At the Modern Language Association’s convention, aspiring scholars are still pursuing careers in the humanities, despite the odds against them

At 12:55 p.m. on a Thursday in early January, the double doors of Salon K at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington hung open like an unwanted hug. The space within had been optimistically set up for an audience of maybe three dozen: six rows of chairs in neat ranks with an aisle down the middle, facing a black-draped table with space for four participants.

The panel in progress — “Lessing and the Intersectionality of Gender and Cultural Diversity” — had another 20 minutes to go, just enough time for questions. But no hands were raised, and no one was holding forth. In fact, the room was free of any sign of life. The seats were empty, the table uncluttered by notes or napkins. Even the hotel corridor outside, lined with rooms hosting other sessions, was silent.

This was the first day of the Modern Language Association’s annual conference — arguably the most important, and most heavily trafficked, gathering for scholars of literature and culture. “If you pronounce the acronym ‘MLA’ to an American academic,” explains the British writer David Lodge in his 1984 campus novel “Small World,” “he will naturally assume that you are referring not to the Association as such, nor to its journal or its bibliography, but to its convention.”

For decades, the conference was the ground zero of professional life for literature scholars. Thousands descended on it to engage with the latest research and catch wind of the newest trends while listening to papers ranging from the abstruse (you’d be forgiven for not knowing who the 18th-century German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is, let alone what intersects in his work) to the intriguingly sexy (among this year’s listings: “Romantic Panic,” “Bibliomancy”). It was here, too, that rising scholars would meet with acquisition editors from the various university presses, pitching them on books that could make them into stars — or at least earn them tenure.

Some of this you might find at other, smaller conferences — those focused on particular eras, national literatures or themes. But the MLA was where you could meet and mingle with the widest range of your colleagues, no matter what they worked on or where they were in their careers. More importantly, when you applied for academic jobs, the MLA was where you would have your first round of interviews — assuming you were lucky enough to have caught a department’s attention. In that sense, the convention was a synecdoche twice over: As Lodge suggests, “MLA” meant the event, not the association that organized it. But the event also referred, in some larger sense, to the very idea that you could make a career out of writing about reading. That you could maybe get a job there was of a piece with the miraculous fact that such jobs existed at all.

Even in the good years, the convention was a bad place for graduate students searching for work. In a custom now officially discouraged by the association itself, interviews were traditionally conducted in hotel rooms, often with the interviewee sitting awkwardly on the bed as the tenured interviewers perched around them, a flock of judgmental ravens peering down from the eaves. At the conference, junior scholars would nervously eye one another in the elevators, trying to figure out who might be headed to which suite. Lee Edelman, an eminent queer theorist, recalls the graduate student experience of the conference as a “nightmarish world of pushing your nose up against a sweet-shop window,” adding, “It was indeed a place of profound paranoia and anxiety and unhappiness.”

But those jobs mostly don’t exist anymore. Thanks to shrinking department budgets, declining enrollments, and other, more malignant antipathies, tenure track openings have evaporated, leaving many casting about for underpaid adjunct employment. That process has been underway for years, but it has only accelerated in the past decade. Hiring last peaked in 2007-2008, when the MLA’s jobs report recorded 3,506 openings across English and other languages. By 2019-2020, the most recent year for which data is available, that number had fallen to 1,411 — only half of which were for tenured or tenure track positions — even as graduate programs continued to award new PhDs. Attendance at the MLA fell at a similar rate, a decline only compounded as departments began to shift interviews online even before the pandemic: In 1968, the conference’s attendance swelled to 11,750. By 2020, only 4,395 attendees showed up.

Even without the prospect of employment, scholars kept finding reasons to attend. Ask them why they go and they’ll rhapsodize about the pleasures of serendipitous encounters — the way someone you’ve never met might stop you after your sparsely attended talk to suggest a poem you’ve never read, out of which your next article grows. Or they’ll stress the importance of cutting across the disciplinary grain, giving film historians the chance to listen to discussions of 18th-century it-narratives or putting philologists into conversation with post-colonial critics. As Edelman told me, “The opportunity for theoretical cross-pollination is far greater at the MLA convention than anywhere else.”

