Thursday, January 14, 2016

Alphabetic Reflections on MLA 2016 and Its Subconference


[LEFT: A poster for the MLA Subconference on the front door of Cheer Up Charlies. RIGHT: A banner listing the names of MLA forums outside the book exhibit in the Austin Convention Center.]

The Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in Austin is quickly receding into the past and I’ve tried to put some thoughts together as I returned to the routine of teaching this week. In part to honor Eileen Joy for her presence here at ITM (read her moving “commencement” blog post!) and to acknowledge her work as the Prime Mover in many communities I hold dear (BABEL, punctum books, punctum records, and postmedival among them), I wanted to offer some reflections on the MLA Convention and its Subconference—a recap of my overall experience in Austin, with some thoughts on where we (medieval studies and academia as a whole) might be heading.

#MLA16 and #SubCon16:
Alphabetic Reflections

[originally composed on January 12, 2016]

I’m fascinated by how “keywords” structure an increasing number of academic/activist collections and projects so my initial post-MLA reflections here take the form of an alphabet of keywords. (I’m also hoping to put together a collaborative session for MLA 2017 on keywords as method/practice but more on that soon!)

ACTIVISM is alive and well—in both the official MLA Convention and the Subconference.

BEARDS are ubiquitous in Austin. Locals really commit to their facial hair stylings.

CRIP & Queer Theory entwined in a cool way in "QueerCrips Across Time" (session 619) — a roundtable spanning the 12th century to 2016. An engaging convo about intersectional approaches and the dynamic interplay of historicist and presentist vantage points.

DISRUPTING DH continues to make powerful interventions in the field (yay Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel! I learned so much from the other presenters and the audience at #DisruptingDH. We need more "flipped" sessions like these.

ETHOS, not ethics. Medical humanities convos at MLA have reminded me of how important it is to shift from an abstract discourse of “ethics” to a sense of a lived ethos. How do we be/enact change we want in our various social spheres?

FOODOGRAPHY made MLA a joy on social media. Austin has some great food (from cheap tacos to exquisite splurges), and it all looks gorgeous on Instagram.

GOURDOUGH’S DONUTS totally lives up to the hype.

HUMANITY (toward ourselves and toward others) is crucial if we want the humanities to survive and thrive.

INSTITUTIONS can be transformed from within as well as from the outside. I like Eileen Joy’s idea (expressed in various talks she has given) that we need more “out-stitutions” (as well as “un-stitutions”?) that can change business-as-usual.

JOBS (or rather job security) in the humanities is not as strong as it could be. But I find that medievalists overall are especially supportive of one another and look out for earlier stage scholars. I appreciate that people are genuinely happy for others who are doing well, and the “market” does not define your intellect, potential, or worth.

KEYWORDS-based sessions are proliferating at MLA gatherings nowadays (recent examples: Digital Pedagogy, Disability, Medical Humanities, Middle English, Prismatic Ecology). What would happen if such keywords panels/projects started to speak to/work with each other?

LIBRARIANS are fun, smart, radical folks. Professors and academics should collaborate more with them.

MANELS (all-male panels) were thankfully absent in my experience of this MLA. Session 258 on “Interdisciplinary Vocabularies of DH” was an all-female panel, which is pretty awesome.

[ADDED January 14, 2016: Kudos to medievalists like Peter Buchanan who are forcefully responding today to the toxic MISOGYNY of certain scholar; all of this demonstrates that medieval studies (and academia, and the world) can do much better.]

NEWNESS in medieval studies makes me happy: especially global, crosscultural, comparative, and multigenerational approaches.

OPENNESS at MLA is improving but we can do better. I’m glad MLA took its theme seriously and had some sessions open to the public, but in my opinion some other things should really be open to absolutely anyone — especially the book exhibit.

PRESTIGE is still a big part of what MLA is "about" (in terms of the composition of committees and sessions etc.). While I understand that “celebrity sessions” do attract numbers, new voices should always be a part of any convo.

QUEERNESS in the sense of WEIRDNESS seemed to be more prevalent at this MLA (perhaps due to the location?). I am wonder now if I’d rather be “weirding” things than “queering” them.

RANDOM interactions with people in sessions outside your field are sometimes the best part of the conference.

STUDIUM is a great space for incubating art and knowledge, and I love that it has/is a compound.

TWITTER creates intriguingly awkward forms of intimacy. It’s a bit disorienting, in a good way, to meet someone in person and figure out how well they do/not match their avatar/online persona.

UNMAKING disciplines is just as important as perpetuating them.

VIRTUAL presence (tele-presence) was a factor in a few sessions, e.g., “special” cases of papers delivered via videoconference or embodied proxy. Speaking only for myself (and not for any committee or institution), I think MLA should more carefully consider what tele-presence might actually mean, given that not every MLA member can deliver a talk in person (due to financial, physical, cognitive, or other conditions). Having been on both sides of the job search process, I’m also all for more institutions going the Skype route for job interviews. MLA would still be a great wide-ranging conference (even more enjoyable!) without the interviews happening.

WHITENESS in some fields is still overwhelming (read this position paper by Annemarie Perez) but things are changing. The crowds at the #DisruptingDH session and GL/Q Queer Books Party were by the far the most varied of all the things I attended at this MLA. We need to cultivate more spaces where nobody is the “lonely only.”

XENOPHOBIA, Islamophobia, and racism are deeply intwined in US culture, and I’m encouraged that so many people (in sessions, academic work, and their personal lives) are doing their part to challenge these forces.

YOUTH was for me an unexpected theme across sessions: Chaucer and children (and teaching Chaucer to high school students), ageism and ableism in health discourses, generational rifts regarding student protests. I’m thinking more seriously about what it means for the academy to be by definition multigenerational and what that really means for its/our future.


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