The MLA Convention: The Journey of a First-Time Attendee

By Daniel W. Holst


Photo Courtesy of Daniel W. Holst

I proudly graduated in May 2018 from WIU-QC in May 2018 with a Master of Arts in English Studies—I feel heartfelt gratitude to my Thesis director Dr. Malachuk and readers Dr. Hamner and Dr. Rahman. Having entered the academic/scholarly life later in life after a twenty-six-year stint with the United States (US) Armed Forces, I believe strongly in my journey as an upcoming scholar. I don’t necessarily see myself upon a PhD track, but given the right circumstances and prompts, I would certainly welcome it. Regardless, I want to remain relevant and have my work resonate with my field. With that in mind, I decided to join the MLA (as an unemployed member) and take advantage of the proximity to their 2019 convention in downtown Chicago.

Having remnants of PTSD, I have trouble maintaining focus upon my research and writing. So, the first reason I chose to attend MLA 2019 was to find inspiration, and boy, did I find it. I have begun a freelance editing service where I am the chief editor of the sixteen-page newsletter for the American Schleswig-Holstein Heritage Society responsible for development, acquisition, layout, and copy editing. I have helped my cousin gain entry in graduate school and helped a burgeoning writer from Maryland elevate her personal story. So, the first panel/workshop I attended was the How to be Your Own Best Editor. It was a three-hour intensive course in editing covering the areas of dangling modifiers, parallel structure, and concision. Surprisingly, this was the first time that the MLA has ever held this workshop. I was thrilled and honored to attend this session with some of MLA’s leading editors. What I found most intriguing is how even senior editors argue, sometimes quite vociferously, about grammar, syntax, and if/when the MLA will adopt new English usages already accepted by the Chicago and Oxford Style Manuals such as website and not Web-site, internet and not Internet, and using a possessive as an antecedent.

Later that day, I attended a panel populated with journal editors about getting published in academic journals. It was an amazing panel, but as the editors explained what makes a publishable article, I couldn’t help but feel the transcendental presence of Dr. Malachuk presiding over the panel as if he governed it and developed each member’s presentation. In other words, listen to your professors, they really do know what they’re talking about and have our best interests in mind.

I attended a panel to develop good titles for journal articles and books. During the workshop portion, I teamed up with two PhD candidates: a young Muslim lady from Turkey and a German lad from Berlin. Both were amazing. We discussed our works. Zayeb’s dissertation was on the voices of feminine Muslim immigrants following the 9/11 attacks. I immediately asked her if she was using Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (Thank you Dr. Rahman for introducing me to Pakistani literature!); she said she was very aware of Shamsie, but not that book. I told her about it and that it could be a key work for her dissertation. The German lad’s dissertation (can’t remember his name) was on To Book or Not to Book: The Materiality of Writing During the Weimar Republic. We discussed Derrida in relation to his argument. As I was able to help them, they equally helped me with my own projects, and through them I was re-energized and inspired.

Another panel on Speculative Fiction for Decolonial Futures featured two of the three panelists talking about Octavia Butler. They discussed ethics and decolonialism within her Xenogenesis Trilogy. Thank you Dr. Hamner for introducing me to this amazing author.

At a convention this size, one never knows who you might meet. At the panel The Persistence of Ideology Critique, I met the wonderful Lauren Berlant, who most of us should remember from our ENG 500 reading of Desire/Love. I told her that we read that book for graduate studies, and she laughed that I said, “had to read.” Which was surprising, as I consciously told myself not to use the word “had” as to not imply burden. I told her that, and we both laughed again. We talked about some other things, and I found her warm and engaging with a self-depreciating style of humor. Her presentation about the problems of satire in America’s current political/ideological environment was amazing. She gave me a new appreciation of her works. We are often taught to ignore the author and that author intention mustn’t bias interpretation, but sometimes knowing the author can provide new insights into their works. I look forward to re-reading Desire/Love (and some of her other works) under this new paradigm.

Unfortunately, not everything was rosy. While most panelists appreciated and were genuinely excited (or maybe feigned excitement) at my insights and research, others presented the unfortunate scholarly elitism that I find disgusting. Some would present an air that since I’m not a PhD, on a PhD track, or a widely successful author, that I am “the other” and build a wall between them and me (read the irony in that statement). I sometimes (hopefully falsely) assumed this was occurring at WIU, but here it was quite evident. But I’m attempting to use their snobbery to motivate me onward and not downward as it has so often occurred in the past.

Overall, I have loved my time at the convention in Chicago. I have met many wonderful scholars. It was a truly cosmopolitan experience, and I plan to use what I’ve learned here and from the few books I’ve purchased to keep my head in this game and continue to strive for success. Now it’s time to go to a networking session with a cash bar, that is after the free wine and cocktails provided by certain exhibitors on the convention floor.

Having survived the cash bar, I’m waiting to attend my final two panels this Sunday: The Impasse(s) of Democracy and Apocalypse: Performance and End Time. But last night was a thrill; I spent most of the mixer engaging with three female English Professors from Columbia University. They represented various ethnicities (Iranian, Indian, and American), ages, and experiences. Our conversation ran the gamut from department politics to favorite authors and who were our first celebrity “crushes” growing up: They weren’t familiar with Catherine Bach, but they knew exactly who Daisy Duke was. How they welcomed and treated me as an equal will remain a fond memory. I hope to meet them again.

I can’t end without mentioning that in the panel Critique and the Religious Turn in American Literary Studies, one of the panelists was the editor of a forthcoming special issue of the journal Christianity and Literature, and after hearing about my research, he has invited me to submit an article for consideration for this special issue that is about the Christian Right Nationalist movement. My hopeful journal article will pull from my thesis and discuss the danger of the rhetorical use of poetry to advocate “God and Country” that, while dangerous in itself, morphs, via romanticism, into the most dangerous “God is Country.”

I wish I could talk of the many other panels I attended/people I met, but space prohibits. The conference was amazing; the panelists were (predominantly) kind and engaging. Hopefully by 2020, I won’t be so broke that I can journey to Seattle for the next conference. And I would love to attend with present and past WIU students and perhaps some faculty as well.