I'm not at this year's annual meeting of the MLA (Modern Language Association), the professional organization for academics in modern languages and literature. This is my second year in a row not attending the convention, for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I really hope to go next year, when it will be in DC, a city I know and love.
So the convention started today, and so the NYT has published one of those mocking little articles that tries to poke fun at paper titles from the convention. Every year a few major newspapers offer up such pieces, trying to show how extremely "out there" literature scholars are. The NYT writer, for instance, is extremely anxious about studies of queer/gay/lesbian topics and what he terms "Tragic hipness, multicultural agendizing and an almost abject embrace of low/popular culture." After pulling out a mere dozen or so titles from the conference programme (which usually encompasses about 800 papers) as supposedly representative, he complains: "What any of it has to do with teaching literature to America's college students remains as vexing a question to some today as it was a decade ago."
A few points have to be made. First off -- you have to really look closely at an MLA programme to find the "provocative" titles. Because most of the papers are, in fact, about really exciting stuff like "Copyright and the Public Sphere," Early Modern Hispanic Convent Literature," "The Comic Dickens," or "Faulkner's Style." (All examples pulled at random from a past convention programme -- I don't have the one for this year at hand.) But of course to actually report on what the convention is about would be far less amusing.
Secondly -- his final complaint, that the papers given at the MLA have little to do with teaching literature is wrong in so many ways. There are always numerous panels devoted to pedagogical topics, as well as panels focused on texts that are mainstays of the teaching canon. But more important, to my mind, because it's symptomatic of a larger problem we in literary studies have in terms of representing our work, is the assumption that what we do only has relevance in the classroom. Would a journalist ever think to demand that all the papers delivered at a biologists' convention be focused on teaching-related topics? Or a convention of sociologists? Because literature is frequently assumed to be something that anyone with basic literacy can enjoy (and I'm not disagreeing with that point), there's a false corollary that is sometimes also assumed -- that therefore anyone should be able to understand the highly specialized work of professionals in the field of literary studies. We don't all of us expect to be able to understand advanced physics without any training -- why should you expect to understand the intricacies of theoretical developments in literary studies without any training?
Such attitudes are not only the province of journalists looking for an easy laugh. They come up all the time in discussions with the Dean of our College (which combines humanities and social sciences), or on university-level promotion and tenure committees. Too many non-humanities faculty dismiss our work out of hand, or see us only as there to fulfill the most basic service needs of the institution (making sure students can read and write basic English). The challenge of representing our work to audiences outside the humanities is a real one, one which hasn't yet been adequately met by the MLA, although the organization has been trying. It has sponsored a series of radio programs and lectures that try to bring some ideas from current scholarship to a wider general public. But we face such issues within academia itself, from people you'd think would know better, since they themselves have advanced graduate training in their own fields. That's what's especially frustrating.