yale University
Drinks of choice: Cabernet and Chardonnay
What they were talking about: Yale's was one of the few receptions where the wine was free and hors d'oeuvres were plentiful. Not surprisingly, people were in good moods. Most attendees were recent Ph.D.'s, catching up with friends. "It's a good vibe," said one Yale alum. "If you are unhappy with your career, you don't come to this kind of thing."

Yale has been known for years for its less than collegial relations with graduate students, so those who were at the party were impressed with the open bar. A former union organizer at Yale, now on the tenure track elsewhere, said she just doesn't think about the bitterness any more.

Host: MLA Division on Old English Language and Literature
Drinks of choice: Gin and tonic, or scotch ($8 each)
What they were talking about: Bad presentations at the conference. Nicholas Howe, a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "The 18-minute paper in a 20-minute slot is a work of art," prompting a friend to chime in that "in the entire history of conferences, no one ever complained about someone who didn't use all the time for a session."

Excitement is also building about a mammoth publishing effort: The Dictionary of Old English, a project led by the University of Toronto. Next year should see the publication of the volume of the letter G, which has taken about two years to complete. Fortunately, there are only 22 letters in the series (and in Old English).

Host: Mark Twain Circle of America
Drinks of choice: Cabernet ($8) and Heineken ($6.75)
What they were talking about: One professor was regaling her colleagues with a story about a student who failed to show up for a final exam this month. When she asked why, he sent her a detailed e-mail about "a night of passion" with his girlfriend, the night before the final. The experience had been so intense that he was emotionally and physically spent, he said. The professor failed the student and her colleagues were debating whether Twain would have approved.

Some argued that Twain would have appreciated the student's point of view. They noted that he had played with the saying "the pen is mightier than the sword" by combining the first two word to write "penis mightier than the sword." The professor's conclusion is that she did the right thing in failing the student, but that Twain would have found her handling of the situation self-righteous.

Host: MLA Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession
Drink of choice: Cabernet ($8)
What they were talking about: Two groups of attendees were both talking about "invisible disabilities" and the common perception that disability is only real if it's something that you can see. People with chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, are not always seen as having a real disability.

Lennard Davis, a professor of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that he thought that "depression was the stepchild of disability studies." His next book will focus on an invisible disability; he's looking at the history of obsession.

Host: the minnesota review
Drink of choice: Yuengling Lager ($6.75)
What they were talking about: No one topic seemed to have captured the attention of this group. Among the ideas that people were thinking about: conservative politicians, academic freedom, the job market, baby culture, and literature.

Host: Princeton University Department of French and Italian
Drink of choice: Gin and tonic ($8)
What they were talking about: Professors and their current and former graduate students mostly engaged in chit-chat, catching up on personal details rather than discussing any serious issues. As one French professor put it: "These are very quiet times in French at the instant. There's no great disputes, no serious squabbles. People are getting on with their work." Asked if that makes French unusual as a discipline, he replied: "Well, English always seems in a tizzy about something. And there's no telling about Spanish." 

Host: University of California Irvine German Department
Drink of choice: Heineken ($8)
What they were talking about: Cold drinks carried the day, as the room was sweltering from the start and never cooled down because the crowd grew to the hundreds. One attendee explained that the Irvine party is the "main gathering of Germanists, and it started years ago in a small hotel room and has grown to this," pointing to a filling ballroom. "You pass people at the conference and they say, 'See you at the Irvine party.' And they do."

Host: Graduate Student Caucus
Drink of choice: Yuengling Lager and Heineken ($6.75 each)
What they were talking about: The hard-working organizers of the caucus spent some time at the reception in a semi-formal business meeting, talking about events and policies. The informal chats centered on more personal issues.

In one group, talk centered on the lack of food at most of the receptions and whether those who were not graduates of Yale could get into its reception. Two of those in this discussion asked that it also be noted that they were discussing postcolonial theory.


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