MLA Convention 2015, Vancouver, BC

May 29, 2015

Thanks to Marcus Conley, HMU Tutor and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, for today's post.

In January, I attended the 130th annual convention of the Modern Language Association. The event was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, two enormous, hive-like complexes of meeting rooms with a view across Vancouver Harbour to the firs of Grouse Mountain. I’ve been a member of the MLA for several years, but I’ve never gotten around to attending the convention until this year. As an MLA Convention rookie, I’d like to make a couple posts here at the HMU blog to share my experiences.

The convention, often referred to simply as the MLA, is promoted as “the largest gathering of teachers and scholars in the humanities.” It is not small. In addition to several hundred research presentations on topics from across the humanities, the four-day convention hosts authors, publishers, archives, and other groups seeking to publicize themselves to an academic audience. Many employers use the convention as a way to consolidate job candidates, and so there are countless interviews taking place during the convention, whether in polished meeting rooms or at the tables of sidewalk cafes. The halls are filled with graduate students in search of career opportunities; scholars, writers, and teachers looking to network; and seasoned academics enjoying a few days of quasi-celebrity among other specialists in their respective fields.

The atmosphere of the MLA is one of earnest enthusiasm for the humanities spiked with a dose of self-promotion. It is surely intimidating to many attendees, especially those hoping to land a job or see that their research is well received by experts. Luckily for me, I was under no such pressure, and so I was free to enjoy thumbing through new publications, speaking with other academic professionals, and attending presentations.

In a session on literary approaches to teaching the Bible, I was struck by the work of Cynthia Wallace, who discussed the importance of the poetics of the King James, especially the patterns of sound and emphasis built into the text by the translators. Reading literature with what Wallace calls “musical attentiveness” to these patterns reveals an influence on the style of literary English across the centuries. One memorable example was Wuthering Heights, in which Wallace has traced far more Biblical allusions than have been noted by previous scholars. Wallace suggests that these allusions are drawn from specific books of the Bible in a way that can inform our understanding of Brontë’s work.

Listening to Wallace’s presentation, I reflected on the way in which core texts like the King James Bible influence the expectations and impressions of present-day readers, even those who have not read the original works. We are attuned to particular sounds and structures of the prose we read—this is part of how we experience the literariness of a given text. Often, when we are especially moved by a certain line or phrase, we are reacting to the echoes of a much older textual music. If we wish to read with care and clarity, we must know how to trace these roots, to read not just the words on the page, but also the way those words converse with a long history of cultural practices.

Later, in a session on Victorian animal studies, Danielle Coriale spoke about George Eliot, with special attention to the way Eliot’s Middlemarch reveals the author’s scientific literacy. In order to describe the scientific interests of her characters, Eliot had to be familiar with the cutting-edge science of her time; however, the influence of science on Eliot extends farther than that. Eliot’s narrative style also shows a subtle but consistent attentiveness to the way human life relates to the natural world—Coriale cited Eliot’s frequent references to “lower” animals, as when the spread of gossip through a community is likened to the pollination carried out by bees—so that Eliot’s novel, even beyond an unmistakably science-minded character like Lydgate, is shaped to some extent by the work of her scientific contemporaries. Coriale’s remarks offered a productive means of opening up Eliot’s text in a new way. More generally, her work reminds us that the boundaries between science, art, and culture at large are permeable, and that these fields are in a continual process of mutual influence.

In the various talks I attended at the MLA, I was impressed by the diversity and the interconnectedness of studies in the humanities. I learned new approaches to texts I knew well, and I learned that the list of texts I ought to read is even longer than I imagined. I was also reminded that there is more going on in this field than I could ever fully grasp.

Next week, I plan to write a bit more on my experience at the MLA. Specifically, I would like to comment on an idea that came up continually during my time at the convention—the conviction that the great books tradition is integral to the larger field of the humanities.

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