Thursday, January 13, 2011

MLALA: retrospective

I've finally made it back east, no thanks to the snowstorm and the surly incompetence of American Airlines (have you ever seen a ticket agent pick a fight with a passenger who was going out of his way to be patient and good-humored? I have now!)--so it's time for a few general observations about this year's MLA.

This is the seventh consecutive MLA I've attended and the sixth I've blogged, but it was also, probably, the least exciting. Some of my lessened excitement may be the result of the date change: say what you like about the inconvenience of the post-Christmas conference, but it ensured that most attendees were still adrenaline-charged and wound up; the hotels were decorated for the holidays, everyone was wishing everyone else a happy new year, and the conference partook of the general mood of festivity. Moving MLA well after Christmas and New Year's (and into the beginning of the term, for those on the quarter system) means that everyone has collapsed but not yet recovered, and the holidays seem very far away.

However, I don't think the date change fully accounts for my more subdued mood. Much of it, I think, has to do with this being the first MLA at which I felt like a grown-up.

My first two MLAs I was on the job market, and dazzled and excited to be surrounded by 9,000 other members of the profession. And for the next several conventions, I was still settling into my identity as a junior professor. Part of the excitement of the convention in those years was its newness, and the fun of assembling friends and associates for meals and drinks and coffee--it was fun just to feel that I had enough friends and associates to keep myself so busy.

But now, honestly? I know too many damn people. I have grad school friends whom I never see, because we're not in the same field; I have Renaissance friends whom I see at conferences two or three times a year if I'm lucky; I have RU friends whom it's fun to hang out with in a new city; I have Cosimo and Cosimo's grad school and professional friends, who have become my friends; I have blog friends whom I wish to know in real life; and I have non-academic friends who happen to live in or near the city where the convention's being held.

So although the socializing was still fun, it also felt like an obligation that I was perpetually defaulting on: I wanted to spend multiple evenings with most of the people I saw only once, and there are some people I spoke to for five minutes on the escalator, exchanged promises to catch up with later. . . and didn't.

I also found myself, for the first time, recognizing grad students as definitively younger and at an earlier career stage than myself. I had drinks with a former RU student of mine, now a Ph.D. candidate at a flagship state school out west, and found myself waxing oracular. I reassured the nervous grad student on my own panel, and had several others approach me deferentially afterward (all "Dr. Fescue" this and "Professor Fescue" that), and, holy cow: the three women from UC Davis sitting behind me in one panel looked about as old as my undergrads.

And equally suddenly, I found myself thinking of those 15 or more years ahead of me in the profession as almost-friends: people I was happy to see and could hold a normal conversation with, rather than being convinced that they were just humoring me and that we had Nothing in Common. The chair of my panel was anxious to know when my book was coming out. The editor at the press that's publishing my edition buttonholed me at a reception and demanded when I'd be sending my monograph to her.

So I guess I. . . know people? And have a professional identity? That's awesome. In fact, that's super awesome. But it makes MLA feel more like work than it used to. I used to go because it was fun, and because I desperately wanted to be a part of that world. Now I'm a part of it, and I go because it's professionally useful. These developments are good ones, in almost every conceivable way, but they do dampen one's energy and enthusiasm.


Anonymous said...


Indeed, though we only saw one another for a brief snippet of time, we had identical MLA experiences.

(And it was so good to see you! And I'll let you know the next time I make my way to your home base for the semester :) )

Flavia said...

Crazy: likewise! And please please do let me know if/when you're in my temporary home this term.