Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It Gets Better: a Vid idea for MLA's Narrating Lives

As I prepare to visit my first MLA since 1996, I'm reflecting on the people I know who stayed in the field, and those who left, and what influenced their decisions to leave or to stay.

I was cheered that my friend Cynthia recognized herself in the previous post as the friend who left UCB to attend rabbinical school: but actually, she's one of two.  When it comes to why we leave English, it's as if a tiny vacuum of shame or ambivalence sucks us in.  We generally keep quiet about it.  I haven't found a community of people sharing firsthand stories about this.  Maybe we feel isolated.  It's embarrassing to dwell on a "failure."

Media coverage of the issue doesn't break the isolation.  See the spate of articles about how humanities Ph.D.s need a Plan B, should conceive of their career path akin to an actor trying to make it in LA or NY, should curtail research because everything smart has already been said, or should just plain not go.  All of these, published in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, are better than the stuff you'll find in mainstream presses like The Economist or the NYT.

Those articles, and the dozens you'll find like them, are the context in which the conversation about humanities Ph.D.s is situated.  The one read by all your relatives who worry over why the hell you did this degree in the first place.  Note, in this excoriating May 24, 2010 New Yorker cover, how iconically the blithe Ph.D. is drawn compared to the lined, worried faces of his parents:

That's the dominant story, but I don't think it's the truest one.

I think that if we were to ask a lot of people why they left and what they're doing now, we'd find a heartening story.  

Afterall, there are some significant benefits to leaving.  You can choose where you want to live.  You may change jobs at your discretion, because the job market is perpetual and more porous--even in this economy--that what goes down at the MLA.  You might even earn more money, and/or have other kinds of flexibility that you value (weekends? travel to places other than conference locations? the freedom to live with your life partner instead of hope for the same time zone?) 
Does this mirage exist? 
It does for me, for my husband, Brad Berens (also a Berkeley English Ph.D., 1999), and for many of our friends.  But more broadly than our group?

We won't know until we ask.  "We" being us.  Being MLA.

The MLA could do something bold and wonderful.  It could expressly invite the stories of Ph.Ds and ABDs who chose to leave the profession to its "Narrating Lives" project.

MLA President Sidonie Smith (Prof of English and Women's Studies, UMichigan), has created a YouTube channel and has invited all people--not just MLA members--to post their stories about transformative reading, teaching and mentoring moments.  I should think this might also be a place to house stories of the sort I mention.

Smith's project "Narrating Lives" uses new media to gather and distribute stories about why the humanities is vitally important at this cultural moment.  It's a wonderful idea, and I hope that many many people post their stories there.  I intend to.  Whenever I've asked student to write blog posts about transformative reading experiences, it's some of the most powerful writing of the semester.  I could see posting one vid about opting out of English, and one about reading, teaching, mentoring or being mentored.

I see this as a kind of "It Gets Better" vid series aimed at helping those who are struggling with their decisions to leave or to stay in the profession.  Some of the emotional resonances are similar to the situation of gays deciding whether or not to come out, or figuring out how to cope with being gay in a still largely homophobic society:  the fear of how one's community will react to the decision, the shame of wanting something different, the way in which coming out punctures the normative story of success and happiness.

I don't know if others who left the profession would wish to share their stories.  But I'm pretty sure those stories would help people currently trying to find a place in the field.

If the "Narrating Lives" project were officially broadened by President Smith to welcome autobiography from those who left the profession, MLA would demonstrate its commitment not just to the humanities, but to the full range of people who have devoted many years of their lives to studying and teaching it.

Another advantage:  the mainstream stories peddled about brilliant-but-foolish humanities Ph.D.s would be met with a morally authoritative corrective.  The "Narrating Lives" project would trump the petty spectacle of the "cream of the academic crop" (in the words of the Dec. 16 Economist article) "clinging like limpets before eventually falling off" the academic career track.

There's nothing to stop me or anybody else from posting an autobiographical vid about leaving English.  The platform is open.  (Yay!)  But MLA can increase this openness by broadening President Smith's video invitation to include multivalent, autobiographical stories of what it means to find work with a Ph.D. in English.

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. 

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.
[Img: Steves2cents.blogspot.com]

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:  http://www.mla.org/conv_listings_mysessions

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.
[Img: chainsawzombie.blogspot.com]

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.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sex & Drugs in Amsterdam

In America, we believe in "bank error in your favor," as it says on a Monopoly "chance" card.  We believe in good luck, in getting away with it.  In doing what you want with or without the law on your side.

In Amsterdam one does not.

At a restaurant, I made a small faux pas:  a waitress brought me turkey on my salad when I asked for salmon. I pointed out the error.  The cook added salmon on top.  But I did not set the turkey aside:  I ate it.  Bank error in my favor.

Later that evening, I realized it must have looked vulgar to eat the turkey I'd pointed out as a mistake.  Social decorum here would suggest that if the error meant so much that I requested it to be rectified, then the least I could do is leave the turkey aside.  It is crass to have profited from their mistake.

