Reviewing the l999 MLA Conference: Once Is Not Enough?

– Reviewed by Will Hochman, January 19, 2000
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Criticizing the academic ways we think, write, read, speak, and (sometimes) listen is a true thread across curricula, as well as the purpose of this writing space. One of the most delightful images of such across discipline connecting occurred at the l999 MLA convention in Chicago. Clifford Geertz's scholarship brought together a late afternoon session where three papers were presented about how Geertz's work has affected selected "field" aspects of English. Geertz responded in an almost classically professorial manner. Complimenting those who included him, rumbling incisively through each presenter's focus with a growl or two that was more like "deep academic purring," and of course at times the venerable professor spoke incoherently. Nevertheless, Geertz made sense of his points if not all of his sentences, and it was simply great fun to watch this white headed, white bearded, teddy bear of a professor offer a true, twentieth century performance of academic scholarship. His response to three, pretty well read and interesting papers was a fine, academic moment of "deep hanging out."

In addition to enjoying a cultural anthropologist in the midst of MLA culture, I also began to peek at the future century. Sessions about using the net to teach literature and humanities courses were included in the l999 MLA, but they were mostly saying, "Look at me! I'm wonderful because I've posted resources on the Web, and even made links to outside sites!" When asked about rights of students or authors, presenters turned palms up and pouted Charlie Chaplin style, claiming no one has been sued ... yet. One presenter, after including too many condescending remarks about students for me to justify staying, ended his paper, er ... presentation ("Look at me, I'm using PowerPoint!") by vaguely referring to technology's "giveness" without giving much critical insight as to what he meant. His voice was like a pointing, negative nun's finger reminding educators not to enjoy this technology too much. When an audience member asked this presenter to explain how the "giveness" of technology is different than that of a full professor lecturing, the dead pan of Buster Keaton's empty gaze was employed. Thinking about Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century by Cynthia Selfe would sharpen the criticism here – Selfe's point is to get readers to pay critical attention to the rights and authority of computer users and learners.

The MLA conference, as one colleague told me, makes him want to stop being a professor. (And he wasn't even on the job market!) But as a living text, the MLA conference is the largest academic gathering on a yearly basis, and it does include a bee hive of ideas as well as very human, living qualities that may make it less of an intellectual adventure than one might hope. Despite media reports of off-the-wall paper titles, the MLA is an indicator of the conservatism in the field of language study; it does more to frame the status quo than look into the future. This conference has become a way to reify who and what professors mean to each other, though at least that image has progressed in some diverse ways. Nonetheless, I'm reminded of the ending of Small World by David Lodge. This 1984 novel is still the quintessential book of fiction about the MLA (see the recent issue of Profession for an interview with Lodge about the MLA); he's clearly considered an "expert" on the subject and not at all self conscious about crossing boundaries between fact and fiction. Anyway, at the end of Small World, the hero still in search of his lover stares at the flight board in an airport until he imagines her image on the screen of departures and arrivals and wonders where, "in all the small, narrow world he should begin to look for her."

Where we are as academics, who we are in our disciplines, and what roles twenty first century learning will demand of us is in flux. As I strolled through halls and sat through the sessions of the MLA this year, I didn't worry that there were readers of Milton or Faulkner, but I did worry that they hadn't read George Landow, Michael Joyce, Jay David Bolter, or even Lester Faigley. That is to say, I observed a living text mostly involved with looking at itself, with continuing itself, and with only the slightest bit of imagination and courage, looking beyond itself.

I left Chicago wondering how Writing Across the Curriculum sprang from English? Professors at the MLA didn't seem to care about teaching and learning so much as verifying their self importance. David Russell, a curricular historian, notes the term began in English departments in the mid-l970s but also notes that such trends toward including more writing in learning across the disciplines are not new to this century. Perhaps WAC boils down to being a matter of communication? Our academic world is growing smaller and we need ways to better understand each other. However, as online writing increasingly becomes our academic thinking, WAC will continue to expand if we allow learning voices to grow. Despite the setbacks and marginalization of WAC in the twentieth century, computers and the Web will enhance the immediacy of communicating thinking in ways that will make WAC a more central aspect of our institutions, if not the MLA. In addition to hoping for more interdisciplinary action and enhanced critical awareness about the ways we think and teach our ideas into living texts, we can always appreciate the annual MLA conferences for reminding us about what we may need to leave behind.

Publication Information: Hochman, William. (2000). Once Is Not Enough? [Review of the 1999 Modern Language Association Conference]. Academic.Writing. https://wac.colostate.edu/aw/reviews/mla_1999.htm
Publication Date: March 26, 2000


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Will Hochman's Email: hochman@southernct.edu

Copyright © 2000 William Hochman. Used with permission.