MLA Convention 2015, Part Two

June 5, 2015

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

Last week, I posted about my experience at the 2015 MLA Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia. I mentioned my interest in a talk on the King James Bible from Cynthia Wallace, and a talk on animal studies and George Eliot by Danielle Coriale. These were just two of many interesting presentations—ranging in subject from medieval studies to popular culture—that led me to reflect on my own work, and on the range of texts we work with here at Harrison Middleton University.

Naturally, not every presentation was amazing. A few turned out to be duds. Yet even when a talk failed to spark my interest, it rarely felt like a waste of time. There was something humbling about listening to an accomplished and passionate scholar speak to a room full of (mostly) interested people about a subject that I found unremarkable. My detachment from the topic was actually instructive. It reminded me that my own research interests, however engrossing they might be to me, are not an authoritative marker of what deserves attention.

It is easy, when pursuing a specific object of study, to forget that one’s work takes place against a vast and immensely diverse backdrop of other works, other ideas, and other minds. The interconnections and emergent patterns of this great backdrop are too numerous and too intricate ever to be fully comprehended by one individual, or even a multitude. There is always more work to be done, new ideas to discover, and it is important that we, as scholars, be exposed to more than just what we find immediately attractive.

We at Harrison Middleton University do most of our interaction at a distance, and we focus mainly on a traditional, Western canon of core texts. In both of these respects, we immerse ourselves in practices and assumptions that set us apart from the majority of scholars in the humanities. The “greats” that are so central to our work at HMU—great authors, great books, and the great conversation—are not the buzzwords they were in the mid-twentieth century, when Mortimer Adler and his intrepid corps of editors toiled away on the Great Books of the Western World. Flying the flag of the Western literary and philosophical canon nowadays can raise eyebrows among academics who are rightly suspicious of an author list so skewed toward rich European men. Though our studies at HMU draw from a centuries-long tradition, we are nonetheless situated in our own niche, both because of our focus on the so-called “greats” and because of our unique methods.

However, this does not, or at least it should not, place us in a position of isolation. We are essentially scholars of the humanities, and the work we do resonates with a very broad scope of inquiry. Attending the MLA Convention in Vancouver was a trenchant reminder to me of just how broad that scope really is. It also reminded me that, for all of our emphasis on what sets HMU apart, we are part of a field that is very much alive, and very populous. It is our job to listen to ideas from within and without the great books tradition, and the work we do is significant in both of these domains.

In his 1952 essay “The Great Conversation,” Robert Hutchins envisions what he calls “the Civilization of the Dialogue.” Describing this community, Hutchins writes, “Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined.” The Great Books collection is an effective way to package and promote a significant part of the great conversation, yet that conversation survives by remaining continually open to the contributions of thinkers from across the range of human experience.

My experience at the MLA only served to emphasize Hutchins’ implication, which is that the great conversation is not imprisoned within an exclusive collection of texts. Rather, as its name implies, the great conversation is an ongoing set of practices, an open-ended and inclusive endeavor. This endeavor has much to offer the broader field of the humanities, but it also depends upon that field, with all of its complexity, for its own vitality.

As students of the great books, we know that the most substantial works of Western culture reward multiple readings. They are virtually inexhaustible as a source of new insights. By the same token, though, we should also bear in mind that this complexity and depth is not locked up within a certain body of works. There is always new territory to discover, whether it is in a centuries-old philosophical essay or a brand new conference paper.

If you’d like to have a look at the full program from the 2015 MLA Convention, a PDF can be found here:

Information on next year’s convention, which will be held in Austin, Texas, can be found here:


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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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