So, as previously mentioned, I went to this year's Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia, not because I'm on the market for English-professor jobs (which was the first question asked by every single old acquaintance I ran into). No, this was more by way of keeping up with some of my intellectual roots (not to mention the old acquaintances) and seeing whether and how I want to do the independent-scholar thing while also looking for library jobs and contemplating the ongoing question of further education.
It was odd, going back. I'm not sure I want to do it again next year. I started getting depressed by the omnipresent "So are you on the market?" question, to which my answer got shorter and shorter the more times I heard it until finally it was more like "No, I jumped ship. I'm just back for a visit." All the old friends and acquaintances who hadn't already heard about my ship-jumping were very encouraging. But after a while I started to feel like an outsider, like the university affiliation on my badge concealed the real story and I was passing for someone I no longer am. (Though there was a lovely moment at the book exhibit when I overheard a publisher's rep say "Not finishing my Ph.D was the best thing that ever happened to me.")
Most of the panels I went to were quite good; the kinds of panels that get ridiculed by the press (see below) never dominate the experience the way people think they do. I went to several digital-scholarship panels, several literature panels, and a panel on opera, just for fun. Hearing about the electronic New Variorum Shakespeare and sundry readings of non-electronic Shakespeare was great. Hearing poets and scholars talking about where the teaching and study of poetry might go in the 21st century was also fabulous.
But well before the end of it, I was thanking multiple deities that I will never again have to write in the machete mode of criticism. By this I mean the kind of literature scholarship that frames all its main points as a demolition of everyone else's main points, like mowing down those around you by swinging a machete around. In graduate school it didn't take me long to tire of academic writing in which the argument was preceded by hatchet-jobs on the prior work of Professors X, Y, and Z; I hated writing like that even more. Hearing it again from the lips of senior scholars, some of whom posed their entire talks as point-by-point refutations of someone else's article, reminded me of everything that put me off the idea of writing the sorts of things one gets tenure for. At one point, I had the odd feeling that I was watching a large group of people standing on a tiny patch of ground, elbowing and jostling each other for more space, all trying to outshout each other.
No wonder I so often used to feel like no matter how hard I worked, I could never be good enough. Blargh. I don't miss it one little bit.
But then there were the people I had lunch with, and the people I caught up with, and the mentors from many stages of my education who were there, and the friend with whom I shared a hotel room (hi, T!), and the former classmate who passed along a message from a professor who taught me years ago: "Keep writing." I want to. Just not with a machete.
For those of you who were (or weren't) there at the convention: Michael Berube has a recap (he's completely right about MLA convention attendees being oblivious escalator-riders) and Crooked Timber pokes fun at the New York Times' annual MLA-bashing article, which is, indeed, a bit stale at this point.*
* And poorly edited to boot. <Strunk & White>Confidential to the Times: If you really want to make fun of English professors, it would behoove you to hire a copyeditor who can ensure that you spell "Chronicle" correctly, avoid punctuation bloopers, and don't use the phrase "achingly '90s" twice in as many paragraphs.</Strunk & White>