Thursday, December 28, 2006

More Eye-Catching Phrases From Bowels of The Academy

Inside Higher Education has this brief report on the 2006 convention of the Modern Language Association.
Dec. 28
Academic Fashions Aren’t Just Sartorial

...Just as MLA academics tend to dress alike (think black and brown clothing, she said), they share intellectual fashions, too. Indeed, she said that reading old issues of the PMLA gave her the same feeling as looking at old issues of Vogue: Times and fashions have changed.

Inspired, Ladenson determined to organize a panel for this year’s MLA on academic fashion — broadly defined. What’s in? What’s out? Are the right things in or out? Those attending heard worries about the dominance of the “new historicism” (which of course hasn’t been new for a while), fears for the future of French even in an era of supposed interest in other cultures, and ideas about why professors (or their publishers) call their books what they do. And attendees also got to hear a paper with the sort of title MLA-bashers love ("Is the Rectum a Text?) but whose substance shows that academic fashion may be less sex-obsessed than MLA-bashers like to think...

The most anticipated talk may have been by Paul Morrison, a professor of English at Brandeis University, who it turns out didn’t even come up with the title about the rectum (which was in part a play on a famous work of gay studies, Leo Bersani’s essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?"), but forged ahead anyway after Ladenson suggested it.

Provocative paper titles are of course something of an MLA tradition. They’d never admit it, but plenty of conservative critics of cutting-edge humanities scholarship live for the moment each fall that the issue of PMLA arrives with the names of the papers to be given at the meeting. What will be the most outrageous paper title? Will there be anything as good as the legendary “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” a talk from 1995 that still gets trotted out as an example of all that is wrong with literary theory?

Morrison’s paper talk was surprising because — although it contained more uses of the word “asshole” than is the norm at scholarly meetings or most other meetings, for that matter — he’s actually arguing that there’s more to life than sex and that focusing on body parts, even supposedly subversive body parts, isn’t necessarily the best thing to do.
A Google search of the text "Is the Rectum a Text?" yielded 6 significant hits.

This reply to the question "Anyone got a I-responded-to-a-difficult-question-with-a-joke story?" in the Chronicle of Higher Education blog caught my eye:
After spying the paper title "Is the Rectum a Text?" in the program for this year's MLA, I'm almost hoping to have an interview that's tanking so badly that I'll have nothing to lose by asking that when the SC gets to the "So, do you have any questions for us?" part of the interview.

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