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The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story

December 20, 2006

The expression "Internet year" refers to a period of about two or three months -- an index of the pace of life online, in what the sociologist Manuel Castells has called the "space without a place" created by new media.

That means a decade has passed since Inside Higher Ed made its first appearance at the Modern Language Association, during the 2004 convention held in Philadelphia. So next week is a kind of homecoming. I'll be in Philadelphia starting on Tuesday and will not return home until sometime late on Saturday -- and hope to meet as many readers of Intellectual Affairs as possible along the marathon route in between.

The whole "space without a place" quality of online experience can, at times, prove more anomic than utopian. So here’s a thought: Inside Higher Ed will have a booth (#326)  in the exhibit hall. I'll be there each afternoon between 2 and 4. Please consider this an invitation to stop by and say hello.

Tell me what you’re reading lately.... What sessions have blown your mind, or left you cursing under your breath.... Whether you think the report on tenure is going to make any difference or not.... What magazines or journals or blogs you read that I have probably never heard of....

And, by the way, if I ask you if you’ve heard any really interesting papers during the week, please don’t then go, "OK, what’s hot nowadays?" If I want to know what’s hot, I’ll go ask Paris Hilton. This peculiar insistence on mimicking the ethos of Hollywood (talking about "academostars,” “buzz,” hunting for the “hot new trend,” etc.) sometimes makes it seem as if Adorno was an optimist.

To put it another way: I’d much rather know what you’ve found interesting at MLA (and why) than hear you try to guess at what other people now think is exciting. Please come by the booth. But if you use the word “hot,” I hope it is only in the context of recommending someplace to get a burrito.

That sort of ersatz fashion-mongering is less a problem than a symptom. Lindsay Waters, the executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, has been complaining for some time about the structural imperative for overproduction in some parts of the humanities -- a situation in which people are obliged to publish books, whether they have anything to say or not. And when scholarly substance declines as a definitive criterion for what counts as important, then hipness, hotness, and happeningness take up the slack.

“Few libraries will buy many of the books published now by university presses with booths at the MLA convention,” wrote Waters in an essay appearing in the May 2000 issue of PMLA. “Why should tenure be connected to the publication of books that most of the profession do not feel are essential holdings for their local libraries?”

He brooded over that question at somewhat more length in Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, a pamphlet issued by Prickly Paradigm Press a couple of years ago. You hear quite a few echoes of the booklet in the recommendations of the MLA task force on tenure. “Scholarship,” as the final report puts it, “should not be equated with publication, which is, at bottom, a means to make scholarship public, just as teaching, service, and other activities are directed toward different audiences. Publication is not the raison d’être of scholarship; scholarship should be the raison d’etre of publication.”

Well, yes. But you’ve got the whole problem of the optative, right there -- the complex and uncertain relationship between “ought” and “is.” (Sorry, had a neo-Kantian flashback for a second there.) The real problem is: How do you get them to line up?

The task force makes numerous recommendations – some discussed here. I thought it would be interesting to find out what Waters thought of the report. “It does talk about a lot of the problems honestly,” he told me, “including the shift to part-time labor.” But his reservations seem a lot more emphatic.

“My fear for the MLA report,” he wrote by e-mail, “ is that it will be shelved like the report of the Iraq Study Group. And there may be another similarity: The ISG made a mistake with Bush. They gave him 79 recommendations, not one. This report runs that risk, too. Like my Enemies book, the report offers up ideas that it will suit many to ignore.... Churchill said it so well -- the Americans will do the right thing only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities. The problem is that this relatively frail creature, the university, has survived so well for so long in the US because for the most part it was located in a place where, like poetry (to cite the immortal Auden) executives would never want to tamper. But they are tampering now. And they are using the same management techniques on the university that they used on General Motors, and they may have the same deadly effect.”

Worrying about the long-term future of the life of the mind is demanding. Still, you’ve still got to pack your luggage eventually, and make plans for how to spend time at the conference. MLA is like a city within a city. No accident that the program always looks a little like a phone directory.

It contains a great deal of information – and it’s well-organized, in its way. But it can also be kind of bewildering to browse through. It seems like a salutary development that people have, over the past couple of years, started posting online lists of the sessions they want to attend. It’s the next best thing to having a friend or trusted colleague make recommendations. Here is an example.

If you’ve already posted something about your conference-going itinerary, please consider using the comments section here to link to it. For that matter, if you’ve noticed one or two sessions that you consider not-to-be-missed, why not say so? Consider the space below a kind of bulletin board.

One tip I hope you’ll consider (despite the beastly hour of it) is the panel called “Meet the Bloggers.” It is scheduled for Saturday, December 30th, at 8:30 in the morning. The list of speakers includes Michael Bérubé, John Holbo, Scott Kaufman, and the professor known as Bitch, Ph.D.

For abstracts, go here. I will also be on the panel, commenting on the papers afterwards. That is, assuming I can get an intravenous caffeine drip.

There is a nice bit of synchronicity about the date that the program committee scheduled “Meet the Bloggers.” For it will be the anniversary (second or tenth, depending on how you count it) of “Bloggers in the Flesh” -- an article that appeared well before anyone in MLA thought of organizing a panel on the topic.

A lot has happened in the meantime -- including a sort of miniature equivalent (confined entirely to academe) of what sociologists call a “moral panic.” For a while there, blogging became a suspicious activity that threatened to weaken your scholarly reputation, ruin your job prospects, and cause thick, coarse hair to grow upon your palms.

It all seems kind of silly in retrospect. No doubt the level of discussion will be much higher at the panel. I hope some of you will make it. But even if not, please consider stopping by to say hello at the IHE booth, any afternoon between 2 and 4.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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