I’m putting my second post on student evaluations on hold to discuss my impressions of the recently concluded MLA convention in Seattle while the conference is still fresh in my mind. Though attendance was slightly up in 2011, it was hard to tell whether that trend continued this year. I don’t have the numbers yet, but it seemed very different from the booming conventions of the 1990s. Some might speculate that the location, Seattle, while beautiful, might have discouraged some East Coasters from attending. Moving the conference from late December to early January makes it, of course, all but impossible for faculty at universities on the quarter system to attend, since MLA now conflicts with the the first week of classes. Again, no hard numbers, but Ohio State’s English department sent a grand total of seven of its 106 professors to the convention, down from the usual 30 or so. When the MLA changed the dates of the convention (admittedly democratically by vote) it essentially eliminated the ability of faculty at colleges and universities on the quarter system to attend and participate.
But these are superficial, or at best logistical complaints. Let me proceed to more substantive issues. I’ve attended 26 consecutive MLA’s (probably not the record, but enough to give me an historical sense of the event). As I see it, there are three components to the MLA: the vast assortment of panels, the book exhibit, and initial job interviews (largely for entry-level faculty positions).
In my experience, each of these components has changed, especially since the economic downturn of 2008, which is still rippling through the higher-education system. First, the panels. It seems there are more of them than ever, but their intellectual richness is offset by (perhaps inevitable) scheduling chaos. Many is the time that I’ve wanted to attend three panels, all at the same time. This year, a good friend gave a talk at exactly the same time I did. I simply can’t be in multiple places at the same time. I also notice that members are inclined to attend panels in their own field, sometimes exclusively. Thus the panel component of the conference not only presents us all with daily tough decisions about what to do, but it also contributes to an already balkanized profession as well. I personally find conferences in which all the panels are plenary to be much more intellectually enriching.
I always used to think of the book exhibit as a grand social event. It was always the place where I encountered and caught up with casual acquaintances with whom I hadn’t made breakfast, lunch, or dinner plans. And to do so surrounded by books only enhanced the experience. But in the last few years, the book exhibit has seemed to me sparsely attended. Certainly browsing the university press booths is a more enjoyable, because more tangible, experience than reading press catalogs, but I’m starting to wonder if the exhibit is becoming too cost ineffective for the presses that participate in it. I know that the book exhibit has in the past served as a crucial meeting place for prospective authors and acquisition editors, but I wonder whether those meetings absolutely have to happen face-to-face.
Which brings me to the hiring process. Once again, I haven’t done any empirical research on changes in the process, but I can offer one striking anecdote. My home institution’s English department conducted one job search this year. We chose, for the first time ever, not to send our search committee to MLA, but rather to conduct the initial interviews via Skype. That move saved our department $15,000, and (based on my conversations with members of our search committee) the Skype interviews weren’t glaringly different than the conventional MLA interviews, maybe better in some ways, since the candidates were in their home environments–I heard anecdotes about dogs and children making noises in the background.
So here’s my concluding question: I’ve always felt that the interviewing process was by far the most important component of the MLA convention, however intellectually rewarding the panels and the book exhibit are. What will happen as more and more institutions shift to virtual interviews? A colleague of mine and I discussed this very question in the airport on the way home. We both agreed that such a shift might make the MLA convention obsolete–for monetary reasons alone. Disciplinary fields wouldn’t really suffer, since they all have their own individual conferences (ASECS, INCS, Kalamazoo, etc.); university presses would promote their books more aggressively via the Internet; the first round of interviews would take place on Webcams.
My talk was on the last day of the conference, and these thoughts made me savor my solitary lunch at Ivar’s all the more bittersweet.