A blank page for creative arts Scholarship: The area of study for the Modern Language Association, with roots in Baltimore, has spread not only in geography but in content. Today's lectures are as likely to feature Sinatra as they are Shakespeare.


In a rite of winter, about 10,000 college professors and graduate students have descended upon Washington to talk about Sophocles, Shakespeare, Marx, the poet Derek Walcott, novelist Virginia Woolf and -- on the program for tonight -- the symbolism of Frank Sinatra.

During a 75-minute session called "The Semiotics of Sinatra" at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, a Cornell University professor is scheduled to give a lecture titled, " 'Under My Skin': Sinatra, Masculinity and Fifties Culture." A University of Toronto professor will deliver the talk "Sinatra: A Man and his Music." A Duke University professor will speak on the topic: "To See if Reindeer Really Know How to Fly" (actually, a reference to a Mel Torme standard).

They are among the roughly 2,000 talks slated for the 114th annual Modern Language Association convention, held at several Washington hotels through tomorrow. The convention, always held between Christmas and New Year's Day, sets the tone for academic inquiry into literature and languages -- and is also the best chance every year for scholars to dish dirt and chase jobs.

The MLA, as it is known, serves for literature professors the same role that the American Bar Association does for attorneys: An assembly of elected delegates hashes out stances on issues dividing this community of scholars. But the core of the conference comes from the sessions, each chaired by a moderator who introduces three or four speakers who give prepared lectures, usually followed by a respected scholar who offers comments.

In the meantime, more than 2,500 graduate students seeking jobs subject themselves to interviews with senior professors. Not a few professors are on the prowl themselves.

"Everyone who wants a job is there -- so there's a lot of anxiety in the air," says University of Virginia English Professor Patricia Spacks, a former MLA president. (Along with everything else, there are sessions scheduled about job-hunting.)

And an MLA convention gives the literary theory set a chance to socialize. Literature scholars "go either to give papers or hear papers, to see their pals or to learn the gossip -- who's in and who's out," says Denis Donoghue, the Henry James professor of English and American Letters at New York University. A literature professor may feel a bond with his fellow specialists -- people devoted to Jane Austen, for example, tend to stick together -- and this is where, every year, he can find them.

There also are the cash bar receptions at the end of each evening, with such scholarly hosts as university English departments, societies devoted to Portuguese literature, or devoted to Dante, Australian literature, 16th- and 17th-century Spanish drama or, perhaps appropriately for an affair held over drinks, Faulkner.

"The MLA has a very diverse membership -- a membership that approaches scholarship and teaching with about as many approaches as there are members," says Phyllis Franklin, a former University of Miami professor who is the group's executive director. "You see it all and hear it all."

For all this hubbub, the nation largely has Baltimore to thank.

In the early 1880s, A. Marshall Elliott, a professor of Romance languages at the Johns Hopkins University, called for American university scholars to discuss the teaching of languages other than Latin and ancient Greek. Forty people turned up for a session in New York, where the groundwork was laid for what became the MLA.

In 1886, the fourth year of its existence, 198 members of the group met on the Hopkins campus. In an address to the conference, Hopkins President Daniel Coit Gilman called for an emphasis on the study of literature over the study of language.

The association pursued that mission. The 1886 Baltimore session scholars debated whether the writings of French novelist Victor Hugo showed hostility to religion. The MLA was incorporated in Baltimore on April 5, 1900, by an act of the Maryland General Assembly.

It now has more than 31,000 members. Along with a few sessions this weekend on the study of language, and the usual discussion on the literary traditions of Germany and England, there are papers on Yiddish poetry, Japanese novels, Brazilian literature, Slavic literature and Native American storytelling.

The MLA's area of study has spread not only in geography but in content. No longer are books, poems or language the sole areas of interest. Now, there is an approach so inclusive that it may appear incoherent, encompassing film, art, advertising, song and cultural questions, including the place of sex, race and religion in literature and society.

"Approaches change all the time because there's great pressure for people to come up with new ways to look at things," Franklin says. "It's not surprising that the women's movement in the '60s and the '70s led to greater interest in women's writers." The same is true for the environment and civil rights: "There is a connection between what goes on in the society at large and what goes on in our work."

This also has meant that the convention has proved an irresistible target for commentators appalled by trends in literary studies -- although much of the criticism is triggered by the intentionally shocking titles of some of the lectures. For example, a professor from California State University at Northridge will give the talk, "Where Does 'School' End? Students and Professors at Sex Clubs, Concerts and Queer Bars."

The convention is at best irrelevant and at worst destructive, contends John Leo, columnist for U.S. News & World Report. "Punk literature," he called it in an essay a few years ago. "It is a hard-edge, heavily politicized academic group that looks at rTC Western literature (when it looks at all) solely as the ideological expression of white male dominance."

Even some people within the association argue that the problem not what the scholars study, but how they do it. These people have been turned off by what they see as an interest in literary theory rather than literature itself.

In 1993, a renegade group of academics formed the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. Among them was Ricardo J. Quinones, a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California. About 250 members now attend the new association's annual meetings. He cites a recent report by the National Alumni Forum, a conservative Washington-based group, that indicates the study of Shakespeare is not uniformly required of literature students at top American universities.

"If in intellectual matters the MLA were doing its job, we would not need that new report," says Quinones.

As far as the convention goes, he says, "it's a real friendly, wonderful bash."

That's what Daniel Coit Gilman, the Hopkins president, encouraged at the December 1886 meeting in Baltimore: "There's a very common feeling," Gilman said of academic conferences, "that the meetings are uninteresting, and after long attendance upon many conventions I have come to the conclusion that what is wanting is discussion and sociability."

By that standard, progress has been made.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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