Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Are you a linguist?!"

I'm in the lobby of the San Francisco Hilton. Enormous chandeliers, extravagant Christmas decorations, and networking black-clad academics as far as the eye can see. I would feel tremendously out of place--even the grad students here know someone, and I don't know a soul--but I think I'm too tired to care. I need to go find some dinner, but the eavesdropping and people-watching here are too good to pass up. I think I'll wait till things calm down a little and then just buy an overpriced salad at the hotel restaurant. I'd trade my hair for a glass of red wine, but I won't trade the $13 the Hilton is charging, so I'll have to go without.

I didn't mean to hijack the Literary Iditarod with my blogging about the MLA Convention; it's just too weird and interesting not to write about. And it has to do with grad school, so it's totally relevant. Sort of.

I don't know where to begin. I was working at my company's booth in the exhibit hall all day. The atmosphere there was actually much less overwhelming than here in the lobby: I knew what I was supposed to be doing, I had a goal, I had things to talk about. I'm far from being the most socially capable person in the world, but I've heard my bosses' spiels enough times to know more or less what they'd like me to say, and there are a lot of people who are very enthusiastic about our company, so I felt pretty comfortable, if sometimes seriously outclassed. I wish I could attend some of the lectures and discussions, but that isn't my job; I'm here to do the other stuff so that my boss can go to those. Oh well--I may have plenty of chances in the future.

Everyone is saying that the overall mood of the convention is darker than it has been in many years. I wouldn't know about that, of course. I'm just happy to be here. I did get to talk to a number of job-seeking graduate students, all of whom were about as bitter and dejected as one might expect, if not more so. The most bitter was probably the guy who only wants to work at an elite four-year, and only teaching upper-level Brit Lit. I can see, on the one hand, how those are reasonable goals--but on the other hand... wow. People say that you don't go into English unless you think you're better than everyone else; what does it take to go into English with such exacting requirements? Of course, I'm not even sure that I can muster up the self-confidence to apply to grad school, so I'm not necessarily qualified to judge him.

I don't know. My oldest sister says she can't imagine trying to go into academia because she doesn't think that she's smart enough. To me, it seems like so much of that is just point of view. Imagine academia as a language. You can grow up speaking Chinese and never think twice about it; you can take Chinese in school and learn it bit by bit until you're comfortable with it. But if you have never been exposed to it, it seems far beyond your comprehension, alien, impenetrable.

I was never exposed to academia growing up. None of my relatives are academics, and my parents barely mentioned college to me, let alone graduate school. I spent years at community colleges and state schools where my professors' goals were basic, practical: Can my students conjugate a regular Spanish verb. Can they write a coherent English sentence in which the majority of the words are spelled correctly. Can they master the math they will need to survive in a job in retail, food service, maybe as a nurse. None of my classmates were expected to attend graduate school: hell, if they could graduate from the community college, from the California State, it'd be a bloody miracle.

In some ways--don't laugh--I'm a very timid person, and it never occurred to me to go beyond what was asked of me. At Reed I found that I could do a lot more than I had thought, simply because my professors asked me to do so. If they expected serious work from me, I figured, that must mean that I was capable of such work. It had never crossed my mind before. And if they encouraged me to go to graduate school, that must mean that I was capable of graduate-level work.

Having the confidence to attempt to go into academia seems like largely a matter of believing that you can figure it out. Its terms and customs, as intimidating as I (and my sister) find them, must be things that one can learn.

Augh. I'm rambling. Sorry. Here are some other things that happened. Maybe I'll put them in bullet form to keep me on track:

--I went into the graduate student lounge to leave some of our company swag. There was only one other person in there, a young man. I took a moment to look over the pamphlets on the table, and I overheard as a young woman came in, evidently surprising the man while he was checking himself out in the mirror. "Um... I realize that when you came in, it seemed like I was looking at myself in the mirror, but actually I was just thinking about something else and I didn't even realize that the mirror was there," he blustered to the girl, whom he didn't seem to know. How does one make it as far as graduate school and still be that socially inept? And I thought Reedies were awkward...

--A lechy old professor type sauntered up to our booth and spied the bowl of candy. "Oooh, I'm just going to take as many of your Kisses as I can!" he enthused to me, his voice dripping with forced innuendo. Hey, old dude, you know what's funny? Making young women uncomfortable! (How do you make it to late middle age and a professorship and still be that socially inept?)

--Another middle-aged professor explained to me very earnestly that young women are much more mature than young men, who are disgusting, stupid, and chauvinistic. Then he lingered around our booth for at least twenty minutes, attempting to make small talk and giving me hopeful grins.

(Those two incidents were the closest I have come to having someone try to pick me up, though I know at least a few people here are looking... I have been told--shock!--that the MLA is something of a meat market. I'm tempted to put on something tight and low-cut and see if I can find out, but I'm not sure my boss would condone that sort of investigative work, and anyway, my exhibitor badge is maybe something of a turnoff. It's my understanding that grad students are the typical prey. Man, not being in grad school means I miss out on everything.)

I want to say more, but honestly, I'm so tired that I'm pretty sure this is all just boring and stupid. I'll post again when I am thinking more coherently.

Meanwhile, if you are curious about the MLA Convention and want to hear about it from people who are smarter than squirrels, Scott McLemee is blogging about it, as is the MLA's executive director, Rosemary Feal.


annemarie said...

serena! how long are you going to be in SF! and this all sounds fascinating! what an environment!

annie said...

I've had good BOTTLES of wine for less than $13. (Do I just have poor taste in wine?)

LOL, young men are disgusting, stupid, and chauvinistic... and some of them don't grow out of it!

Not much more reason to comment, though I do love convention tales. I'm obnoxiously fond of the word verifications here.

(balsespr, for example)