Reviewing the 2000 MLA Conference: 'Is it words ... just words?' No Shortage of Word Power

– Reviewed by Will Hochman, January 9, 2001
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The MLA this year landed in Washington DC. Surprisingly, there were only scattered comments about the election – the political layers of our profession seemed pretty quiet despite the location of the conference. One presenter did focus his audience on the reading moment when the Supreme Court handed down their decision for Bush, but the focus was more textual and the speaker attempted to make more of the meaning in watching a reader read, than about stolen elections or under-represented voices. Instead of politics, the MLA 2000 conference used the cliché of a new millennium. The PMLA even came out with a special millennium issue. Last year was a faux millennium with Y2K doing nothing except foreshadowing this year's tech stock fallout. And if 01/01/01 is the real millennium beginning, there was little end-of-millennium gloom and doom to be found in the sessions and parties. At the MLA conference there was little political or economic anxiety compared with field specific myopia. There seemed to be a conference sense that literary points could be made according to the end or beginning of a significant amount of time and perspective. Issues of why we sense anxiety in this blossoming age of information seemed to lurk in the shadows while the informed discourse of language took center stage.

The conference included the usual tradition of changing paper titles and revising texts to include buzz ideas from other sessions. There were the constant attempts to express the coolest sound byte and, as always, the majority of the presenters displayed a decided lack of presentation skill. In other words, this year's MLA, like all of its predecessors, offered attendees a plethora of ideas typically generated by professors reading their labored essays aloud. It was ironic as hell to see how little our profession has really changed while listening to speakers in their sessions address millennium issues. In one session, a presenter imagined what a man who had been frozen for a hundred years and brought back to life would see in this 21st-Century world. The speaker's point is that if this frozen man went to schools, he would recognize them more clearly than most other aspects of our modern culture. Apparently, education's brick and mortar approach to the changing world of ideas still structures learning in ways that don't seem to have changed as much as most other aspects of our world in this new millennium. The irony is that the same point is true for the MLA conference – even as its participants seemed happy to discuss technology and future literatures in the age of information.

It may be neither good nor bad that the presentation methods of our profession have not changed much. This conference lived up to its name – it offers modern language, usually generated from written texts and communicated verbally. It seemed as though everyone believed that something he or she would say could somehow be carved in stone. There was a catchy inflection at the conference that made it all too often sound as if presenters believed that if they said something well enough and if the idea cut deeply enough into our profession's trends of thought, then their discourse would indeed modernize our language. Beyond the glib reductions intended to startle and amuse, beyond the sophisticated inflection of meaning being read to and through some nine thousand listeners, and beyond the clever phrasing of those best connected to the power structures of our profession, this MLA offered academic writing and thinking at its best. Yes, there was the usual amount of professors showing audiences how smart they are by inducing listeners into a text known better by the speaker – and as expected, those professors not only lose the point but audiences when the textual evidence becomes the point instead of the support for more understandable and accessible thinking. But those kind of textual games will probably always be part of the conference. Perhaps there was too little new research – it's impossible to know – but the sampling of sessions for this review uncovered very little reporting of new research. There certainly wasn't a sexy new theoretical wave to surf. No, this conference can't be accurately generalized. Beyond the trend to address the millennium, this year's MLA simply offered essays for fools and geniuses reading side by side.

The sessions attended for this review were: "How I Teach Writing," "From Guttenberg to Gates: Metamorphoses of Media," "Still Reading in the New Millennium: A Conversation," "Writing and Schooling at the Millennium," "Effects of Technology on Student and Faculty Learning," "Vexing Issues for Writing Programs or Writing Program Administrators," "Videos from the Favorite Poem Project" "MLA Members Read Their Favorite Poems," and "The Status of Freshman Composition." The math doesn't need to be computed to see that this sampling of the 825 sessions may not indicate much beyond some insightful impressions. However, there were some important objective correlatives in those sessions that can be linked to important field trends by remembering what some of the presenters said. In other words, the following people's specific remarks may reconfigure the experience a diverse plethora of words and ideas in the name of language and academic writing.

Directed by the simple prompt of "How I Teach Writing," David Bartholomae described himself as a "heavy handed editor" when responding to student writing and stressed reading and revising as processes that encourage students to bring into their papers what they don't understand. The play between challenging essays and challenging students to work with them is based on Bartholomae's claim that "A text becomes what others make of it." This master compositionist was saying that his teaching foregrounds how writing takes place among the writing of others. He offered a humbling and powerful point when he declared that "learning to be a composition teacher means valuing small revision." Lurking behind his remarks was his foundational composition text, Ways of Reading, though it was clear Bartholomae's pedagogy was still centered with text and focused on reading and the critical play of writing ideas.

The next master of the profession, David Bleich, humbly described his approach to teaching composition as "know and tell." He cited Rebecca Howard's innovative work on plagiarism by posing the problem this way: "If they [students] take it from our language, it's learning, If they take it from other students, it's cheating." For Bleich, writing is a transcendental power based on "conscious attempts to overtake and use the language of others."