But from a presenter’s perspective, the trouble with the MLA was often that it was just a little too big to be useful for its intended purpose, especially compared with field-specific conferences on topics like, say, Victorian literature. While there may have been thousands of people in attendance at the MLA, if you weren’t a star and you presented a paper about some narrow issue, there was a chance that not even your friends would show up. Theoretical cross-pollination for some, practically fallow fields for others.

For many attendees, though, it was most of all an opportunity to drink, dance and — if you were really lucky — maybe sleep with people who do the thing you do, even if they couldn’t be bothered to rouse themselves for your morning panel. Above all else, it was surely this sense of camaraderie that was lost when the MLA, like countless other conferences, went virtual in 2021 — a concession to the ongoing realities of the pandemic and the just-beginning rollout of the vaccines. This year was supposed to be different — an online and in-person hybrid, mostly in person. The coronavirus’s delta variant did little to change those plans, but then the omicron wave arrived, shifting more and more panels online. In theory, the conference was still happening, but it wasn’t clear whether anyone would be in attendance, or what they’d be doing while there. Who, I wondered, risks death for the conference of a dying profession?

Hiring in the humanities last peaked in 2007-2008, when the MLA’s jobs report recorded 3,506 openings across English and other languages. By 2019-2020, that number had fallen to 1,411.

The lobby of the Marriott Marquis is a broad column of glass-encased light, its looming atrium, peppered with the windows of hotel rooms, pressing up against the D.C. height limit. When my friend Seth Perlow, an English professor at Georgetown, and I entered on Thursday
afternoon, it was emptier than the library stacks where we’d once studied together and almost as silent. The academic editor Lindsay Waters writes that at MLAs past, “young scholars … rushed past you like the damned in Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ ” Riding the escalators down into the conference center, I felt a bit like the Florentine poet on his spiral descent into the Stygian marsh, with Seth as my Virgil. Here, though, hell was empty and all the devils elsewhere.

Four floors below, Seth and I made our way into the media room to pick up my press badge. It, too, was almost vacant, save for a slim, professionally dressed man in one corner, hunched over his computer with the mien of a scarecrow in repose. Expecting a genial public-relations professional, I approached him enthusiastically to ask if I was in the right place. He glowered at me over his mask. “I’m on a panel,” he hissed through what I can only assume were clenched teeth, gesturing at his computer from which, now that he mentioned it, issued the conversational hum of Academic Discourse. Rebuffed, we retreated.

Eventually, we found my badge at the conference’s main check-in desk, but other points of interest were scarce. There certainly were events happening here and there, but you had to go looking for them. Considering “World Literature and Human Rights” from the corridor, too embarrassed to walk in late, I counted maybe 10 people in attendance. Another panel in progress was less of a draw, with just three audience members, their numbers mirrored by those of the presenters at the front of the room. “Same as a normal MLA panel,” Seth joked as we walked away.

Later, I would discover that the media room’s occupant was Ryan Brooks, an English professor at West Texas A&M University. Like other attendees, he’d just been trying to keep his distance from everyone else, seeking safety that masks and vaccinations alone couldn’t offer. And there was plenty of unclaimed territory for those in search of it. (Even the speaker ready room had been empty, and the docent at the door said he hadn’t seen anyone come through all day.)

A few weeks after the conference, I called Brooks to apologize for interrupting. He laughed off the incident. As I would learn from him and others, many of those who had shown up largely eschewed the conference facilities, preferring to watch virtual panels from the privacy and relative safety of their hotel rooms. “I will admit I didn’t quite realize how much of the conference had gone virtual until I got there,” Brooks told me.

Some of those who did show up seemed to have done so out of a dogged sense of responsibility. Back in the lobby, I spoke with a group of rhetoric professors. Reductively, that means they are teachers of writing and language acquisition, scholars whose pedagogy keeps the lights on in many English departments — and whose essential work is often dismissed by their colleagues, arguably for that very reason. They were there, they told me, in part to remind other scholars that their work matters, too.

