Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, January 11, 2015

I was a little disappointed in MLA15, but not for the reasons you think

So I just got home from MLA 2015 in Vancouver. My stay was a little shorter than most because while I received a department grant to attend the year before the job market, that only covered airfare, and the MLA graduate student grant just covered my two nights at the hotel and meals. So I was not there the whole time.
However, as a first time MLAer, and a graduate students, and someone who will be on the job market fall 2015, it was interesting but a little underwhelming. Which is the opposite vision most people have of MLA.

We've all heard horror stories about MLA, and I'm sure there were interview horror stories this year.
But as I didn't participate in that, I want to talk about what my reactions were to what I experienced.

First, Vancouver is very pretty. And I would like to return and actually experience the city (something you rarely do with conferences, except PCA which always focuses on organizing city-related trips). The convention center was beautiful, and I heard on more than one occasion from members who had attended other MLAs that the technology and support was the best they'd ever had, so kudos to the Vancouver Convention Center.

I made sure to attend panels of dissertation committee members, and people I wanted to meet, as well as panels that were just interesting, as networking is supposed to be one of the big purposes at MLA. While I enjoyed all the panels I attended, I don't feel as though I networked MLA the way I thought you were supposed to.

One of the things I really liked was an idea brought up in one of the Chaucer panels (224. Why Chaucer Now?), that IF the MLA stops being focused on the job market (with Skype taking the place of initial interviews) then perhaps it can get back/refocus on what it used to turn in the 20s and 30s, focus on putting scholars together to produce great works of scholarship and scholarly editions. I also enjoyed that this panel approached Chaucer more from an idea of how we teach it (particularly @jeffreyjcohen 's paper). I think particularly in medieval and early modern it's important to share how we teach these works and keep them relevant, and I don't know how common this is at MLA, but I'd like to see more of it because I felt it was very helpful.

One of the bonuses for me of MLA was to attend the Milton panels. I was unable because of my finances to stay through Saturday night and the Milton Society dinner, but next year on the job market I'll be there the entire time so I'm looking forward to that.

I attended Milton and the Politics of Periodization (Session 189. Friday, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 112, VCC West) and enjoyed it. Session 347 Milton and Book History (Friday, 3:30–4:45 p.m., 204, VCC West) was a little intimidating- everyone in the room practically is on my works cited list for the #DevilDiss, and the panel presentations were interesting. I did notice that the majority of panels had a respondent, which I found a little confusing. I like more question and answers, and I don't really understand respondents, we just heard the papers, so why do we need a summary to tie them together? I don't know how prevalent it is at MLA, and I had no one to ask. Which brings me to my last issue.

I asked a Dundes question at the American Folklore panel about what "work" they saw the folklore motifs in their papers doing and no one answered it. In fact one person, with twenty minutes of Q&A left said "That's a big question, and we're short on time so there's no time to answer that" (Tip: don't do that). So I guess I'm doing something right.

I had thought before attending that MLA was about mentoring and introducing younger scholars to the older generation. Maybe it's because I'm not on the job market. Maybe it's because my mentors had other, more pressing students to prioritize. But I made a point to walk up to and make sure my mentors saw me, saw I was there, and I was brushed off by each one. I was not introduced to anyone. I was not sat down and talked to. I was not encouraged to attend some panels and not others. Now, it may be that this isn't how MLA works. That I am presuming something not in evidence. And if that's the case, that's fine, I'll know for next year. I did make sure I walked up and introduced myself cold to someone I know from Twitter but not in real life, because I like making those face to face connections.

I think part of the reason this bothered me more than anything else is that it hits close to a nagging feeling I'm starting to get. None of my mentors seem very excited about my work. I'm an extreme self-starter/hard-worker, so I don't require babysitting or reminding. But I thought (perhaps incorrectly) that part of the mentor-mentee process was to introduce me to journals I may not know, other scholars in the field, conferences I should be attending.  I also, on a personal level, want my mentors to find my work interesting enough that they are excited about sharing it with others. I guess I figure if they can't talk excitedly about it now, how are they going to talk about it in a few months for recommendation letters for a job.

Part of the reason this bothered me too was that I want to feel supported as well as challenged. And I don't quite. I know that's vague. And I'm not sure what the solution is. But, and maybe it's because two out of my three committee members were/are on sabbatical last semester, I'm feeling a bit all on my own.

Now, the practical stuff of #MLA15:
  • I saw a professor I hadn't seen in six years and went in for a hug rather than a handshake (because I'm naturally a hugger) but then worried the rest of the conference I had crossed a line. Oh well. 

