Deconstructing a Calendar Change

English and foreign language professors no longer need to rush from family gatherings to the MLA on December 27. How are they adjusting?
December 23, 2010

Regardless of which of the holidays you personally celebrate, they tend to fall in a predictable pattern each year: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's. For over a century, a substantial proportion of academics in literature and languages have marked another significant date between the last two: the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. But this year, the schedule is getting an overhaul.

As the result of a vote three years ago by the MLA's Delegate Assembly, this year's convention -- and all those that follow -- will begin on the first Thursday after January 2nd (this year, that will be the 6th), and last through the subsequent Sunday. Before now, the convention was held from December 27th to 30th -- every year since 1884.

The shift in timing may seem uncontroversial, even trivial. After all, the old schedule had long been the subject of grumbling by convention-goers who were forced to make an early exit from family gatherings -- and to somehow find the time, amid the end-of-semester crunch of grading and finals, to prepare for their talks. But the convention is one of the largest and most notable among academic conferences, and to many regular attendees, the change – albeit with much advance notice -- feels like something of a shock.

"I've been going to the MLA since 1974," said Jane Gallop, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, "so I kind of shaped my life around it." To Gallop, the new date seems "disconcerting."

"It is a big change for anybody who's been going regularly."

Of course, a big change needn't be a bad one. "I love the fact that the MLA has moved its annual meeting to early January," wrote Michael Bérubé, Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University and current MLA second vice president, in an e-mail. "Quite apart from what this means for holiday travel (i.e., delivering us from the Xmas-New Year's craziness), it's the most radical thing the MLA has ever done, not excepting the controversial 1969 resolution calling for the United States to withdraw from North America."

Bérubé's enthusiasm for the date change doesn't mean it won't be an adjustment for him. "As for what I'll do the week after Christmas," he wrote, "…I was thinking of going to Chicago or Philadelphia, getting a room in a large downtown hotel (Marriott or Hyatt) for three nights, and wandering aimlessly through various ballrooms and meeting rooms for about 14 hours a day. Force of habit, I guess."

Others will be feeling less nostalgia that week. Robert Barsky, a professor of English, French, and Italian at Vanderbilt University, said that it was he, as a member of the MLA's Ad Hoc Committee on the Structure of the Annual Convention, who originally proposed moving the dates.

"I felt a pang of guilt when I learned of my nomination to [that committee]," he wrote in an e-mail, "because as a father (ever since graduate school) I’d made a point of missing MLA each year in favor of tobogganing and skiing with my sons." The date change, he said, means that he can continue his practice of spending the holidays with his family and attend the convention as well.

"…[A]nd so here I am," Barsky continued, "a few years later, buying my airplane tickets to LAX and putting final touches on my talk.… I’m even bringing my eldest son along with me, to help him celebrate his senior year at Vanderbilt University…."

Gallop, by contrast, said the date change means she won't be able to bring her kids with her, though she had made a habit of doing so. With her son in grad school -- and his classes starting January 10th -- and her daughter in high school, neither will have the time free to accompany her.

Gallop noted, too, that her kids aren't likely to be the only habitual attendees whose semester schedules will preclude their attendance. "I really do feel bad for… anyone who's on the quarter system," she said, pointing out that the conference has traditionally occurred at a time when nearly every academic is on winter break. Thus it has tended to seem "very social and kind of festive," she said, in a way that many academic conferences do not. For those who are on the quarter system or whose semesters start early, she continued, even if they are still able to attend, the tone of the convention is likely to seem very different.

But those who may be inconvenienced aren't necessarily complaining. "I like the idea behind the change," said Edward Cutler, associate professor and chair of English at Brigham Young University, "even though it isn't best for us; BYU begins its semester early in January, so MLA now falls on our first week of classes." Cutler plans to take advantage of the new schedule by hosting a New Year's Eve party with his wife: "much easier when you aren't flying in the day before!"

Giovanna Montenegro, a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of California at Davis and a member of the MLA's Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession, said that while Davis is on the quarter system -- meaning that this year's MLA convention will start the weekend after classes begin -- "the first week is probably the best week to have to attend a major academic conference."

"The previous convention dates… proved to be a logistical nightmare for many attendees," Montenegro wrote in an e-mail. What's more, "they were also not friendly to many graduate students in terms of travel expenses… [whereas] the new dates should provide grad students with more flexibility in terms of flights and hotel options."

Montenegro added that this year's MLA "will have panels ending at 6:30 p.m., which will allow for more social events in the evening; we all know that graduate students love social events." And best of all, "on the 27th [of December] I am planning to be dancing to the drums of San Benito in my family’s hometown of Cabimas, Venezuela and share wonderful food with family and friends."

Luziris Turi, a Ph.D. candidate in Spanish at Rice University and co-chair of the graduate student committee, said that she was glad not only of the extra days she will have with her family, but also of the chance to spend more time getting ready for the conference -- an advantage that even the skeptical Gallop noted. "It gives me an extra 10 days to write my paper," Gallop acknowledged.

Not every MLA member finds the schedule change to be worthy of note. "[T] he problems with the profession and the convention," said Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors, "cannot be fixed by tinkering with the calendar. They require MLA and its members to stand up for justice for all who teach.”

Those perusing the convention's program might argue that many in the association are already trying to do so; a number of the scheduled sessions focus on the impact of the economic crisis on higher education, the plight of non-tenure-track faculty, and the particular challenges faced by various groups within academe. And, too, those in charge of the association would probably reject the implication that they aren't doing what they ought to be doing -- and lots of it.

"The week between Christmas and New Year's will find me working in the MLA office, preparing for the convention," said executive director Rosemary Feal. "...It will be one of the busiest work weeks of the year for many members of the MLA staff.

"What, you thought I'd be in Aruba or something?"


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