Everyone I spoke to at or about the conference called it “strange,” and it was — but there was also something familiar about some of its desolation. As Seth had suggested, all but the most celebrated academics have, at some point, mumbled their way through a 15-minute talk on a Saturday morning in an almost empty room. Looking up from your double-spaced, 14-point-font notes to survey a fleet of vacant chairs, it is tempting to ask, as battle-sore Agamemnon must have after the sack of Troy, whether it might have been more profitable to simply stay home.

If the field of literary studies is imperiled, one argument goes, it’s partly because to those outside, all of its trappings — the theoretical debates, the articles about poems no one understands, even the conference-going — can seem pretty useless. Plenty of scholars think that’s how it should be, that humanists should pursue their work for its own sake and not because it directly contributes to anything. It is, perhaps, this sentiment that leads some scholars to keep their rhetoric colleagues at a distance, since teaching people how to write feels just a bit too useful, where “useful” means something like “providing preparation for a job.” This conviction has a deep history: The intellectual historians Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon argue that scholars have identified the obligation to impart actual skills — instead of pursuing learning for its own sake — as a crisis for the humanities for centuries.

That long-running discomfort with utility, and the need to resist it, remains central for many scholars as they think about the value of an institution like the MLA. Edelman, for example, argues that literary studies can intervene in the world partly because the field doesn’t have to be of the world, as ordinarily understood. “The paradox is that in its very resistance to use value, it has a use value,” he told me. “The use value is the exemplification of thought and critical enterprise for its own sake. Because the for-its-own-sake never is for its own sake. The for-its-own-sake is a model of how it becomes possible to do politics otherwise.”

It was this sort of thinking, this celebration of difficulty and distance, this refusal to appease deans and reluctance to appeal to students, that once drew me and my peers to academia. But that same attitude has also left scholars embattled. To hear academics tell it, when mainstream publications have written about the MLA in the past, they’ve mostly done so to make fun of all the silly topics, of the exegeses that only confuse, of the whole spectacle of self-defeating pomposity. When I emailed one British professor to ask whether she’d be coming, she responded that she wasn’t but offered a stern admonition: “It would be lovely at this desperately hard time for humanities and English Literature in particular to have an article about the MLA that is not really knocking it.”

None of this is to say that the problems with the humanities are mere matters of internecine debate or occasional conflict with the news media. Dangerous legislative trends, skeptical trustees and swelling administrative budgets all play a far greater role. But it does mean that humanities scholars live with the fact of crisis, constantly aware that their profession is endangered — which it absolutely is, and not just because many of them are reluctant to make a practical case for themselves. When the financial crisis hit a few years into my own graduate career, members of my cohort tended to speak of it as if it were par for the course: More of us might lose our funding faster (we did), and there would be fewer jobs for those of us who made it through (there were), but it’s not like we hadn’t already been expecting that at some point.

To make a career out of the humanities is, in other words, to accept emergency as the norm.

Paula Krebs, the MLA’s executive director, holds that the conference itself might be useful for pushing back against the overlapping crises that threaten to crush the profession. “I think the convention is important for developing a sense of solidarity among people who do feel beleaguered, you know, and under attack,” she told me before the event.

I didn’t glimpse much solidarity during my own time in the Marriott, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t developing in the hotel’s quiet corners. At uncrowded tables outside the hotel’s bar on the second day, a few attendees worked at their laptops in silence. I was hesitant to approach any of them, so totally did the lounge — a space designed for expense account carousing — have the air of a reading room.

Instead, Seth and I again took the escalators down and followed a set of subterranean passages to the convention center, where the book exhibit had been set up. In an ordinary year, this might have been a raucous arena, a sprawling bazaar of outposts from every university press and every publisher that sells to universities. What we found instead was a collection of maybe 15 booths in an area fenced in with blue curtains to make us forget that we were in a hall large enough to host a boat show. A few academics wandered from booth to booth in the way of goats grazing through a bramble field, searching for berries but only finding other goats. A handful lingered at the perimeter, keeping their distance from one another as they cautiously partook of the coffee stations, masks temporarily hanging at their necks.