Susan Miller continued her contrarian role playing by saying she teaches writing based on the politics of articulation. She doesn't mean simple expression, though she does pay attention to her students' personal motives for writing academic texts. Contrary to Bartholomae, Miller asks her students to read for imitation, not interpretation. She doesn't think we teach reading or thinking when we teach writing and continues to emphasize production of texts. "Rhetoric is a persuasive pedagogy, not a theory," claimed Miller, and she sees writing teachers as "reflective practitioners" who can demystify academic life. Miller was most insightful when she pointed out that students really do welcome useful information about writing and that we should become more aware of using texts that address writing issues in our writing classes.

Academic writing and teaching composition is gaining recognition in the MLA. Of course, Rhetoric has always been a venerable element of the profession, and now even with a dirty word like "composition" in front of it, the rising interest in student literacies was clear and advancing beyond the usual snobbism and disparaging complaints about comma splices. The MLA job figures will come out in a month or two, but it's possible that the qualitative and quantitative increases of writing sessions is linked to the increasing need for tenure track compositionists.

Future seeing when anyone is actually listening is so much fun. The difference between fanciful guessing and real thinking and research may not always be clear, but so what? Playing off the cleverly aliterated "From Guttenberg to Gates,"the session and it's workshop strands were supposed to give us the perspective to see into 21st-Century word worlds. I doubt there was any accumulated wealth, unless we're talking about Bill Gates, though no one did. Nonetheless, there were some very strong ideas offered from some pretty interesting players in the field.

Robert Scholes was interested in new ways to read. He sees the ways digitized text changes reading to the point where he claims, "Reading and narrative have come to a parting of the ways." Scholes believes that virtuality is more powerful than narrative on the screen, and that new ways to read will center more on lexicality because of the ways computers let us do keyword searches, print out text fragments, and find new pathways through texts. Almost as a sheep in wolf's clothing, Scholes appeared as an MLA elder and respected professional, yet it was refreshing to listen to Scholes color and shade some of the hypertextual changes. As our media awareness changes from the "real" worlds of our generations X, Y and Z (to generation whatever?), Scholes' insights and increased valuing of lexicality and virtuality will serve us well.

Stuart Moulthrop, a hypertext hero, discussed the "The Fall of Dot Communism" and claimed the current recession of technoenthusiasm is the result of "opportunistic entrepreneurs." Moulthrop offered light at the end of the tunnel based on peer-to-peer to networking and the development of a new online culture that advances beyond consumerism and greed. It was hard to enjoy the ideas as much as the jargon, though Moulthrop's ideas continued an Internet ethos and writing ethos that consumerism constantly threatens to extinguish.

It was almost possible to hear Paul Simon in the session's title, "Still Reading in the New Millennium" though it may be harder to imagine Geoffrey Hartman as a rocker. Nonetheless, he was comical in his desire to secure a microphone for those sitting on the stage during a session billed as workshop but ended up being mostly talking heads with only abbreviated Q&A. Hartman summarized criticism over the last 40 years as radical ambiguity that complicates communication and defined reading as "always that function on a higher plane which intrigues us." The venerable, gray-bearded, Yale professor was concerned with how meaning's reception is conditioned by media, claiming that "transmissibility has triumphed over truth." No, there was no time to ask what he really meant by "transmissibility" (or the lack of it...).

For a session titled "Wrting and Schooling at the Millennium," wise woman of writing pedagogy and field leader, Andrea Lundsford, stressed style as something more than addressing standard conventions. She said that current trends in rhetoric emphasize invention and ignore delivery and reminded her audience that rhetoric should balance invention, delivery and style. Lundsford used the term "electracy" to describe online discourse and made it clear that teachers must claim more authority in developing the elements of online style. She supported this point by mentioning the discussion in Wired on whether to use the term email or e-mail.

Jim Seitz believes that students are at ease with some language and should be encouraged to write "at arm's length," emphasizing the point that we may be misunderstanding the role of estrangement in learning language. Seitz used "The Motive for Metaphor" by Wallace Stevens to dramatize his point that we "leave ourselves in order to find ourselves." Seitz insightfully pointed out that the division between creative writing and composition is absurd and called for a new curriculum where creative and critical forms of writing may be merged more powerfully. Continuing his understanding of the role of metaphor in language, Seitz's call for more creativity in composition may have been one of the best ideas at the MLA.

Jabari Mahiri argued for multiple means of constructing meaning based on engaging students with ideas about constraint, construction and agency. Using "The Miseducation of Lauren Hill," Mahiri used hip hop music to illustrate the possibilities for transformation and learning based on technology and popular culture. He wants to help his students make connections "to and through domains of knowledge." He seemed less distracted with millennia and more focused on actual social and cultural effects of changing learning contexts.

