Reprinted from the Fall 2012 MLA Newsletter
Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 knows that infants are programmed to recognize human faces, to make eye contact, and to engage in behaviors designed to elicit interest and care. Most of us still crave human connections and value in-person encounters decades after that initial survival mission has been accomplished. Whenever I observe attendees at the MLA Annual Convention as they ask questions at sessions, chat while walking down corridors, laugh over lunch, or strike up conversations on shuttle buses, I think to myself that the most ephemeral aspect of the meeting is also its essence: to bring people together. Face time and human exchange create the conditions for communities to be established and to flourish.
We know that the dropout rate among students enrolled in online courses greatly surpasses that of in-person or hybrid courses; among the many factors involved in their decision not to pursue completion, students often cite the lack of face time with the professor or meaningful connections with other students. Something irreplaceable happens when people get together, which is not at all to say that other forms of communication aren’t valid. That, in a nutshell, is why attending the MLA convention in Boston will be an exceptional experience. No amount of Skyping, e-mailing, teleconferencing, or social media participation can stand in for speaking and listening face-to-face, yet each of those other forms of communication prepares the way for and enhances the convention experience.
That statement has never been truer than now, as we prepare to launch the beta version of MLA Commons
at the Boston meeting. Participatory communities such as MLA Commons
and the annotatable convention program lend depth to conferences because they provide our members year-round interaction with one another. Instead of hearing a one-off presentation, you can read a longer version of a paper, interact with the author, contribute to peer-reviewing the work, and connect with other scholars who share your interests. The panel at the convention stands as a highlight occasion on a timeline that stretches well beyond 3–6 January.
Some convention attendees tell me that they come to hear major figures in their fields whom they rarely get a chance to see in person. There is no shortage of speakers considered to be “big names” for the Boston 2013 meeting, yet I am reluctant to cite specific ones because my list and yours probably won’t coincide. The last time the MLA convention was held in Boston was 1952, and I imagine that not many of us attended (as adults, that is). Looking at that year’s program, I was struck by how many MLA household names appeared—Northrop Frye, Roman Jakobson, Germaine Brée, Jorge Guillén, Marshall McLuhan, to name a few. I also noted people who I knew went on to be MLA presidents (Frye, Brée, and also Stuart Atkins and Walter J. Ong). Another item caught my eye: preceding Albert C. Baugh’s Presidential Address, Margaret Mead, affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, gave a presentation entitled “Cultural Bases for the Understanding of Literature.” It would be three more years until the MLA heard an address from its first woman president, Louise Pound, so the presence of one of the world’s most distinguished cultural anthropologists at the Boston meeting was doubly remarkable.
My expectation is that the upcoming convention in Boston will provide a comparably rich “look back” to those writing about it decades from now, and, more important, it will offer you a meaningful experience worth the investment of time and money. A final note: you do not want to miss the 2013 Presidential Address and the reception following, where we guarantee you will come face-to-face with a side of the MLA you’ve never seen. I look forward to raising a glass to 2013 with you there.