It was here, this year. Though I knew plenty of people attending, both blogger people and people from my various former institutions, I didn’t contact anyone to do anything. And no one contacted me, so there ya go. Because I read so many academic blogs, particularly those in Rhetoric and Composition and in other English fields, the conference has been in the back of my mind. When it was here three years ago, I went and wrote about it in two very different ways. First, I was apprehensive. And then, I was over it. I attended that year for two reasons. One, I had a job interview, which I couldn’t write about back then but which is the meeting I referred to in that second post. And two, I was technically a grad student and could afford the fee. Though I wrote more confidently about my experience there in the second post, I remember it still being awkward for me in all kinds of ways. I did, indeed, run into old grad school friends and we had coffee and talked and it was really enjoyable. But I also caught a glimpse of my former advisor, whom I dumped and of whom I have awkward memories. When I saw her, she was taking one of my friends around and introducing her to people, something I am not entirely sure she would have ever done for me. In part, perhaps, she knew my heart wasn’t in my subject before I did, before I switched to Rhetoric and Composition and switched advisors.
I felt generally awkward as I wandered the halls and lobbies and did not recognize a soul. In part, of course, it’s because the conference is ginormous. Even if I knew people, it would be hard to find them. But I felt lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces, no one I could stand with and chat and have coffee between sessions. I’ve been to sizable conferences like this in other fields, namely technology. At those, there are cocktail parties and other events where one can meet people on a more informal basis. Or, there’s the strategy of meeting the five people you do know and attending mostly the same sessions together. The MLA seems to be so crammed with sessions, starting at an ungodly hour in the morning and ending sometimes at 9 at night. Seriously, 12 hours of sessions, crazy! There’s no time for gatherings or parties in all that. And then there are the people conducting and attending interviews. They don’t have time for such niceties either.
The interviewing is another moment of awkwardness. The reports are pretty much on the money in terms of being able to pick out the interviewees, those in black suits, glancing nervously around, many of them spending their time hanging outside the “interview room,” a row of tables in a large conference space where people can overhear nearly everything. On elevators and in hallways, one can sometimes hear them practicing their summary of their research or their teaching statement. I, too, wore a black suit, pants, not a skirt. But I was 10-15 years older at least than most of the interviewees. Thankfully, I wasn’t relegated to the interview room, but still it’s weird to interview in a hotel suite. It feels undignified, is reminiscent to me of prostitution, which isn’t far off the mark of how the market functions these days. It’s hard to forget that toiletries and underwear lurk behind closed doors and drawers even as you’re discussing your pedagogical strategies.
Later that day, I walked into the lobby (as I describe in my earlier post, looking for a place to sit, maybe have a drink), and I run smack dab into the (now former) president of our college, whom I know quite well. I’m in my black suit. It’s probably abundantly clear that I am interviewing. We say hello and thankfully, she is talking to colleagues and so hello is all there is and I go sit at the bar.
After that, things get dramatically better, but still . . .
New Kid wrote a nice post earlier this week about leaving academia. I haven’t left it entirely. After all, I’ll be teaching a class starting next week. But I like the mish mash of work I’m doing that partly involves academia and partly involves other things. As my post on failure notes, I’m on the fringes of this thing and feel like I can be more objective about it in some ways than I would be if I were in it. I got that job I interviewed for at the MLA, but turned it down. Every once in a while, I used to have pangs of regret for not taking it, but I really do like where I’ve ended up. Had I taken that job, we might have had to move or I would have at least had a huge commute, a big teaching load with lots of papers to grade. When would I have time for my family, my kids? It’s tough to admit that the demands of that kind of work don’t fit with my desired lifestyle. It feels selfish and wrong to reject full time employment on that basis, especially now when there are people who have lost jobs, who can’t find work. Every other full time academic job I’ve considered applying for, I’ve rejected on that basis. But I still like the teaching, the mission of education, especially for disadvantaged students. I still like the intellectualism of academic life that is absent from a lot of other kinds of jobs. And so, I keep a foot there, balancing it out with other kinds of work and with the rest of my life.
I no longer feel the despair and self-loathing that probably colored that 2006 MLA conference. And I really didn’t feel it much then, just in moments when I was immersed in it as much as I was at the MLA. When all I could see around me were reminders of the path I could have taken, it was hard not to feel some regret for not taking it. When I look back over my life and consider the moments when I could have plunged in and really taken that path the way my colleagues from grad school did, I can’t see a moment where taking it would have given me everything that I have now. I would have had to give up living with my family at least temporarily or perhaps even permanently if I were completely careerist about it. I wouldn’t have gained the technical skills I have now. I wouldn’t have time for a lot of the things I do now that keep me sane. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed them, but I doubt it. Yes, there are things I don’t have because I didn’t go down that path. Maybe I would have more published, maybe even a book. But that doesn’t seem like much to give up. I have the phrase “our paths choose us” resounding in my head. In part, I think that’s true. I think we make decisions that we think will make us happy and those decisions take us down a path we can’t see yet. We can only see it as we look back.