“Sorry to miss you!” read a handwritten sign in the long booth of the University of Chicago Press. “I will be back in the booth on Saturday, mid-morning.” New books were assembled elegantly on the tables behind it, but there seemed to be no risk of thievery. Nearby, a man whose badge identified him as Joe Ortiz of the University of Texas at El Paso was eyeballing a copy of Reitter and Wellmon’s “Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age.” He was wearing a tweed jacket in gray herringbone, a garment that would have been a cliche if male academics hadn’t spent the past three decades in flight from their woolen image, preferring, for the most part, to disguise themselves as assistant city managers.

As was the case for other scholars I’d spoken to, all the panels Ortiz had attended had been virtual. I asked him how he’d found things so far, and how this MLA compared to every other that he’d attended. “The way I described it to people?” he said. “There was no line at the Starbucks this morning, which, for MLA, is unheard of. It’s usually like 20 minutes to get a coffee at Starbucks.”

Seth gestured me over to the University of Nebraska booth, where he cheekily showed off a copy of a book titled “The People Are Missing.” Everywhere, signs that spoke of our circumstances seemed to multiply. It was as if we had arrived after the fact — not in the midst of an event, but long after some catastrophe, the story of which we could tell only through fragmentary evidence. “Only those who are belated can observe a ruined form. We may witness ruination, but we come upon a ruin,” writes the critic Susan Stewart in “The Ruins Lesson.” There was a copy of that on the University of Chicago tables, too.

Later, I stopped by a panel on teaching composition, observing it from the hallway much as a timorous fawn might spy on hikers from the edge of a meadow. Whatever it was, it didn’t appear to be on the main schedule, perhaps because it was one of the adjacent events organized by the rhetoric scholars I’d spoken to the day before. The speaker, who had his mask pulled down under his nose, was pacing the room and speaking enthusiastically to an audience of five about “sentence starters” and “scaffolding.” His slides, on the screen behind him, were in French. None of this seemed especially compelling to me, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful — maybe even useful — to the scholars in the room.

Those who found their way to other in-person panels mostly suggested that things had gone well, under the circumstances. Krebs said that she’d made a point of stopping into as many panels as she could, partly “to make sure there were people in the room.” On one occasion, she’d sat through a panel in Spanish, for which, she admitted, Duolingo had not fully prepared her. Sophia McClennen, a comparative literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, told me she’d worried they’d have an audience of one in the huge room assigned to her Sunday morning panel, “The Alt-Right and Left Theory,” but that they’d pulled in a “reasonably large” group of spectators in the end.

The online panels I watched were livelier, and, in their way, not entirely unfamiliar. When I logged in to “Location(s) of Memory in the Twenty-First Century” at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, the coffee still percolating in the Chemex on my counter, the organizer was efficiently introducing all eight speakers to the 20-odd participants. A clear etiquette had emerged over the course of the pandemic in which only the speakers kept their cameras on, meaning that I had hastily pulled on a polo shirt and blazer for nothing.

Later, in a panel on the 25th anniversary of the critic Leo Bersani’s book “Homos,” I saw Edelman’s name in one black rectangle. Next to it was a rectangle tagged with the name of his partner, Joseph Litvak, apparently watching from a separate device. The speakers, fewer here than in the previous session, eyed their cameras coolly as others read from their notes, conscious of their angles, modulating their responses, implicitly addressing one another even when muted. As they wrapped up and the question period began, hand symbols appeared in Edelman and Litvak’s rectangles, but the speakers had gone on too long, and the stream ended before either had a chance to pose a question. Just before it cut out, Edelman popped into the chat and graciously thanked everyone for their remarks.

In other sessions, events proceeded as they do at academic conferences. People read their papers quickly, answered questions they hadn’t been asked, got confused about what others were saying. This is how it always goes: You wander into the discursive woods and get lost in the brain fog. But then someone says something that sets your mind on fire, and you see a path you didn’t know you were on. For me, it was an idle remark by Caroline Edwards, a U.K.-based scholar of utopian literature, about stone as “stored energy” during a panel on environmental nihilism. Nothing radical, just a rivulet of information, languidly carving new channels in the landscape — but I could already see where it might take me.

