In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower

A road trip with someone you’ve never met—more specifically, a road trip across a prison-clogged desert with an English professor you’ve never met—is a delicate thing, and we both want this to go well, because he’s about to be my guide and interpreter for four days at the 119th Annual Modern Language Association Convention. Gideon Lewis-KrausIn the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower (The Believer)

It’s a tradition for reporters to attend and mock the MLA convention.

I find I enjoy the 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication) to be much more enjoyble and practical, but that’s only natural… college composition is a much more practical subject. My memories of going to the MLA are so closely connected to a harrowing job search. Further, the MLA convention is always between Christmas and New Year’s, and since the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are full of marking papers and dealing with stressed students, I’d rather spend that time with my family.

As mockworthy as the MLA is, any organization develops its own jargon and culture; and specialists who come together to talk to other specialists rarely do a good job communicating their relevancy to outsiders.

Lewis-Kraus does a good job placing this article in the context of the anti-intellectualism and humanities-bashing one often finds in certain sectors of contemporary culture. The MLA conference is for modern languages, not just English, though throughout the author keeps referring to the relevance of English research and publication.

Some amusing, well-written anecdotes, such as this one:

As Charlie and I orbit the small table, calculating who deserves how much of the steadily evaporating cheese, a short bald man approaches; he’s wearing a green argyle vest and a maroon tie emblazoned with little shieldlike insignia. His name tag reads “DOD.” Charlie steps backward, away from the table and asks him, “What does DOD stand for?”

“Department of Defense,” says the man, as he commands the remaining hunks of cheese. We both freeze for a minute before Charlie produces an anxious chuckle. “Oh, interesting. What are you, uh, up to, here?”

“Oh, I’m a translator at DLI, the Defense Language Institute, and I’m here for some, uh, workshops on translation.” Charlie tries to mollify the man with an anecdote about his wife’s failing a security clearance test at DLI as a teenager, but the man says nothing in response and takes the rest of the cheese. The man wanders off.

“Why’d you talk to that guy?” I ask Charlie. “He’s probably uploading our names and pictures to some defense satellite right now.”

“And he took the rest of the cheese,” Charlie says.

And this:

The actual papers delivered are so bizarre and freakish and sodden with jargon as to make them utterly incomprehensible. But it is a truly virtuosic incomprehensibility that makes sense only as a kind of poetic performance.

2 thoughts on “In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower

  1. I doubt any reporter who walked into a conferene on, say, biotechnology would expect the speakers to use terminology accessible to the general public. By the same token, if an average person walked into a newsroom, he or she might be confused by the jargon that reporters use when they are on the job.

    Mabye English teachers work so hard to pick texts that are “relevant” or “not too difficult”, that when the general public sees the specialized techniques we use to examine the more difficult, less mainstream texts, it seems un-Englishy.

    Theory does not necessarily equal incomprehensibility. Having said that, there is a lot of puffed-up academic prose out there.

  2. I think what keeps me from sending work out for publication is the feeling I have that it has to be incomprehensible, i.e. theoretical. I so much prefer extemporaneous presentations, albeit prepared ones, that when it comes to writing it all down I feel like it sounds too casual and straightforward.
    Silly huh?

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