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What I Learned at the MLA


Why it's a great idea to go to the MLA early in your graduate career: you can meet fellow scholars, enjoy a real sense of community, and broaden your career horizons--without the stress.

I went to the MLA in Philly this year–and it was great.

When I expressed to one professor what a great time I was having, she said, “It’s good not to have a pathological relationship with the MLA.” The MLA convention can be a scary and stressful place. If you go there to present a paper, or to impress somebody, or to rock an interview, or some combination of the above, this is only natural. Because I got so much out of it, though, I wanted to share some of my experience, and urge my fellow students to attend the MLA without fear–beginning earlier rather than later in their graduate careers.

I attended not as a presenter or an interviewee, but as a free agent. As a 2016-2017 MLA Connected Academics Proseminar fellow, I represented Connected Academics by telling people all about it, and towards the end, by wearing a little ribbon attached to the bottom of my name tag. I attended a couple of Connected Academics sessions, several sessions related to my research, an arts-based pedagogy workshop, and a few social events. I got something out of every one of these events. If you think about it, the MLA convention is actually a very exciting gathering of people who love, study, and teach language and literature coming together from all over the country to share their ideas and learn from one another. Isn’t that a lovely idea?

Here is why I think going to the MLA early on, for example in your third year, is an excellent idea:

- You can make connections. This isn’t only about “networking.” You can have real, substantive conversations with people you would never normally talk to, and even follow up with them a day later at the convention. It can help guide your research or teaching strategies–and yes, it can help you expand your network.

- You will be less stressed. You will be able to appreciate and focus on people’s talks without constantly worrying about that paper you have to present and haven’t finished yet. You’ll be able to take part in and benefit from the exchange of ideas without feeling like you have to show off.

- You will have time. You will be able to choose when to go to a session, and when to nap.

- You will get free or discounted books. Many publishers–both academic and trade–exhibit at the MLA and offer steep discounts.

- You will establish a healthy relationship with the MLA. This can only help down the road if and when you do have to present and interview. If you approach the MLA as a place where you can meet and talk to scholars you admire and students across the country who are dealing with many of the same anxieties that you might be dealing with, then the convention becomes something to be enjoyed more than something to be feared. The MLA is a place that unites many people who get us.

One of the biggest lessons I learned at the MLA is that it’s a big world out there. There are lots of people interested in the things you’re interested in, and thinking about them in different ways. You may meet people whose perspectives, ideas, and suggestions can broaden your horizons in unexpected ways. A conversation with a professor, for example, broadened my horizons: he mentioned a few books and scholars whose research are of interest to me, and whom I had not yet come across.

Not only are there brilliant and generous scholars at the MLA who are happy to help young scholars–but there are also brilliant and generous humanities and humanities-adjacent professionals outside of academia who can provide insights into the abundance of career opportunities for language and literature Ph.D.s. For example, at a session called “Finding a Broader Audience; or, Academics are Writers, Too,” Dr. Jane Greenway Carr, who works for, gave an in-depth presentation about pitching to editors and writing for the public, and was happy to speak with anyone interested afterward. At a panel put together by the American Council of Learned Societies, employers who have taken on recent humanities PhD’s through the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program opened my eyes to the fact that the ability to take data or evidence and present it in a coherent narrative is a highly valued and marketable skill that we as humanities PhDs have.

In a session called “Reimagining Doctoral Education in Spanish,” I learned how several Spanish departments around the country have redesigned their programs of graduate study to better prepare students for a variety of careers. Columbia already provides us with many opportunities to prepare ourselves in this way. Our department (Latin American and Iberian Cultures) has of course recently redesigned the graduate program, implementing the Research and Professional Development Workshop series for first-year students, among other changes. On April 4, 2017 one of the workshop’s sessions will address “Exploring Career Options” as part of a two-part series on career possibilities beyond academia. Through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, we can apply for Fellowships in Academic Administration that provide small stipends to gain valuable experience and skills beyond teaching and research.

Still, we can get inspiration from the models of some other universities and programs. For example, at the University of Washington in Seattle, doctoral students in Hispanic Studies are encouraged to apply to pursue a Certificate in Public Scholarship through the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Students also have the possibility of producing alternative dissertations that do not adhere to the traditional monograph format, such as portfolios of scholarly and creative work, digital publications, and exhibits. At Emory University there is an awareness that teaching classes in departments other than Spanish and Portuguese can be an important and enriching experience for graduate students.

Anne Garland Mahler, a panelist and assistant professor at the University of Virginia, put it very well when she said that the narrative of graduate education needs to “shift” from one of “replication” to one of “transformation.” I agree completely, and I believe this needs to be a positive narrative. Yes, there is a terrible academic job crisis that cannot be overstated. But people have been taking “alt-ac” jobs since forever, and to do so is not to fail. On the contrary, careers off the tenure track and outside academia can be very fulfilling–and successful. The convention was a forceful reminder of this.

I left the MLA with a head full of ideas, a pile of books, a reading list, and a page of names to contact. It was very exciting. There was nothing scary about it.

Next year it’s in New York, guys! See you there.

Last Updated 2 years ago


Alexandra Méndez, « What I Learned at the MLA », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on March 29, 2017. Full URL for this article

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