Fast-Forward Forty Years: Launching the New Convention

Originally published in the Fall 2015 MLA Newsletter

“Keep Austin Weird,” countless bumper stickers on cars in the city admonish. As I’m sure some MLA members know, “weird” derives from Old English “wyrd,” which denotes “fate” or “destiny.” So in the spirit of Austin’s unique character and the MLA’s efforts to support the future of the profession, it is fitting that this year’s convention is on course to be a year of firsts.

It’s the first time we are meeting in Austin, the state capital and home of one of the country’s most distinguished public universities. It’s also the first convention in more than forty years that will feature a new intellectual structure: the newly created forums. And it’s an exciting moment. The previous, and rather rigid, structure of divisions and discussion groups has been transformed into a network of forums that will evolve over time as members’ interests shift. The 2016 convention program shows such originality that it’s apparent how enthusiastic people are for this change. To get a sense of how the new forums came about and what work they will do starting in 2016, I recommend you (re)read 2014 president Margaret Ferguson’s Commons article.

The other big change in the annual convention is the marked increase in sessions devoted to professional issues and development. The MLA’s Connected Academics project (, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is organizing workshops and presentations focusing on careers for humanists that will permit attendees to interact with those who have found satisfying work beyond the classroom (including sessions 233, 306, and 364). Other sessions related to the project include “Articulating the Value of the Humanities to the Larger World” and “Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur.”

Other professional issues to be covered include mentoring: session 58 offers small-group mentoring on the job search, focusing on different institutional types. In addition, representatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State Department, the Defense Language Institute, and others will speak with attendees about grant funding and career possibilities. Those interested in academic freedom for contingent faculty members will want to attend session 41, which is devoted to learning about how due process rights can be established. Session 518 will consider the future of tenure.

The Austin convention offers plenty of opportunities to explore new pedagogies in areas such as animal studies (24), oral proficiency in the language curriculum (25), graduate student writing (170), comics (222), service learning (253), second language acquisition (289), digital scholarship (411), public humanities (461), large-scale online teaching (506), and language teacher education (680). Administrators (chairs, writing directors, language program coordinators), editors, translators, and archivists will find a wide range of sessions designed to support their work.

I often compare the MLA convention to an ocean liner: it hosts thousands of people, offers a variety of activities, and allows people to stay in small cabins or gather on expansive decks. Yet such a large ship doesn’t tack like a sailboat, and new directions must be charted well in advance of the ship’s turn. I hope you’ll join us in Austin for the great turn—a new intellectual structure and an invigorated focus on our profession. The nearly 850 sessions and events at the 2016 convention promise to maintain the tradition of the humanities in its best sense: as curiosity-driven innovation.