Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exchange with MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal about Openness

Thank you, Dr. Feal, for responding to my post about lack of openness and transparency at the MLA11 site.

You are right that $220 for non-member registration is a low conference fee. The fee is even less for MLA members.

But the convention fee is not the point of my post. 

Instead, I suggest that both the MLA and MLA non-members might benefit from more openness and clarity about the content of the upcoming convention Jan. 6-9.  Access to information, not fees, is at issue here.

I registered as a nonmember with the MLA site, but was not given access to the schedule chronologically, as it appears in PMLA.  Instead, I was offered three ways to search:  by Participant, Subject, and Meeting Type.

If I happen to know exactly what I'm looking for (e.g., a talk by a particular person), then the search options function.

But if I'm browsing and want to control my own progress through the panel information, I'm out of luck.  The user interface is unnecessarily fragmented.  For example, I found session #331: "The Open Professoriat:  Public Intellectuals and the Social Web" by wading through 261 "Special Sessions."  If I hadn't known of its existence from the Digital Humanities sessions posted on Mark Sample's "SampleReality" blog,  I doubt I would have found it on the MLA site.

"The Open Professoriat" certainly seems like it ought to be open to the public, but neither the session description nor general information on the MLA site indicate whether non-registered guests might attend.  I'm inclined to think "The Open Professoriat" is CLOSED to the public. 

Walling off content is a sure way to limit its influence.

On Sat. Jan. 8, David Parry will present "Be Online or Be Irrelevant" (at 606: Methods of Research in New Media).  The subhead on Mark Sample's SampleReality blog says: "Own your ideas.  Make them free."  Cory Doctorow, the fiction writer, Boing Boing co-founder, and net neutrality activist, gives away large chunks of his intellectual capital and has found that free access to his ideas spreads them and, counterintuitively, earns him a tidy living.

What might happen if MLA convention information were published in the open, not behind firewalls?

The MLA might find a population of unaffiliated experts who collectively possess a vast, diverse range of opinion and skill.  

It's a little more than 10 years since I filed my dissertation in English with UC Berkeley.  In that last decade, I've seen some friends from my cohort (and from similar departments) scatter into fields far from the Ph.D. training we engaged in during the 90s.  I haven't done a survey, but I would guess that about 50% of my cohort got jobs in the field (defined broadly to include jobs like mine, an NTT composition position).  The other 50% are working in digital media and advertising, selling products in small storefronts, attending rabbinical school,  working as college admins, writing commercial books, making commercial videos, staying at home with kids, teaching adjunct, founding independent theaters, directing plays, teaching K-12, and the like.

These are people Ph.D.s and ABDs who may well have interesting things to contribute to the MLA, but who lack the information to even know what's happening in the field, let alone judge whether they'd wish to participate.

The MLA doesn't have to permit everybody to attend its conference.  It's a professional organization with specific work in the field to be done.  But opening its information--starting with a clearer, more transparent website--could only vitalize the MLA. 


Rosemary G. Feal said...

We'll make the Web site better for next year. Meantime, To find all sessions in a given time slot, do a keyword search with the day of the week and start time. I did a search for "Friday 10:15," for example, and turned up all forty sessions for that slot.

Kathi Inman Berens said...

Thanks, Dr. Feal. This is a good workaround for now (though a bit labor intensive). I appreciate your consideration of this issue.

whitesocks said...

The participant list seems to be missing names, besides...so good luck to anyone who's checking the list to see who's reading papers! I'm reading a paper on the 8th, and discovered that my name has been omitted from the list of participants (am only listed in the panels).

Kathi Inman Berens said...

Yes, whitesocks: it would be more efficient simply to reprint the panel docket already published in PMLA and let Google do the indexing. Mistakes like the one you mention less likely to happen.

Thanks for posting your experience.

Rosemary G. Feal said...

whitesocks, one panel was left out of the indexing. Please send an email to rfeal@mla.org and I'll have a correction printed in the Convention Update.

whitesocks said...

Thank you so much! I've sent you an e-mail, Rosemary. Really appreciate your taking the trouble to respond...and very much appreciate your help and blog, Kathi!

Cynthia said...

Have only just discovered your blog and I wanted to say hello and glad to have found you!

[Your hapless (and dare I say endless) Rabbinical School Student.]

Kathi Inman Berens said...

One of two rabbinical school students, C. The other is Michelle W. You remember her, rt?

How lovely to hear your voice, even elliptically, here.

Fond wishes, C and to J as well.

Lyn said...

I just read the blog and thought it very important and necessary. I think that more openness and transparency regarding this issue would actually help strengthen English studies because while traditional academic jobs are very hard to find, Ph.D. work can lead to other career opportunities that highlight the excellent writing and communication skills most people in English programs possess. Excellent work, Kathi.
Lyn Di Iorio, Associate Professor, CCNY and Graduate Center of the City University of New York