global academy

A Canadian Goes to the MLA

I don’t usually go to the MLA for a few reasons. First, as a Canadianist the fact that the organization has cut the number of Canadian panels means its not a particularly disciplinarily relevant conference for me. Second, despite the shift in the MLA’s timetable the conference still falls in the first week of classes for me. Third, the context, by which I mean the Americanness of it, is both complicated and, for the most part, alienating. The people who come to the panels I am on tend to be my Canadianist colleagues, and while it is always amazing to see my friends and colleagues I’d rather do it context that didn’t feel so structurally oppositional. I go to conferences to talk with people about their work, to present my own work and, hopefully, have a few people who want to talk with me about it. I don’t usually go to conferences to interview for jobs, thank goodness (though there is a shift towards this tactic). And, for the most part, the conferences I do attend aren’t predicated on a kind of ferocious posturing that seems to be the new normal requirement for being in this long neoliberal moment on the job market.

This weekend, however, I was in Austin, Texas for the MLA. Specifically, I was on the plenary panel of the MLA Subconference, which has for the past three years operating alongside and as an oppositional critique of the international conference. There were, of course, the usual frustrations ranging from the ubiquitous shock of many presenters who realize, OMG, that yes, you should bring your own dongle. And there was, of course, the frustration of being on a panel where almost no one but the young scholars–especially the young women and the young scholars of colour–stick to time.

And yet, as I sit on the last plane on the las leg of a very long trip from Austin to Halifax I am feeling that the trip was worth it. I’m tired, yes. Not quite finished my lectures for tomorrow, yes. But I’m feeling lucky to have been there, and its not because my radical academic feminist self-care involved an elitist circulation of ten-step bespoke beauty products (I’ll talk about this next week). 
I’m feeling positively reflective about my trip to the MLA for a number of reasons, most of which stem from thinking about differences between the American and Canadian academic contexts. Here are a few that I will be thinking about for a while to come:
1) “Let’s Not Forget the Violence Caused By and Uncritical Academic Fetishization of Borders”
At the Subconference I was on the plenary panel with seven other people. In any context that’s a lot of bodies on stage together sharing the spotlight. The most amazing performance of all my co-panelists came from Jesus Valles, who is a Latinx performance poet and high school teacher at a predominantly Latino high school in Austin. After an hour and a half of presentations that provided differing degrees of practical and navel-gazing considerations of the neoliberalization of the concept of the public Mr. Valles stood up and delivered the most incredible piece of spoken word I have heard in ages. He took up the theme of the Subconference and situated his mediation on the question of whether the classroom was a public or private space. In seven minute he taught the audience about the ways in which an uncritical academic fascination with metaphors of movement and displacement were fundamentally disenfranchising for immigrant, refugee, and undocumented peoples. It was, for me, as a listener, a vital instance of the power of performative poetics and pedagogy. My hair stood on end, my tears welled up, I felt angry and fearful not because what Mr. Valles described was my experience, but because he made room for all of us to listen to what it means to be Latino in Texas in a classroom and a city right now, today. 
2) Borders Were Clearly Marked at the MLA
When I go to Congress each spring I dutifully spend my dollars on my membership and my conference registration. I get my badge and I wear it, most of the time. But I never worry about being barred from accessing a panel if I don’t have my badge on, nor do I think any more than usual about the possibility of encountering a gun on campus. At the MLA there were signs in every room, hallway, and doorway that declaimed the necessity of wearing a badge. Without a badge the implication was that you would be barred from access or be forcibly removed. I thought of the half-million dollar salary the President of the MLA pulls in, and I thought of Mr. Valles’s students. I thought about who would benefit from listening to panels on conceptual poetics and the politics of race, and who could afford them. 
I also thought about the ways in which gun control differs between America and Canada. There were signs discouraging open carry at the MLA. Discouraging. I’m just going to leave it at that.
3) Public and Private Mean Differently in Canada and That, As It Turns Out, Has Consequences
In my own presentation I talked about teaching from a position of decolonization as a means of moving beyond reproducing colonial violence within the institution. I explained to the audience that in Canada the vast majority of post-secondary institutions are ostensibly public institutions. If we are failing the mission statements of post-secondary institutions in Canada we are failing the institutional project, not just the public. 
This took the Americans in the audience by surprise. Indeed, there was (unsurprisingly?) not much interest or uptake in talking about cross-border coalitions or organization because the majority of the audience seemed unwilling to make the conceptual reach to collaborative thinking from different contexts. Since this is my second year in a row being invited to the MLA to talk about issues of precocity, austerity, and the institutional mission I am starting to feel more than anecdotal when I say that we Canadian university and college teachers and graduate students and precarious workers will not gain much meaningful hands-on support from our American counterparts. We need to organize on our own terms and on our own campuses, and then share our organizational tactics with others. But the contexts are, I think, too different and the stakes, paradoxically, equally high right now.
I’m interested in what kinds of structural differences other Canadians at the MLA noticed.

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