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The Year in Conferences—2013
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U.S. Lookout Station, S.S. Marie, Mich. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-det-4a22794 (digital file from original).

The Year in Conferences (YiC) is designed to speed up the circulation of ideas between and among scholars by covering the major conferences in the field. These “reports from the field” are written by graduate students from across the country in a collaborative group-authored article and published annually in the first issue of the journal. Now in its fifth year, this Year in Conferences has expanded to include ALA, ASA, and MLA.

Modern Language Association Convention, 2013

written by dan barlow, amanda blair runyan, jane van slembrouck, and arielle zibrak. scott moore, senior advisor


If a pattern can be discerned from the mosaic of this year’s MLA conference it is arguably the recurring twin themes of self-criticism and renewal. Michael Bérubé urgently voiced the need for both in his presidential address, lamenting the fact that the overwhelming majority of U.S. faculty members labor in part-time and contingent positions, lacking job security and livable wages. He threw a hopeful light on significant advocacy efforts happening both inside and outside the MLA and stressed that the crisis is everyone’s problem. Only by emerging from the enclaves of our own specializations and seeing ourselves as part of a shared, inequitable work force can “we as a profession come to terms with our own deprofessionalization” and prompt change.

In many panels of interest to nineteenth-century Americanists, the interrelated drives to critique and renew also bore out, though the debates tended to focus on scholarly issues of periodization, methodology, canonicity, and the ethical and practical meanings of field divisions. As Lawrence Buell noted in a panel on literary history, the renegotiation of scholarly fields and practice is truly “the way we live now.” Yet, if many of the presenters strove to correct the record with a glance towards the past, a strain of exuberance about the directions of the future also ran through the panels in the celebration of archival discoveries and the potential of generative digital communities. Some presenters found fresh ways to frame early U.S. literature as entry points to concerns of today, such as one speaker’s comparison of Melville’s Bartleby to the Occupy movement or another’s contextualization of Thoreau with contemporary debates about agricultural sustainability. Many scholars embraced what one presenter called the “B-side of the canon”: little-known works by celebrated writers. Others offered creative reconfigurations of familiar categories (the kind of thinking that set the scholarly mind abuzz), such as one presenter’s observation that accounts of the material spaces of cities deserve a prominent place in ecocritical studies.

Mapping Fields and Forms of Study

Multiple panels were devoted to challenging existing paradigms of the disciplines. The roundtable entitled “Periodization and its Discontents: New Ways of Conceiving Academic Organization,” shifted from the role of periods in the academy to a heated exchange about the decline of the humanities. Donald Hall, Curtis Perry, and Caroline Levine argued for the necessity of periods for the purposes of outlining a dialogue with scholars working in the same areas, building curricula, and justifying hiring decisions to deans. Richard Miller gave a plea for doing away with “periods” as we know them, noting that period-based course offerings tend to bore both instructors and students in their failure to inspire in the way that more specialized, upper-level classes can. Todd Wayne Butler described departments as wary of training graduate students outside of the model of periodization because of the job market; this has the consequence of leaving scholars locked in a period-based model that remains largely unchallenged. Caroline Levine proposed maintaining periods for institutional purposes, but rethinking how we deploy them in teaching and scholarship. Levine introduced a concept for dating texts she calls “birthtime.” Analogous to “birthplace,” “birthtime” signifies the moment of a text’s inception. Birthtime can alert scholars to the problems of dating and studying texts in strictly defined periods. For example, she discovered that organizing texts by date of publication produced an...

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