MLA Convention in San Francisco: Sunday Update

 First, a public service announcement:

·         For those searching for blogs about the MLA 2008, please visit Rosemary Feal’s blog at : Rosemary is the first MLA Executive Director to blog directly from the convention.

·         Bev at Excelsior is also blogging about the Convention: please post a comment telling her to just buy those black boots already!

Today I chose to attend only two sessions in the morning, allowing myself a much needed touristy break in the increasingly sunny and mild afternoon.  In between sessions, I found the trail (by following those MLA-ers walking toward me, weighted down by free tote bags full of free books) to the most popular place at the convention, the BOOK EXHIBIT. For those who don’t know (but then, why would you be reading this?) the book exhibit is effectively a reader’s candy store: aisles of book publishers try to woo us with books at very reduced prices—or free, so that we will in turn assign these books to our students—it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, then, when we are asked only for our e-mail address in exchange for free books.  

After filling up three free tote bags filled with books and other goodies (including a chocolate covered shortbread cookie from that I highly recommend), I stumbled to one of the convention theme panels, the Presidential Forum titled The Way We Teach Now. The ballroom was crammed with chairs and eventually people (most of whom had left by the end of the session), yet it was worth the discomfort of nearly 2 hours of sitting and listening (neither of which I’m good at doing for extended periods of time).  Rosemary’s blog summarizes each of the 4 panelists’ talks, so I’ll try to limit myself to more frivolous commentary:

·         After Amanda Anderson’s compelling argument about the “charisma” of arguments (except, she notes, those arguments about pedagogy which are “perceived to lack charisma”—though that is not at all true by those of us who find pedagogy to be quite sexy, her point has some validity), Michael Bérubé (pronounced Bear-ROO-Bay by Jerry Graff, which would amuse Bérubé’s blog readers since the subject has appeared there) first praised Anderson’s presentation by denigrating his own as “thinner gruel” but then trumped her presentation with a more engaging and funny one of his own. Curious talent that.  His presentation, too, had the added benefit of actually being more directly focused on The Way We Teach Now.  Yes, humor is perhaps “thinner gruel” than a thoughtfully constructed formal text-based argument, but for a listener, it’s a pleasant relief.

·         Rita Felski’s presentation was the “longer version” (inside joke) of her Chronicle article that I referred to here. Since I’ve been dwelling on the subject of affective reading and the teaching of literature for months now I was most engaged with her presentation. She claims that her students in her literary theory courses are so thrilled when she gets to the cultural studies section because they are finally relieved to encounter criticism that reflects their actual enjoyment of a “text”: basically (as I read through 4 pages of scribbled notes) she argues that we need to bridge the gap between traditional literary criticism that focuses on being “suspicious” of the text and reader response criticism, or affective reading, while still requiring students to be critical readers.  As she wrote in the Chronicle article and said this morning, James Joyce fans are no less passionate than Star Trek fans—and no less critical, too. But the best part was her conclusion: Reflective Reading (or “post critical reading”) helps us explain why texts matter to us—something all readers but especially literature professors need to do more often and better.  

·         The final speaker, since I don’t want to neglect him, Richard Miller, gave us a MacBookPro tour of the collaborative digital writing and editing he does online, making the claim that we in the Humanities need to use technology to push ideas into our culture to reach a broader audience—something that works in the writing classroom, too.  However, while professors must aim for the “cultivation of curiosity” as a goal of web-based writing and teaching, we must also teach close reading, too, to help our students focus. 

Basically, as Graff summarized, all the speakers attempted to reconcile argument versus charisma (an interesting stretch, but it seems to work). One spokesperson for contingent (and community college) faculty spoke up in response at the end of the session: He said that rather that attempts at reconciliation, all of the presentations were charismatic ideals of teaching: not at all about how “we” teach but how “they” teach now.  So true. But heck, charisma has its charms.

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