May 19, 2019


Academe's Extinction Event Failure, Whiskey, and Professional Collapse at the MLA (ANDREW KAY, May 10, 2019, The Chronicle Review)

How can I conjure MLA 2019 for you?

Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won't interfere with the genteel game they know and love -- or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. "Eye on the ball, Chet!" one can hear them saying. "Not on the cataclysm!"

Thus MLA 2019. In conference rooms located in the depths of the hotel, the field's most vigorous minds -- Lauren Berlant! Bruce Robbins! -- teed off powerfully before hushed spectators, launching fresh takes on everything from satire to the nature of critique. They often began the same way: with the stated intention to "trouble" or "disrupt" the existing paradigm by staging an "intervention." A windup would follow: "If, as Foucault suggests, ..." the speaker would say, gathering might. Then a swing, swift and superb -- the intervention sailed through the intellectual firmament, and, with luck, found its critical mark to the dazzlement of those present: birdies of theoretical acumen, eagles of originality.

Other scholars opted for modest putts, readings of Coleridge and Coetzee greeted by polite clapping. Now and then a bogey: A reading would be less than convincing, and the author would, during the Q&A, "get a little push-back" from one or more listeners (that's academese for "I'm not buying this"). It was all mannerly and urbane. People were getting in one last round.

Upstairs, the lobby served as a kind of clubhouse. There was a bar at the center with a restaurant beside it, and, at the outer edges of the room, furniture on which people lounged. In between was an open space populated by islands of academics who shared a self-conscious aesthetic that, in the case of the men, might be termed formal-flippant: hair mummified with product; scarf; sport coat; too-short khakis; and, like a bit of irreverent punctuation dropped at the end of some sartorial sentence, New Balances. A dozen women unwittingly wore the same suit from Ann Taylor, while myriad others went full flight attendant.

Old friends bumped into one another, clutching at latt├ęs, trading news, dropping casual references to the "capitalocene." A scholar described some new project or life development; her friend nodded, wide-eyed and hypercaffeinated, uttering that trending expression of assent among the grotesquely overeducated: the rapid-fire "YahYahYah!"

All around them, the humanities burned. The number of jobs in English advertised on the annual MLA job list has declined by 55 percent since 2008; adjuncts now account for all but a quarter of college instructors generally. Whole departments are being extirpated by administrators with utilitarian visions; from 2013 to 2016, colleges cut 651 foreign-language programs. Meanwhile the number of English majors at most universities continues to swoon.

College costs too much for students to tolerate nonsense.

Posted by at May 19, 2019 8:02 AM