MLA 2017 conference reflections

My first MLA annual convention has come to a close! I had the honour of presenting on the Book of Fame project I’ve been part of, and the good fortune to present at the end of the first night so I could attend the rest of the conference worry-free.

I made it to the following nine (!) panels:

  • 110 Bookish Histories
  • 183 Chaucerian Media (as presenter)
  • 443 Anti-marriage Plots in the Eighteenth Century
  • 485 Renewing the Network of Digital Nineteenth-Century Studies
  • 544 Trans(per)formances
  • 569 Digital Pedagogies
  • 603 Queer Domesticities
  • 741 What If? The Other Eighteenth Centuries
  • 789 The Uses of Literature

I was also lucky to hear reports from my convention buddy on a number of panels on comics and fairy tales. I found myself drawn to panels on topics I was only peripherally aware of, where I was thinking double-time to catch up with the implied conversation so far while also following the papers being presented. All told, it was an intense mental workout that both inspired me and left me with very little brainpower to follow through on that inspiration.

My thoughts:

1. Thank goodness I had a convention buddy

Philadelphia is road trip distance from Washington DC, where my best friend lives; although she is not formally an academic (she tried to get them to print “innocent bystander” as her affiliation, but no luck), she’s excellent company in academic endeavours and I was glad not to be going it alone my first time in intimidating territory.

She was particularly invaluable for her assistance gathering intel on what people were wearing at the panels while I was rewriting my paper, printing out my paper while I made last-minute changes to my powerpoint, and smiling at me from the front row so I could make eye contact with somebody while I delivered my presentation. Thank you, Alyssa!

2. It is a small world after all!

I got enormous pleasure over talking everything over with my buddy, but I don’t think I would have been lonely if I’d come alone– I was surprised just how many people I knew! I chatted briefly with a huge number of professors and classmates from my various universities, and laid eyes on several people whose work I have been reading for a while. It got me excited for next time. I resolved to cut down on conferences in 2017, since they’re costly in both time and money and I want to focus on my dissertation and my first publications, but I must be more extroverted than I tell people I am– seeing all those faces is making my resolution hard to keep!

3. I just… like what I like.

I’m glad I expanded my horizons by attending several panels a bit beyond my interests, but the ones that have continued to stick with me are those closest to my research interests. I suppose this makes sense: these are the papers that spoke directly to ideas I was already mulling over, and which therefore sparked new connections regarding matters I’m already invested in. Accordingly, my favourite panel was Anti-Marriage Plots in the Eighteenth Century, which engaged wonderfully with the wild variety of fiction during the period. A close second was Renewing the Network of Digital Nineteenth-Century Studies, where the period was a close enough neighbour that I’m accustomed to kidnapping from it, and the digital methods were right up my alley.

Further thoughts on my favourite panel:

Anti-marriage plots

The first paper was Alice McGrath’s “Queer Futurity in Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s Dead Letters,” which featured several fascinating close readings and which I particularly appreciated for its discussion of teleology. Examining narrative through the lens of the marriage plot, McGrath argued, highlights the importance of closure; Rowe’s Dead Letters avoid the marriage plot in part by presenting narratives in which “death is the only real telos.” McGrath also made a comment about teleology in literary studies which fanned the flames of my own thinking; I have long been frustrating by the teleological history of the novel in which it is the goal of prose fiction to become realist.

The second paper was Stephanie Insley Hershinow’s “The Incest Plot,” which discussed narratives in which marriage provides ‘over-closure,’ pairing off people who do not need to court because they have known each other their whole lives, and thus failing to accomplish the social circulation generally attendant upon the marriage plot. Hershinow discussed Tom Jones and Emma, but my mind went immediately to Mansfield Park, and even to Frankenstein, suggesting an immediate fruitfulness for the approach.

The third paper, Alison Conway’s “A Recipe for Failure: The Interfaith Marriage Plot,” explored several narratives that did and did not follow through on their interfaith marriages, to discuss models for religious co-existence other than the current norm of “tolerance”. Those marriages which failed, she argued (or so I remember), attempted to dismiss religious difference as unimportant and easily overlooked.

All three papers, I felt, embraced the true variety of the period — something that matters to me! During the discussion, McGrath commented that part of the fun of the eighteenth century novel is that it’s not the nineteenth century novel, and doesn’t have the same mandatory forms of closure; an eighteenth century novel can really go anywhere.

4. The uses of literature

In many ways, it was invigorating to be sharing this professional conference with someone who loves and contemplates literature but who is, as mentioned, an “innocent bystander” to the work of literary studies. It certainly drew my attention just how much technical jargon we use as a field (a positive noticing, since any specialized field needs a jargon); and defining our terms often clarified my own understanding of the matter at hand.

It also highlighted to me, though, how different our assumptions are about what literature is and what it’s for. For example, one paper on a Baron Munchausen story mentioned its subject matter being “obscure”; other papers at this same panel introduced with “of course” or “famously” nearly two dozen works and thinkers utterly unknown to my companion, but the “obscure” Baron Munchausen was perfectly well-known to her. What made Munchausen “obscure” was not its inaccessibility, but its popularity: unlike works which are neglected because they are hard to acquire, these stories don’t attract study because they don’t seem to call for it. But, as Sarah Tindal Kareem’s paper aptly demonstrated, if we do study them, they can reward us immensely!

I need to mull further on why it seems perfectly fine for the field to expect and require its own specialized vocabulary, but it seems problematic for that vocabulary to be deployed upon a specialized body of texts.

I’m glad I was able to end the convention with Rita Felski’s fantastic paper in defence of identification, which articulated the ways that scholars do indeed identify with the politics and aesthetics of works, despite dismissing the “merely” emotional or sentimental identification with characters presumed to characterize naive readings. It was another mark of the altered expectations of the in-group, I think, that made “identification” feel so thrillingly transgressive.

I am of course already interested in emotion and sentiment, and resisting our instincts to dismiss disreputable literature. I was surprised to find myself saying, at a HASTAC social gathering, that I am interested in religious didactic writing; when I mentioned that it seems very like the Gothic in its mass distribution, but was left behind when the Gothic was rehabilitated into the critical conversation, my conversational partner expressed that it was obvious why religious didactic texts would not attract scholars. But it only took me two chapters of Coelebs before it had overturned all my expectations and impressed me with its variety! I realised later that Hannah More had given me the same experience as Matthew Lewis, where I picked up a book thinking its conventions would be transparent to me, and found myself turning pages in eager curiosity. If I care about disreputable texts, religious reformers might be the most disreputable writers in contemporary criticism.

We’ll see how far that thinking takes me in the end, but it was inspiring to come away from four days of intense work with lots of new ideas and with a new perspective on what I want to do with my work.

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