30 December 2003

…Don't Have to Be Like a Refugee

Ah, the follies of the MLA—whose conventions are "like a prom for geeks, except nobody gets laid." (Nobody is a bit of an overstatement—but not much.)

I left the MLA in disgust in the early 1990s after one too many presumptive attacks on me—variously, for the sins of having a Y chromosome; for having a Y chromosome without being gay and still making an effort to understand GLB perspectives; for having the appearance of a Caucasian-American; and (perhaps worst) for having the haircut, civilized manners, and uniform of a military officer. Those, plus my attempts to treat speculative fiction from a serious literary perspective, were a few too many instances of allowing books to be judged by their covers—by people who had no intention of reading the books to see if their initial impressions were correct.

So I am a refugee. I never did finish that dissertation; but that was for good and sufficient reason related to Uncle Sam's requirements. The problem is not with literary studies; it is with the ridiculous tenure process in academia, which requires "significant" advances to the field and considerable publication (all too often before the whole piece has been adequately thought through). Because the canon of acceptable subjects for publication in literature is relatively closed (at least, it grows nowhere nearly as quickly as the amount of literature worth studying grows), that forces untenured faculty members to take more and more outrageous positions—even when they don't really believe them—to satisfy the "publication" requirements, and it gets even worse when trying for promotion after achieving tenure.

Some of this is the academic equivalent of penis envy, of the natural and social sciences. The advances in understanding (even with the undoubted errors on the path) in the natural and social sciences over the last century have comparatively so far outstripped the humanities that scholars in the humanities feel a need to do something—anything—to look like they're also advancing at a comparable rate. An individual with a fresh bachelor's degree in chemistry today knows more chemistry, and knows how to do more chemistry, than all but a handful of PhDs from 100 years ago. The same goes even for that most dismal of sciences (economics). One cannot say that for the humanities. I believe this is because we're lower on the learning curve for the humanities; many cynics (including too damned many university chancellors who should know better) believe that we're too far along the learning curve, and there isn't enough more to discover, so we should just cut out the English department and hire adjuncts to teach freshman composition (at substantially lower salaries and with no job security).

In any event, thanks for this trip down amnesia lane. As much as I enjoy fine literature and its study—even more than Professor Bainbridge enjoys fine wine—I'm still trying to forget the MLA, because it has been coopted. Not because it is inherently ridiculous or worthless.