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MLA Convention Blog

The Twelve Months of MLA

Part One

On the first day of packing, the staff boxed merrily

Twelve small manila envelopes
I write from the airport on 25 December as I await my flight from New York to San Francisco. In this, my first blog entry, I want to give you a behind-the-scenes view of what goes into "putting on the show," as people in the hotel world refer to conferences and conventions. Many attendees—especially those who are coming from outside North America—are also catching flights today. Travel has been tough this week, with major storms across the country and holiday travel in full swing. Next year will be the last time the annual convention is held between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. For many MLA members, the change of dates will be a relief. I’ve been traveling during the last week of December for the MLA convention off and on since 1978, and I wonder what it’s like for fellow members to leave their holiday tables, don their professional attire, and head out to a professional meeting.

Eleven legal-size lined notepads
I’m really looking forward to this convention, because it showcases what’s best about the MLA. We are, first and foremost, an association of teachers. This year, Jerry Graff’s presidential theme is "The Way We Teach Now," and there are dozens of sessions that focus on everything that has to do with the classroom, the campus, and the organization of learning and teaching. Check out the sessions (http://www.mla.org/pdf/presforumbrochures1d.pdf) and you’ll find a roundtable on politics and the classroom, a panel on the gap between sciences and humanities, and a session on teaching digital natives, for starters. Looking at the lineup of sessions this year, I wish I could be my "professor self" and my "executive director self" simultaneously so I could attend more panels while attending to my official duties! Mo Yan, the distinguished Chinese writer, will be speaking (in Mandarin—with English translation), there is a reading by three black South African women writers, and there is (already!) a session on this year’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Junot Díaz that I’d really like to attend. Wao.

Ten credit card swipers
It’s all about to begin, but the convention takes at least a year to plan. Members of the convention office conducted three week-long site visits in San Francisco in 2008 in which they walked through every corridor of every hotel, checked out the sleeping and meeting rooms, met with all the suppliers and vendors, and worked out logistics with dozens of representatives from the hotels and the convention bureau. I joined them for one of the visits, and my role is to explain to all those with whom we work what our attendees come to San Francisco to do (hint: the word "coffee" figures prominently!). We even told them to be prepared for faculty members who request a "split folio" from the hotel (it sounds like a fancy dessert, but it just means that the hotel bill is divided evenly between the occupants).

Nine legal binders
The job market is very much on my mind as the convention is about to start. I think about the decline in the number of tenure-track positions advertised in the MLA Job Information List this year, which comes on top of the decades-long decrease in the percentage of jobs on the tenure track in the academic workforce in general. There is so much we need to do, individually and collectively, and we will have opportunities to talk about these issues during the convention. The conversation must continue, hard as it is. Each person looking for a tenure-track job at the convention brings an individual story, a lifetime of experience and study. We owe the next generation our full attention to the structure of the academic workforce, especially in these appalling economic times.

Eight calculators
Yes, I really did copy down actual items that go into our packing boxes from the lists that we keep as we ship our wares from east coast to west several weeks before the convention. The gavel that Catherine Porter will use to call the Delegate Assembly to order on 29 December? Packed. The Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award that René Girard will receive on 28 December? Packed. Business cards? Packed. Copies of the award-winning books for display in the press room? Packed. All the boxes are numbered and coded, so we have an excellent chance that everything will get where it’s supposed to go. I marvel at my colleagues’ efficiency—and worry about what I forgot to pack myself. Perhaps an extra shawl for the inevitable cold spot in the meeting rooms?

Part Two

Seven receipt books
Several of my colleagues are here in the airport, too. Most of the people working on-site whom you’ll come into contact with over the next few days are staff members from MLA headquarters in New York (approximately 40% of the MLA staff will be in San Francisco). We also hire local temp workers such as security guards, student aides, additional staff for the information desk, and so on. Chances are that an MLA staff member from accounting will process your registration fee, someone from member and customer services will get you a replacement badge, the associate director of convention services will check on the shuttle bus for attendees with disabilities, and the director of operations will collect your ballot at the Delegate Assembly meeting. You’ll also see MLA staff members in our booth in the exhibit hall, and you may wish to your discuss ideas for our book series with someone from the book publications department.

Six extension cords
When I was in San Francisco last month, Proposition 8 had just passed. I asked the convention bureau staff what was being done locally in the aftermath of Election Day, and they let me know about some of the organized events that have taken place since then (none seem to be scheduled in San Francisco during the convention dates). Several members have already told me that they will be participating formally and informally in activities related to Prop 8. When a big convention such as ours comes to a city, we can have an impact when we exercise our free speech rights on issues that matter to us as individuals, couples, families, and professionals. If you care about Prop 8, you can join with others and make your views known and seize the opportunity now.

Five September PMLAs

The calm before the intense activity that is the MLA convention always amazes me. Later tonight, I will check into my hotel before the thousands of convention attendees begin arriving (typically on 26 December) and have one final look at the arrangements for over 800 meetings. If the weather is rainy, as expected, I’ll mentally note that the shuttle buses that run continuously among the three headquarters hotels will be heavily used. Once the convention kicks into gear, the MLA convention staff has a well-established routine for handling "pop ups" (situations that arise unexpectedly). Maribeth Kraus, director of MLA convention programs, and her staff know what problems they can solve, which ones the hotel staff can take care of, and which ones demand outside assistance. Our MLA headquarters offices in the Hilton and the Marriott are ready to serve attendees, so stop in if we can help.

Four staplers, three packaging tapes
Did you know that copy for the November issue of PMLA, which contains the convention program, is prepared in spring and finalized by August? At least eight pairs of eyes look over the program during the annual "read through" at MLA headquarters, which is when those involved in preparing, editing, proofreading, and typesetting the November issue of PMLA go over it word by word. Looking at the program, with its stunning cover image of the skylight at the former City of Paris building in San Francisco, I feel a sense of professional pride. And now that members can search the program and create their own printable schedules at the MLA Web site, we really have the best of both worlds.

Two surge protectors
Two surge protectors, indeed. I’m thinking, may the 2009 MLA convention be protected from all matter of surges, natural and unnatural, except for surges in attendance, last-minute job postings, and sales in the book exhibit area!

And a large "program paid" stamp
That’s it. The packing is done, the plane awaits, and my scheduled activities are about to start on 26 December. We are excited to bring you the 2009 convention, live from San Francisco. Please use the "comment" section to share your experiences—if not the coffee!
 
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