This is what big conferences are for — those unexpected discoveries that recharge you solely because you happened into a room you hadn’t planned to enter during an hour when you had nothing else on the schedule. These experiences were inarguably easier to come by during the virtual
sessions than in the hard-to-find in-person ones. But the tenuous existence of the latter seemed to be the condition of possibility of the former. Much as a print newspaper lends legitimacy to its more widely read online components, the in-person conference’s very fragility was a reminder of why the virtual one mattered.

By association, the remote familiarity of the virtual sessions served as a reminder that the in-person proceedings were not entirely abnormal, despite their strangeness. The line at the Starbucks was short, but Ortiz still queued up for coffee. Somewhere, someone maybe proposed a drink with someone they’d just met — someone they’d never mention to their spouse, regardless of how the evening unfolded. Elsewhere, perhaps, two old grad-school friends who hadn’t seen each other in years proceeded directly to a shared hotel room that they had booked by some quiet compact. Next door, a grad student pored over the instructions for tying a half Windsor knot online — preparing for an interview over Zoom, yes, but no less anxious for it.

Graduate school in the humanities is the last American utopia — and if it curdles in time, that is only evidence of its passing perfection, because what utopia doesn’t?

In his seminal book “Cigarettes Are Sublime,” Richard Klein perversely argues that no one has ever really been convinced to stop smoking because they learned it might kill them. Instead, he writes, it is precisely because we understand the fatal power of cigarettes so well that we light up, day after day. This is the sublime as Kant defined it: something that affects us not because it is beautiful, but because it confronts us with the possibility of our own death, even as it allows us to imagine survival and endurance that defies our human finitude. The sublime object stills the heart to make it beat stronger.

In this sense, the humanities, too, are sublime. Academia appeals in the way that a lightning strike on a mountaintop does, offering us an image of our own annihilation even as we remain intact. Surveying the state of the field, one might be wiser to find something, anything else to do — yet intelligent, well-informed people still enroll in graduate programs every year, sometimes even tromping off to conferences amid a pandemic.

When I speak to graduate students these days, they have even fewer illusions than my friends and I did when we started our degrees 15 years ago. With every step, they know that it might all be for nothing, that they might lose their 20s to anonymous seminar rooms and boozy trivia nights, making no money and less sense, only to come out on the other side unemployed with just a few unread articles to their names. They do it anyway, not because they think it could turn out well, though it could, but because they know it probably won’t. Graduate school in the humanities is the last American utopia — and if it curdles in time, that is only evidence of its passing perfection, because what utopia doesn’t?

Aspiring academics will often tell you that they want “to read for a living.” But what is it about reading that really appeals to those who love it most? It’s the way a book — or a poem, or a play, or even an idea — swallows you like a whale, blotting out your own ways of living and forcing you to find new ones within its blubbery chambers. Reading, in other words, kills — if only for a little while. It’s this transient fatality that those of us who love to read love about reading — and no one loves reading more than those who do it for a living. To study literature is to acknowledge your own creaturely vulnerability. None of us would call ourselves butterflies — not because we are not arrogant, but because, in our arrogance, we know the limits of our own beauty. We are, all of us, moths, though, carried on dusty wings to the scenes of our eventual destruction.

This isn’t to say that literature scholars are masochists, or that they’re at fault for the dire state of their profession — only that they are inevitably at home with ongoing crisis, recognizing in it the remarkable ordinariness of the everyday, living not so much in spite of catastrophe as because of it.

In this sense, there might be a lesson for the rest of us in the 2022 MLA schedule, where in-person panels canceled too late to be shifted online have instead been pushed to next year’s convention in San Francisco. These are openings to the future, conversations waiting to happen: “Disrupting the Binary,” “Early American Monuments,” “Psychoanalysis and the Language of the Other.”

Or this, its title a single word: “Defeat.” And then, like a promise: “Postponed to 2023.”

Jacob Brogan is an assistant editor with Outlook for The Washington Post. He holds a PhD in English literature from Cornell University.