Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Examined Life contemplates the MLA's navel-gazing, and I gaze a little, too

This post in the (most excellently-written) Examined Life--and the discussion it's prompted--strike a chord with me as I re-plunge into something I'm calling "research."
My two cents about all that: MLA, like the discipline it represents, is so diffuse in terms of the interests of its members that it's actually unfair to say it "stands" for anything. In addition, it seems caught in the oxymoronic situation of simultaneously claiming to support cutting-edge research and giving voice to the marginalized yet, like any other institution, has an established hierarchy that, not surprisingly, is resistant to change. Its politicized ivory-tower reputation among those outside the academy who pay attention to such things is, of course, not helpful; all disciplines have their niche areas that are fairly inaccessible to the general public, but when criticism seems not to be interested in conveying to an audience why a text or idea is worth considering but, rather, seems prompted instead by axes that need grinding, then MLA, unfairly or not, becomes the whipping boy of various constituencies, many of whom have at least an indirect say in the distribution of funds to the universities that support such work.
I'm a former member of MLA; I was even invited to present a paper at a panel at its San Diego conference some years ago. It was fun for me, a rather poorly-travelled sort who nevertheless loves travelling, to go to MLA, attend panels, renew acquaintances with friends from grad school and people I've met at previous conferences, and see some sights in the host city. But for various reasons I've not attended in, now, 4 years. Moreover, I confess that, though officially a member in those days, I felt somewhat like a tourist there: though decent enough at writing and research to have produced a dissertation, I knew early on that, when it came time to choose definitively between producing scholarship or be more teaching-oriented, I would go the latter route. I knew that I could feel committed to scholarship that I really believed in, as opposed to work whose chief purpose would be to advance me. In other words, I aspired to quality, while what seems expected, really, at the typical research-oriented school would be quantity. I would have Perished, and I knew it.
So why re-plunge? I have no institutional pressure to write, and my teaching load isn't exactly conducive to research. Though I'd like the chance to teach at a 4-year school again some time, I'm basically happy here. But I have the itch: I feel I (still) have Things To Say. As I noted in the post below, I'm persuaded that my work still seems worthy of updating and getting published in some way--perhaps via the 'Net (thanks for the idea, Mr. Holbo) if a traditional publisher won't bite.
So anyway, I still have the oridinary anxieties that attend research and writing: can I catch up/keep up with these young whippersnappers after having been pretty much out of the loop for the past 5 years? Will I sound hip [read: jargony] enough? Will I overlook anything that I need to take into account as I rework things? But it's nice to feel those anxieties.

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