Sunday, December 30, 2007

Academe's expo, then?

Several objections were raised to my Woodstock comparison, on the grounds that MLA is not at all about free love, or any kind of love at all for that matter, or fun, or music... OK, I happen to find MLA to be a fun crossroads, but have it your own way. Perhaps a better comparison would be the Columbian Exposition of 1893, in which a utopian city was built for the purpose of showing off Chicago and the United States, with exhibits, some living, from every civilization but a heavy stress on the technology and superiority of the West.

This just happens to be in my mind because I half-read Devil in the White City, which is about the expo. I liked the architecture part but not the murder mystery part. I should also note that by calling MLA the Expo, I am not in the least implying that a murderer was stalking the Hyatt's sacred halls, unless you count the deadly fears that plague the job candidates.

However, MLA is a huge exhibition and parade, and it shares the political foibles of the exhibits of the Columbian Exposition -- a large topic that I will address another time. Some decisions certainly get made that will help shape the future of literary studies and pedagogy in the U.S., but for the most part it's a chance to see what others are working on, show off your own work, get a job, network, etc. Highlights for me included watching W. J. T. Mitchell smack down N. Katherine Hayles' proposal that we phase out departments in universities and turn to "problem" studies instead (i.e., topical organization like urban studies or, one she suggested, poverty studies). This is particularly interesting, because I've been watching Northwestern's graduate school phase in clusters that supplement departments, but they are not all problem-based; some are area-based instead (e.g., Latin American studies). Useful as supplement; as replacement, just as subject to stodginess and territorialization.

Returning to the general conference experience, I met with many friends, new and old, and was delighted to unexpectedly re-meet Michael Berube, formerly of Le Blogue Berube, which was a model of what public academic blogging should be -- much as Michael himself is a model of what a public academic can be. I have kept this blog more to my personal arts consumption, which I'm happy with at the moment. But the range and sheer volume of Michael's four-year blog was something else; the archives are still on his website, and worth a look.


jodi said...

The 1893 expo is of particular interest to religious studies folks because it was also the site of the first ever World's Parliament of Religions, a site of performance, display, and of course, colonialist organization ;-). The American Academy of Religion is meeting in Chicago next fall and I suspect that several sections will go quite meta on that theme.

hope you had fun! probably a much better time than those who were either hiring or looking to be hired :-)

Heidi said...

No kidding. Well, you're always welcome to stay with me while you, uh, enjoy the Parliamentary theme.

I had a blast, thanks.