Monday, December 20, 2010

"Premiering in L.A.": the "New" MLA 2011 Jan. 6-9

I walked the red carpet once in L.A., when the movie Practical Magic premiered, in 1998.  I don't remember why I was brought there.

I was writing my dissertation 6 days a week, scuttling from my office only for yoga and the occasional swim.  I remember thinking I might see Stockard Channing, or Nicole Kidman, or Sandra Bullock.  But they didn't show.  The premier was in Century City, a red carpet unfurled over what looked like a law office courtyard.  Freestanding Kleig lights blazed.  Jennifer Beals, who did not appear in the movie, walked the carpet.  Paparazzi shouted her name. Autograph hunters/vendors huddled behind a velvet rope and awaited her scrawl.  I walked the carpet, to no one's notice whatsoever.  Then I took my seat in the dark alongside everybody else and watched a forgettable movie.

In L.A., not every premier is a grand event.

MLA 2011, this year's annual convention for professors and advanced graduate students in English, comparative literature, romance languages and ancillary fields, is new in one respect: a date change places it well after the Christmas holidays.

But transparency would really make this MLA "new," and transparency and openness are glaringly absent.  The MLA has always walled its convention against outsiders.  This year's non-member registration fee is $220.  Just to search the titles of the 800 convention panels, one must be a paid-up member or guest, which means that intellectually curious non-initiates are shut out of even learning about the event, let alone participating in it.  [Exception: anybody on Twitter can follow the tweetstream at #mla11.]

Like a castle under siege, the MLA looks even more cloistered now than it did before new media radically increased our expectation of access to information. 

How out of step is the MLA?  Check out this Dec. 17 tweet from the well-meaning Rosemary Feal, MLA's Executive Director, who manages the tweetstream:
Are you blogging about what you'll be speaking about at #mla11?  Put link here for all to see:

I clicked delightedly. Finally, to be able to see what people are talking about.  But the link redirects to a membership log-in page.  As does the page that invites one to "Exchange Collaborative Session Ideas."  MLA's notion of "all" is just a tiny fragment of people in the field--registered participants--let alone the broad world.

The happy oasis in this desert of information is Mark Sample's reprint of MLA's digital humanities panels on his blog, SampleReality.  Reading those titles, I thought: something cool may well go down in L.A.  I am less sanguine about the other 650 MLA panels, which eluded my open search.  I got a full list when I accessed the November issue of PMLA via my university's firewalled databases.  

I've been toying with the idea of attending MLA for the first time in more than a decade specifically to hear what's going on in digital humanities. I'll follow the Tweetstream whether or not I attend, but of course I'd rather have the full experience--particularly as someone studying how information is conveyed and absorbed in face-to-face settings.  Having just returned from LeWeb in Paris, and seeing firsthand the feedback loop created by f2f & Twitter right up on the mainstage, I know how quickly the social media/f2f combo platter can advance and spread the conversation.

As compared to previous MLAs, which I attended in the mid-90s with my husband before I was ABD, the emotional stakes this January would be low.  I don't have to worry, for example, whether one tweet might kill my interview prospects--as actually happened at last year's MLA.  See the 34 comments following the roguish "MLA 09 Survival Tips" at SampleReality (co-published at the Chronicle of Higher Education's ProfHacker column; scroll down to see specific discussion of the fatal tweet.)

The self-consciousness of job candidates (and those who evaluate them) is both excruciating and merited.  You hear horror stories, or just plain silly-slash-tragic ones:  the candidate who learned through the grapevine that offering a Kleenex to a sneezing interviewer was perceived as "too forward":  the Kleenex drew unwelcome attention to the interviewer's body.  Another strategized a jaunty way to toss her winter coat on the bed as she walked into the interview.  (After a fruitless two-year search, she left the academy, turned her dissertation into a commercial biography, and won a Pulitzer.)

During my sabbatical year, on leave from teaching advanced composition at the University of Southern California, I've been developing more new media skills and connecting with literary & media critics who attend to the vast landscape of user-generated, DIY content.  My progress seems slow, but it's steady enough.  I can't conceive of a more exciting time to be making stories, analyzing them, and teaching/collaborating with students.  

How ironic that at this moment of unprecedented access to tools and the explosion of genres, the MLA convention is operating largely the way it did when Wimsatt and Beardsley (below) promulgated the "new" criticism in 1946.

Is it any wonder that the English professoriate frets over its diminished cultural influence, and runs MLA panels about the "crisis" in its profession?  Explicitly, untenured faculty and graduate students are warned to filter all digital traces of their personae, combing them through and through and through for any little nit that an influential someone, somewhere might find objectionable.   This extreme caution is at odds with the way most of us behave on social media platforms.  Social media has vastly extended my intellectual reach, and is facilitated by the immediate, open, casual tone of exchange.  

At a premier, Hollywood can make any product look good.  But it's actually word of mouth--crowdsourcing--that determines whether a movie makes money or fails.

Will there be WoM about this "new" MLA?

How could there be, with all the goodies locked away from anybody hungry for a taste?  

MLA already has its answer about how vitalize the field, but it doesn't want to know.  This "new" "premier" isn't a fresh beginning, but a sequel.  MLA's survival depends on openness and transparency.  Other disciplines--communications, emerging media, composition, digital literacy, various interdisciplinary hybrids--are spreading themselves across the digital marquee.

At least there are many people in the field trained to recognize an elegy.


Rosemary G. Feal said...

You've got it partially wrong. First, being a guest on the MLA Web site means giving us a name and email: that's it. You have to be a guest to post a comment on many Web sites. Second, once the convention starts, anyone can annotate sessions, not just the session organizers. We open all forums to public. Also, the Academy in Hard Times events on Jan 6 are free to contigent and community coll fac. And our reg fees are among very lowest of large academic confs. I'm not only well-intentioned, I DO stuff!

Laura said...

I have written a response to this posting -- thanks for helping me think harder about the role of scholarly societies in a digital world.
Laura Mandell
Chair, Committee on Information Technology (MLA)
Director, 18thConnect

Kathi Inman Berens said...

Laura, your response ("What the Digital Humanities Is(n't)": Free" is lucid, expansive and almost entirely right. Your rumination at the end about "free" DH as a dangerous labor practice resonates with me. And yet I persist in suggesting that were the MLA to open its program to absolutely everybody, without having to register, that such openness might allow greater participation in MLA. The convention's "Hard Times" subtheme pervades the conference, and realistically represents the extent to which funding for the humanities is eroding. Isn't this exactly the moment to open it up?

Laura said...

Yes--yes, absolutely--if MLA could just be a little more like HASTAC . . . .