  •  Having never traveled outside of the country, I did not know that cell phones from the U.S had issues in other countries. Because I was in panels all day I did not see the warning text from my phone company that I needed to change things for the different country. Or the text that said I was approaching data limits. Or the one that said I had $300 in data usage fees. I got them all at once and then panicked. Luckily, my phone company was lovely and we worked it out. And now I know for #SCMS15 in Montreal.

  •  U.S Airways completely screwed me on my return flight. I knew I couldn't afford a third night, but I had scheduled it so I could attend Saturday morning panels, and leave at 12p for my 230p flight home, getting in around 8p. When I went to check in for my flights, U.S Airways had changed my return flight to an 8a one because they no longer offer that afternoon flight. Without telling me. When I called to flip out they were unapologetic. Again, as a grad student I couldn't afford to change my flight to a later time because of extra charges. And because of Nehi I couldn't change my flight to Sunday. They had changed my flight to 8a-12p (Phoenix) with a seven hour layover before heading home. They then tried to change it to another early morning flight laying over in Los Angeles, not returning home until 11p. Which I couldn't do because of Nehi's crate limitations. It was only AFTER refusing all this she miraculously found an earlier layover flight leaving Phoenix at 130p and putting me home a little before 3p. But I still had to leave the hotel before 5a to get through security for the early flight. Which meant I missed out on at least two morning panels I was planning on attending.

I do feel as though this was a productive trip. Big conferences like this always set up the same, so I have an idea about general set up for next year. However, I don't know how much interviewees see of the conference.
So here were my take-aways-
  • Yes, it's a big conference. But so's PCA/ACA so I wasn't intimidated by that. I do recommend choosing panels before you go so you know where you're going. It will also help you focus on panels you're interested in and not get overwhelmed by the sheer size.
  • Let your professors, mentors know you're going and specifically ask if they can introduce you around. I was not successful with this, but perhaps it was because I'm a) not on the market this year and b) wasn't explicit about this.
  • Go to the panels of people you know from Twitter and introduce yourself. On a side note, I want to again stress the importance of having a presence on Twitter and using it. For example, I had a Twitter acquaintance "recognize" me before I walked up and introduced myself because I always wear a tie. And my avatar shows me wearing a tie. And my moniker is Tie-Girl on Twitter. It's little things. 
  • I can't live tweet panels. It's not a skill I have. I have to take handwritten notes. So I tend to fall of the grid on conferences. However, I do go back through my Twitter feed at night in the hotel to see if there was anything I missed and catch up.
  • Always leave early the first morning of the conference, so you have plenty of time to navigate to the convention site and to the specific room. I left the hotel at 730a so I could get coffee and have time to navigate to the Vancouver Convention Center for an 830a panel.
  • #MLA16 is in Austin, Texas which I'm excited about for several reasons. Because I'll be on the job market I will be there the entire time, and I hear Austin is cool (UT-Austin is a dream job) and I'll have more of a chance to look around. The flight will be cheaper, so good. The weather will be nicer i.e easier to pack for, no winter coats, one less set of things to schlub for interviews.
So those are my thoughts and reflections on #MLA15. Please share thoughts, comments, advice your have for graduate students attending.
Now it's just the long wait for #MLA16 and the job market stress that will accompany it.


  1. I remember the worst part of that awkward "will you introduce me" moment was always seeing who they DID take the time to introduce and then comparing myself to that person. It was a toxic and crushing feeling to realize that my research didn't stimulate them the way they were stimulated by what I perceived to be their "favorites." The only way I knew to get out of my head about it was to remember the times that I did the same thing to students I mentored, mainly by accident. I've done that--ignored a student standing right beside me in favor of one who really piqued my interest. I was always mindful of it after graduate school because now I see how much it really stings.

    Also, I think as an older PhD student, people can assume you don't need that form of help the way the younger, late 20s student might seem to need it. It's sort of an ageist approach: let me introduce the person who works and acts just like me because they are still able to be molded and influenced at a more vulnerable age. This is just speculation, but I that some, not all, of the older students were often set free in ways that the younger ones were coddled. Who knows.

    Get the folks in your digital network to introduce you next time. Or even those who have worked with you on edited pieces. I learned to look outside my university walls for inspiration, just as you have.

  2. Those are all good points, and I wonder how much my "can do (it by myself)" attitude hurts me, as does older age bracket. Have it noted for next year to (in advance) specifically ASK to be introduced.
    Also, good points to make sure I am aware of in the future for MY students.