On the Virtues of the MLA Convention

As a young scholar, Alice Kelly had some concerns about attending the annual gathering. But she was pleasantly surprised.

December 19, 2017

Even though I was an ambitious young scholar, it took me three years after the completion of my doctorate to attend the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. One major problem was the high cost to attend, given the travel and accommodation. Another hurdle was the distance, especially now that I am back living in the U.K.

But the biggest obstacle was how more advanced graduate students had described the MLA: essentially a cattle market where job interviews in hotel rooms and a general sense of one’s own lowly position within the academy had made them seriously consider their career choices.

So when I finally decided to participate in last year’s convention, held in an enormous convention center in Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised. Granted, I wasn’t interviewing (I organized a panel), but the high quality of the scholarship, the insight into the directions of the field and profession, the conversations I had, and the general sense of conviviality made me wonder why I’d been so reluctant to attend in previous years. The meeting was even larger than I’d imagined (5,500 participants last year), but after navigating through the handy conference app and extensive catalog, it felt almost as intimate as any other conference.

The panels I heard were all useful, thought provoking and showcased their authors’ best work. In panels I attended -- some relevant to my field (modernism and war) and some about the profession (curricular reform, writing pedagogy, public writing) -- the audiences varied in size, from three to more than 50 in the room. As expected, the more famous scholars delivered their papers to packed rooms, but I was surprised to find more niche panels were also well attended, giving a sense of trends within the field. The workshops I went to, led by department chairs, deans and people from outside academe, gave me more of a sense of how the profession works than any number of meetings with university career services or advisers. Numerous panels were haunted by the current climate of uncertainty in the humanities, with one paper calling, in moving terms, for the need to begin reparative work -- a call that will surely continue throughout the 2018 convention.

But it wasn’t all serious. The final panel I attended, organized by a group of major scholars in my field, was a hilarious send-up of the conference panel itself, complete with existentialist black turtleneck sweaters, papers that had to be physically stopped by the chair and panelists who clearly weren’t listening to their other participants (one put on headphones and played games on his phones after delivering his remarks; another took a selfie). Although this was, sadly, a one-off, it was nice to find that the MLA doesn’t take itself too seriously. The cheerleading convention happening alongside our meeting, complete with dolled-up girls doing cartwheels in the halls, only added to this sense of the carnivalesque.

However, the MLA is almost more about meetings than panels. The scholars I met for half-hour coffees at book stands or in hotel lobbies were all gracious and good-natured, responding generously to my questions and offering advice. What also happens at MLA are the serendipitous meetings -- in hallways, outside panel rooms, in the hotel bar. A person sitting in front of me in one panel turned out to be a major scholar in my field who recommended me a book and asked me about my project. A person I bumped into in the hall turned out to be a professor at my previous institution whom I had never had the chance to meet during my three years there. Someone who asked me for directions was a scholar from my current institution whom I have been meaning to get in touch with for the past year.

Tweeting using the conference hashtag (#mla17) also helped. Other scholars messaged to set up meetings, and members of the MLA Executive Board even took the time to respond to my convention updates. As much as we live in a connected world where you can email any other scholar in the world, this meeting reminded me of how much nicer it is to talk in person.

Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In advises students to go and listen in to others pitching their books to academic editors at conference bookstalls, so in a free slot I went up to the enormous ballroom housing bookstalls with editing and marketing agents for all of the major scholarly and popular presses. After some time browsing and listening in, I started talking to the editors myself.

Here you get a fairly unique chance to talk through your project with potential presses and get some immediate feedback on viability, as well as getting some free books in the bargain. I hadn’t clocked how useful that would be in terms of access to information, rather than spending time composing perfect emails to presses that wouldn’t be interested in the first place. Meeting one of the people from the press I published with the previous year, I learned more in the first five minutes than during our entire lengthy email exchange. My scheduled session with an editor in my field -- a very productive format aimed specifically at early-career researchers -- was not just about my next publication, but about the type of academic I want to be.

All in all, my preconceptions about the MLA were all wrong. I know that for many people the idea that the MLA convention is enjoyable and productive is fairly obvious. But I also know that there are many early-career scholars and graduate students who aren’t sure that the expense and effort of attending an enormous non-field-specific conference is going to be worth it. I’d say: give it a go. See you in New York City.


Alice Kelly is the Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute and a junior research fellow at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. She works on modernist and First World War literature and culture. At Oxford, she founded the TORCH Academic Writing Group, which she has written about in Times Higher Education.


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