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Tweetup at the MLA

January 4, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- A tweetup -- that is, a gathering of Twitter users -- tends to be a casual affair, more likely to occur in a dive bar than at an open bar. So those attending a late-night tweetup at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association were in for a surprise.

On the evening of December 29th -- the night before the closing day of this year’s MLA convention -- the group’s executive director, Rosemary Feal, tweeted on her public Twitter account, @mlaconvention, that her followers (whom she refers to as her “tweeps”) were invited to join her for a drink at 11 p.m. Location and password to be announced at 10:45.

Now, when it comes to MLA social events, cash bars are the norm. But those stepping off the elevator at the tweeted location -- the 31st floor of the Loews Philadelphia hotel -- found themselves in a rather luxuriously appointed meeting room, with impressive views of the city, an industrious handful of waitstaff, and open bars at each end. Their fellow partygoers? Only the MLA’s biggest names, the majority of them white of hair and formal of attire -- in stark contrast to the visibly younger and, in some cases, jeans-clad tweeps.

Feal had, in fact, invited her Twitter friends – at the last possible minute, in keeping with Twitter spirit -- to the convention’s annual late-night gathering of MLA leaders and other academic bigwigs with close ties to the organization. Traditionally, according to Catherine Porter, who is MLA president and a professor emerita of French at the State University of New York College at Cortland, invitations to the nightcap were bestowed on the group’s most active participants, such as committee chairs, and those who’d received one of the MLA’s prizes.

Asked what she thought of Feal’s dramatic break with tradition, Porter was hesitant but supportive: “Rosemary is very brave,” she said. “I think she’s interested to see what she’s produced” by way of her Twitter outreach.

Porter’s uncertainty about the whole idea was understandable, given that most of the party’s other attendees had been given scant notice about the new guests: “I actually started to spread the rumor somewhere around 10:30,” said Feal. “I said, ‘Get ready, the tweeps are all coming up.’ Of course, most people are like, ‘…Tweeps?’

“And then they started to come in, and I introduced them; I said, ‘Here’s the president…’ It was great.”

The tweeps certainly thought so. “It’s fantastic,” said Erin Templeton, who is assistant professor of English at Converse College. Normally, she added, “it seems like [the MLA leaders] are removed from the rest of us” – that is, adjunct professors, graduate students, and other scholars who have just started their careers or are otherwise stranded at the underrecognized margins of their profession.

That sense of distance is exactly what Feal hopes to combat via Twitter – and it’s all the more important to do so, she said, when the economic situation has made life difficult for many academics, particularly those who are struggling in a brutal job market. “To be able to Twitter, to say, ‘If you’re reading this, come have a drink with me and I’ll personally greet you’ – that actually puts, to me, a level of humanity into it ... . The convention, because it’s so big, and because jobs are so scarce, it can feel very dehumanizing, so anything the association can do… to make it a little more human and comfortable is what we want.”

Ryan Cordell, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia who follows Feal on Twitter, said that Feal's outreach -- and the presence of a variety of other MLA members on Twitter -- had done exactly that. When he arrived at this year's convention -- his first -- said Cordell, he had "a premade community" of academics with whom he'd been in contact for months, whom he was "excited to see and have longer communications with."

"If you've been in the field 40 years, you already have that," he said. "For younger scholars, they don't have that... I don't know what I would have done at the MLA [without those Twitter connections]."

Cordell added that he'd been fortunate enough to have job interviews scheduled during the convention, and that one institution had later called him to schedule an on-campus interview. When he tweeted the good news, "Rosemary Feal tweeted back to say congratulations."

"I wouldn't expect the MLA even to know what was going on with grad students," Cordell continued. "I think that kind of communication is going to be increasingly important, especially in the next few years, just so that people don't feel like they're falling through the cracks and no one knows that that's happening."

It was no accident, of course, that Feal chose Twitter as a way to connect with the newest generation of language scholars. “MLA believes that new and social media are an important part of academic discourse,” she said. “To stay vibrant, we need to lead as well as follow the trends.”

Tweep Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park (and, as his bio suggests, a new media guru of growing prominence) concurred: "The MLA has always been fairly progressive in its embrace of new technologies," he said via e-mail. "...I see the current Twitter outreach as yet one more instance of that."

As for "the specific question of the executive director of the MLA reaching out via Twitter," said Kirschenbaum, "I think it's enormously consequential."

While Feal’s goals of keeping the organization up to date and bringing young scholars to the table are hardly controversial, not everyone is as enthusiastic about Twitter.

“The young people are in such dire straits because of the economic situation,” agreed nightcap attendee Philip Lewis, who is vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and professor emeritus of Romance Studies at Cornell University (and husband to Porter). “I would be the last person to discourage” the efforts of those who want to explore new media and reach out to demoralized young academics.

But Twitter, he said, “trivializes” the very work done by language scholars, and he doesn’t understand why some are embracing it. “I’m not sure you should feel good about that.”

 

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