Twitter take 2: Navigating the MLA Convention

As someone on the academic job market who is also passionate about graduate student opportunities for professional development and making themselves marketable both within and outside the academy, I did not know what to expect from the MLA Convention. Of course I knew I had to attend and expected to have interviews, but I was nervous about juggling interview prep with academic panels and networking with scholars in my academic field. Furthermore, as an MLA Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow, I was excited to attend a number of seminars sponsored by the Connected Academics program on a range of topics from careers outside of the academy to advising and mentorship in the academy. Basically, I had a full schedule! As this was my first time attending the MLA, I was unsure of what to expect. Below are some of my main takeaways.

Academic Interviews

My first surprise was that I had no MLA interviews. It turns out that my academic interviews had been on Skype well in advance of the conference. I even had a Skype interview during the conference! Most of my colleagues at Princeton and at other universities had similar experiences — they were invited for Skype interviews in December and learned the results of those interviews before the Convention.

When I was invited for my first Skype interview, I was initially disappointed. I thought that an in-person interview would be better-suited to getting a job as a professor and I was worried that I would not be able to perform as well on a screen. However, when I saw the room at the MLA that had been designated for interviews — a gigantic hotel ballroom filled with tables and chairs for simultaneous interview — I realized that perhaps there were some advantages to a Skype interview. Being able to choose the space in which I interviewed alleviated some of the stress of the exercise. Furthermore, interviewing in early December allowed me to learn that I had a campus visit before the MLA, which made me feel less concerned about my job prospects during the holiday season. And of course, the Skype interview cost me nothing, whereas traveling to a conference can be an unwelcome financial burden on graduate students and contingent faculty who, let’s face it, are not necessarily well supported by their institutions.

Professional Development

One of the aspects of the MLA that pleasantly surprised me was the focus on professional development. I appreciated that there were jobs posted (and not just tenure-track academic jobs, but jobs at the CIA for instance), that interview coaching was provided, that students and faculty alike could get free professional head shots, that there was ample information about careers both inside and outside of the academy, and most importantly, that a variety of social events allowed people to meet one another. At the Connected Academics events in particular, I was able to meet a wide range of people who gave me advice on everything from the academic job market to engaging in humanitarian work. I met with a former professor of the institution where I had a campus visit; I met an assistant professor who had previously worked in a digital humanities/libraries context, and was happy to give me her perspectives on both academic and non-academic career options; I spoke with a Princeton PhD now working for the Huffington Post and a career services professional who specializes in working with graduate students.

While the people I met were certainly fascinating, the range of events that brought them together were even more exciting. Given that everything I had previously been told about the MLA painted the Convention as a means to an end — namely, getting an academic job — it was refreshing to see a number of panels devoted to alternative academic careers. Furthermore, those panels (contrary to traditional academic panels) had a clear purpose, optimistic feel, and concrete and useful advice. I left feeling energized at the various career prospects that I will have as a recipient of a PhD, whether or not I choose to pursue a traditional academic route.

Twitter as a Connection-Making Tool

I’ll admit it: I’ve been somewhat skeptical about Twitter in terms of its usefulness for professional development, academic or otherwise. To me, sending 140 characters out into the black hole of the internet, to be seen by a few people and then disappear, seemed the opposite of “professional.” Clearly, I understood the perks: there is something rhetorical about the short nature of the tweet; a tweet allows one to reach his or her constituents immediately, without the need for an intermediary; the chemical reaction in the brain provoked by seeing a simple number of likes or retweets is addictive, making you yearn for more; finally, twitter allows one to see the larger trends of our time, what is making the rounds in our intellectual circles, and to participate (however frivolously) in that dialogue. Concerning academics, however, the nature of Twitter always seemed in contradiction with our aims and goals. While brevity is the soul of wit, a 140-character tweet seems insufficient to broach real issues. And even though the peer-review process for academic publishing is long and flawed, one would think that academics would not hold tweets in very high esteem.

However, I had never considered immediate practical uses of Twitter. At the MLA Convention, it was a useful tool for me to bridge the academic and alternative academic, the personal and professional, the esoteric and the communal. The most basic use I found was as a note-taking tool. Having my computer out, I could simultaneously record the most interesting comments from the panels and get instantaneous confirmation of what was interesting by others who were following the same hashtags. Furthermore, when I could not be in two panels at once, the panel hashtag allowed me to see what had happened where I could not attend. That said, this depends upon the conference attendees. If few are on Twitter, this strategy would not work. Even at this particularly large convention, the panels that seemed to garner the most tweets were those dealing with professional development or digital humanities. Lucky for me, those are two of my main interests!

Most importantly, Twitter allowed this unfathomably large conference where it would have been impossible to forge meaningful connections for a lonely graduate student to feel much smaller. While I was lucky to have a group of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances there to help me get my bearings, many graduate students attend large conferences, present their papers, and then leave without having interacted with other scholars or networked. Twitter allowed me to find events that I might have otherwise missed, see which type of panels had a lively discussion, and get to know names and faces of those who were participating in the Twitter subset of MLA attendees. At the last panel I attended, I noticed that the woman next to me had been interacting with me on Twitter for days, and we were delighted to be able to meet in person.

In the end, while I am still skeptical of Twitter and feel it is far too hyped, I will continue to use it at conferences. While some might be better suited for this particular tool than others, using it costs me nothing and has the potential to lead me to people and resources I might not have otherwise known. And most importantly, it has the potential to be a crucial entryway into the inner circles of conferences, allowing graduate students to network more efficiently than ever before.

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