Kurt Spellmeyer, always a catalyst for change, claimed that many of the issues that occupy humanists are a waste of time. Spellmeyer thinks there is more change in our world in the last 100 years than in the previous 500 years but that schools haven't really changed. "Our term for looking backward is criticism," he said, but "no one knows where we are going, no one has the answers." Spellmeyer sees old configurations of Humanities as "hyperspecialized" and called for a new sense of Humanities based on composition's multidisciplinary, synthetic thinking.

In a session designed to consider the effects of technology on learning, Randy Bass criticized teaching and learning in the Twenty-First Century by claiming that "we in fact, have few good questions." Bass believes that we know much less about learning than we do about teaching. He asked such key questions as how do we deal with over-representation and what is the difference between knowledge making in and out of the university. Bass focused on the method of confronting students with the question, "What don't you know about something?" as an invitation into inquiry, not a threat. Using Robert Scholes's call for a shift from a canon of texts to a canon of methods, Bass concluded by suggesting that we redesign English around the effects of learning.

It's not necessary to mention the second speaker in the session because the paper was read in a very forgetful monotone and did not really make much sense. However, there was one of those perfect conference moments when nearing the end of the slotted time, she was to concluded. The reader responded with a smiling thumbs up that not only signaled her acknowledgement but also showed her anticipated relief from the tedium. There is very little shifting in MLA sessions. The audiences tend to stick around. In this case, the tenacity was worthwhile.

Peg Syverson described her attempts to document teaching and learning in digital environments in order to "document student work congruent with diverse capabilities and divergent possibilities." She argued that in a computer class, lock-step curricula won't work with students who come to classes with very different technological literacies. Although she was unable to get the technology to work, she described her work at the University of Texas to create online portfolios as a means to better understand how teaching and learning unfold.

In "Vexing Issues for Writing Programs or Writing Program Administrators," the Hamlet of composition, Peter Elbow, announced his retirement but seemed as vital as ever. He imagined what teachers of literature could give to compositionists and visa versa based on his call for more teaching of imaginative writing in freshman composition. Elbow used his divided self (trained in literature/practiced in composition) as he drew on aspects of sophistication and sentimentality to suggest that there is more play in issues of style and artifice than we usually teach. His talk may have encouraged compositionists to think about how to use metaphor more powerfully and encouraged literature teachers to use more humility. Finally, Elbow made the point that composition could learn from literature's comfort with diverse theories. Composition, according to Elbow, should relax and enjoy the "big mess" and not get caught up in the fact that there aren't dominant ideas defining the field.

Deborah Holdstein (Lady Macbeth of composition?) was one of the real stars of the conference. Her paper focused on "ethos." After recognizing ethos as "a cornerstone for rhetoricians," she went on to show how the word is not dialogically neutral. Holdstein not only showed her audience how ethos does not address the cultural needs of Jewish thought, her dance with this one word made listeners think about how our most central rhetorical terms are never ideologically neutral.

Christine Farris may have offered some of the best approaches to her rationale for composition when she said that the purpose of her talk was "not to pile on more apocalyptic rhetoric but to weed my way though it." Farris was concerned with composition as the university's "universal donor" and wondered about the risks of losing composition as a discipline due to working on so many other discipline's borders. Her argument for composition as a discipline was linked to her calls for increases in part-time pay and to develop more upper level courses in composition.

Finally, in one of the last sessions of the conference, in one of the smallest rooms imaginable, there was a session on "The Status of Freshman Composition." The advance of a storm all along the Eastern seaboard did little to stop the attendance of this standing room only session. Carol Rutz was sensitive and insightful as she discussed stages of development and maturation in writing classes. She seemed to perfectly set up Rita J. Malenzyk, who discussed the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (see College English 63.3 Jan 2001) and questioned whether the outcomes statement further defines composition as a service course. As one of the committee members composing the statement, she offered intelligent analysis and a balanced understanding of how the generalized outcomes do and do not define what composition as a field means to its practitioners.

When it comes to literature and writing, academic sessions can only do so much. Robert Pinsky gathered a dozen or so prestigious MLA members to read a favorite poem and to very briefly discuss why the poem was important. Amidst all the critical thinking, this simple presentation of experiencing and appreciating literature may have had more "word power" than most of the other moments in the conference. Hearing Pinsky read "Sailing To Byzantium" or listening to Geoffrey Hartman briefly express his love of Wordsworth provided a feel for literature that was different from all other sessions. This confluence of readers combined creative and critical moments in more natural and human ways than the more intellectual sessions and literary striving in the rest of the conference.

The Washington Post reported on the MLA 2000 conference that "people go to these panels and sit ... and when it's time to discuss no one says anything." Maybe nothing was really said in the first place? What is the MLA conference? Is it ideas? Is it people? Is it words ... just words? Millennium or not, we do go on.

Publication Information: Hochman, William. (2000). "Is it words ... just words?" No shortage of word power. [Review of the 2000 Modern Language Association Conference]. Academic.Writing.
Publication Date: January 25, 2000

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Copyright © 2001 William Hochman. Used with permission.