I pieced this together reviewing tiny clues in body language. Social decorum here is subtle, but palpable.

Anybody in America can get drugs whenever they want.  Just ask the cops who visit elementary schools to warn children away from drugs.  Amsterdam's allure is not about access to drugs, which is what I assumed was the case before I visited.

Amsterdam is about the freedom to consume marijuana and hash, and then hang out.  In public.  Where lots of people can watch to make sure you're doing as you ought.

You can see a similar principle at work in Amsterdam's attitudes about graffiti. Beautiful graffiti decorates some old buildings in Amsterdam.  Graffiti infuses new aesthetic energy into the old buildings, allowing them to reflect the people living in the city right now.  That's a really different notion of history than, say, the Parisians'.

Amsterdam calibrates the tension between civil rights and social decorum well, but still, I'm American.  I'm surprised when I smell marijuana at the train station, or when I walk by a mostly naked woman seated on a stool in her dark, tidy booth in the Red Light district.

At first I was unsettled to see prostitutes vulnerable in their glass storefronts, illuminated only by the red rectangle of light framing their stalls.  I would try to catch their eyes and offer a smile or business-nod, but they almost never looked in my eyes.  They didn't want my solidarity.  They wanted another client.

Then I realized:  these women are probably the safest prostitutes in the world.  They are protected. They have a union.  I'm a NTT [non-tenure track] professor.  I do not have a union.  Sometimes I sit in the dark in my little stall, grading papers late into the night, illuminated only by the rectangle of light flowing out of my screen.

Amsterdam is forthright about its pleasures and the social limits on that pleasure.

It doesn't promise that what happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam. It doesn't wink and look away.

Why Amsterdam Is Better Than Vegas

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Wearing a Mink in Paris

Moments before Brad and I were to leave home for Paris--we are attending LeWeb--I was still coatless.  I hate to shop.  Half-hearted attempts left me with two old light coats layered atop each other, the way people used to layer Izod shirts in the 80s.  My Paris style.

I stood in the entry way next to packed suitcase.  Brad was loading the car.

"Take my mink!" said my  generous mother-in-law, who had flown in to watch the kids while hubby and I went to Paris. 

I demurred.  "It will get rained on," I said.

"The minks wore it rain or shine," she replied.

"It's so pretty, and so expensive. I'm afraid it would get ruined." 

"It's made to be worn!" she exclaimed.  "I never wear it."

Brad was starting the car.  

I said yes to the coat, and thanks.

Hours later, I found myself in line for passport check at Charles de Gaulle feeling self-conscious.  It took a few hours for that to transform into confidence.  When it hit, I looked in a darkened window and saw myself costumed for Paris.

I wear the mink on the Metro.  To LeWeb.  I drape it over the metal door of stalls in bathrooms.  I toss it on chairs at bistros.  I stroke it.  Brad said others on the subway were stroking it, too, but it's so thick I didn't even feel it. 

Living in Paris for a week feels like finally getting your childhood wish to sleep overnight in Disneyland.  You promenade through sumptuously lit ancien regime monuments, luxuriate in the superabundance of the Louvre, jog past La Tour Eiffel still fizzing straight up into the sky.  It's history, this nook of Paris in the 2nd & 9th arrondissements, but with the centuries of contradiction and violence scrubbed clean.  

So now, consider this.  It's four days into my trip.  I no longer notice the mink, or feel like an impostor, or a goddess.  I'm at the Nation Metro stop.  I have just kissed goodbye my friend Beatrice, whose talk at a local university I have attended.   I am alone, but of course not alone:  Paris's unwonted snow yesterday shut down the streets and drove every last person underground.  The metro car is literally body-to-body.  I can feel the shirt buttons of the man behind me pressing into my back.  I am trying not to inhale a woman's hair as I breathe.

My stop.  Auber.  The door on the other side of the car opens.  I begin to move forward toward the door.  A man crouches down in front of me.  He lingers a moment, blocking the door.  People begin to curse.  "Excuse me, excuse me," I say in English, flustered.  I'm pinned, can't move.  Hands push me over the crouching man.  My body juts over him.  My purse stays behind, right hand barely holding on.  I hear the doors rumble, as they do before they slide close.  I am stuck.  Then a wave of exiting passengers surges forward and pushes me out, like a wax plug dislodged by water.  I pop up into the air.  My right leg wedges down into the gap between the car and the cement platform.  I give a cry of surprise and pain.  I feel my purse being separated from my hand.  I yank with the tips of my fingers.  Seated passengers outside the car gape.  A runnel opens inside the car.  My purse yo-yos from the center of the car toward me.  I hoist myself out of the gully.  In a second, I'm on my feet, purse in hand.  Shrugging for the crowd and escaping into invisibility.

My Parisian souvenir: a 4-inch pink gash above my right knee.  Strangely, I really like it.  It's unsentimental.  An American in Paris wanders outside of her little wedge of FantasyLand.  The city grabs you by the mink and holds on.