The Annual MLA Disaster

John Sutherland

  • The Modern Language Association of America: Program for the 109th Convention, Vol. 108, No. 6
    November 1993
  • The Modern Language Association: Job Information List

At the 1992 MLA convention in New York there were some 12,000 registered and paid-up members in attendance. It is, one is told, the largest function of its kind in North America – and gatherings of professors don’t come bigger elsewhere. Certainly not in Britain, where the MLA’s anaemic cousin, UTE (the University Teachers of English conference), counts itself lucky to get attendance in three figures. The MLA, with a current enrolment of 31,500, was not always as big. Just 40 people came to the first convention in 1883, out of a total membership of 126. Attendance progressively increased, from one thousand in 1930 to five thousand in 1959. Then, with the explosion of higher education, it leapt to 12,300 in 1966, at which level it has stabilised, although there will be a few less this year at Toronto – an oddly colonial choice of location for a national rally.

The growth of the MLA has been a triumph for the association and a disaster for the profession it represents. Not least, the convention is an annual public relations fiasco. Every year American newspapers run their ‘Weird MLA’ article. This year the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Toronto Globe and Mail will seize on Panel 688, ‘Lesbian and Gay Studies: Conflicting Desires’, which features as its third speaker Gregory W. Bredbeck of the University of California Riverside and his rousing talk ‘Fuck Your Gender’. If gender-fucking is too heavy there are scores of other papers with which to amaze the outside world: ‘Star Power: or, How to (De)Flower the Rectal Brain: the Increments and Excrements of “Influence” in Dorian Gray and Edward II’ (this, incidentally, is what passes for Wildean wit at the MLA); ‘Teledildonics: Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson’; or the terser, but sublimely opaque ‘Autophagy and the Logic of the Absolute Fragment’.

These titles will have been solemnly approved by an MLA committee. The same committee has also given its stamp of approval to a quantity of worthy scholarly panels, but most glamour attaches to the politically controversial and theoretically advanced items. Professor Bredbeck’s address will be packed and applauded. There is no more telling statistic in the 1993 Program than the 70 sessions devoted to ‘Literary Criticism and Theory’ (by far the largest category) and the puny six devoted to ‘Research and Bibliography’, of which two take as their subject the chronically depressed status of bibliography in the profession. You won’t get a job, promotion or respect at the MLA by editing works of literature any more. Even more degraded than bibliography is undergraduate teaching of the traditional kind. The three talks sponsored by the National Council of Teachers in a panel called ‘Teaching and the MLA’ depict a profession in headlong flight from the old-fashioned business of the classroom. 1. ‘Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Jazz Modalities and Teaching: “Where Narrative Has Not Been Before” ’; 2. ‘Adventures in Cyberspace: Blurring the Boundaries of Teaching and Research’; 3. ‘Ludic Feminism, Critique-al-Pedagogy, and the Everyday’. God help the students subjected to critique-al-pedagogy, whatever that may be.

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