On Academic Returns

January has returned, trailing clouds of new year’s resolutions. My return to campus coincides with a return to the MLA Convention for the first time in more than a decade. I know that for many in the college, the yearly MLA gathering signals an important temporal point on the academic calendar while providing valuable professional opportunities. I confess, however, that prior to this year, my feelings have not been kind towards the MLA Convention, and I have avoided returning since the first two times I attended in late December of 2008 and 2009, the two years when I was on the job market as a graduate student.

Like others, I retain from that experience my own coterie of horror stories. (Do I remember well the panicked conversations about the widespread job search cancellations because of the housing crash and financial crisis that year? Yes. Did I witness a heated public shouting match over the results of an MLA forum election? Yes. Did I lose track of time, get lost in a labyrinthine hotel, and show up forty-five minutes late to a job interview? Yes. Spoiler: I didn’t get that job.) Even today, reflecting on that anxiety-ridden period of my life elicits a visceral shudder that is probably best described as traumatic.

Some might argue that the unflattering sketch I have just drawn of the MLA has only become worse since then. The ongoing permanent crisis of the Humanities (to borrow Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s term),1 evidenced in part by diminishing student enrollments, losses in faculty lines, and budget cuts of various kinds constitute serious challenges to our profession. And of course, the added layer of the Covid-19 pandemic, which required the MLA to cancel or move its convention online for the past few years, has only complicated our working conditions.

But much has changed in the last ten years, at the MLA and in my own life and work. From my vantage point in the BYU Humanities Center, I am convinced more than ever that we need to return to these kinds of professional gatherings. They breathe life into our work and give us much-needed perspective, hope, and encouragement.

Though I may have just painted a bleak picture of one the oldest and largest scholarly organizations in the humanities in the United States, the reality of my experience at the MLA this year was anything but bleak. Perhaps because this was the first (mostly) in-person MLA Convention since the outbreak of Covid, or perhaps because the MLA is now no longer the primary venue for academic job interviews. Or perhaps it was an additional decade of professional experience that has helped me to recognize benefits to the convention that had been lost on me before.

I am convinced more than ever that we need to return to these kinds of professional gatherings.

Whatever the reason, I found the spirit of this convention to be surprisingly joyful. There was joy in the many planned and unplanned reconnections between colleagues. I witnessed joy as people shared their work. And that joy was certainly expressed in the hopeful convention theme of “Working Conditions” proposed by Christopher Newfield, current president of the MLA. While acknowledging the challenges our profession faces, Professor Newfield celebrated some of the broad advances he has seen in the ways we teach and research, and he invited us all to think about how we might leverage our pedagogical and research expertise to improve our working conditions. In effect, my personal experience at the convention was radically different than in 2008 and 2009. I attended panels that were almost across the board well-attended with high levels of engagement, and I was particularly impressed by the creativity and quality of the papers presented by graduate students. And, as always, I am consistently amazed by the unexpected ways that papers far afield from my own disciplinary research interests can impact my thinking.

In short, the convention accomplished what any good scholarly gathering aspires to achieve by fostering community, promoting excellence in scholarship and teaching, and encouraging the scholarly conversation.

Coincidentally, these are also the goals of the BYU Humanities Center.

So, while it may not be feasible for all of us who are invested in the Humanities to attend a conference like the MLA every year,2 I am thrilled about our upcoming semester of BYU Humanities Center lectures, workshops, and other activities. Like a conference unfolding in slow motion, our weekly colloquia bring together scholars from within the BYU campus community and from other institutions. Our discussions are always lively and invigorating. Though the scheduled presentations may seem unrelated to your work, I am confident you will find your creativity and insights stimulated by disciplinary cross-pollination. You are also likely to be wowed by the contributions of our students, buoyed by the camaraderie of colleagues you may not have seen in a while, and blessed by the chance to gather.

This coming semester, I invite you to take the initiative and re-invigorate your teaching and research by participating actively in the events sponsored by the Humanities Center. I believe your investment will yield many rich and meaningful “academic returns.”

This blog post was written by Rex P. Nielson, Director of the BYU Humanities Center.

  1. See Paul Reiter and Chad Wellmon, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age (University of Chicago Press, 2021). In May 2022 we were fortunate to host Chad Wellmon in our Humanities Center for dynamic conversation about the permanent nature of the crisis of the Humanities and how that crisis has evolved over time.
  2. The 2024 MLA Convention will take place in Philadelphia (details here). The deadline for most of the MLA CFPs is already approaching, and I encourage you to consider participating.

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