I was lucky enough to attend my first Modern Language Association convention in a relatively low-stress situation: no conference paper to give, no interview to prepare for. Even in this scenario, the conference was still quite overwhelming. To make it easier on fellow first-timers, here are a few tips to prepare you for the uniqueness of the annual convention.
1. MLA Begins (and Ends) in the Airport
If you are flying through a major hub (I was flying from Philadelphia to Chicago), chances are that you will begin running into fellow attendees before your plane even leaves the runway. The waiting area is filled with people discussing interviews, conference papers, etc. For me, the presence of all of these fellow scholars was both exciting (how often in an airport do you get to overhear conversations about “problematic narratives” and the value of close reading?) and overwhelming. Be ready to network right away, if you like that, or have good headphones or material to read that will give you a break before the convention “officially” begins.
2. Don’t Stay in the Central Convention Hotel(s)
Speaking of exciting and overwhelming, the lobbies of the main conference hotels are constantly packed. People are milling about–heading to crowded elevators on their way to panels, waiting nervously pre-interview, meeting with old grad school friends or colleagues, etc. Again, this is a great opportunity to network or unexpectedly run into professional acquaintances, but sometimes you just need a break. I chose to stay in the main conference hotel because I had never been to Chicago before, and I didn’t want to have to navigate the city on my way to our interview suite (especially pre-8 AM). If I were doing it again, however, I’d look for a hotel that was close by which would offer more privacy and space. Sometimes you don’t want to run into scholar whose work you admire when you’re on your way out to a drugstore to purchase the toothpaste you forgot to pack.
3. Bring Your Own Nametag Holder
Unlike even other large conferences I’ve attended (such as the International Congress on Medieval Studies), you don’t have to stop in at any sort of central registration point. The schedule of presentations and other convention information is all available in the November PMLA, and you are mailed a name badge (necessary for access to all official convention events) ahead of time. So, pack your PMLA program and bring your own standard academic, white string/plastic envelop nametag holder. Then, you can hit the ground running when you get to the conference.
4. Make Plans Ahead of Time
MLA is filled with reunions between former and current colleagues. While not everything can be planned ahead of time, if there is a friend or acquaintance you’d like to meet up with, don’t wait until you get there to make your plans. Schedules are quickly filled by panels, parties, receptions, etc. Making plans ahead of time also means you’ll be able to get reservations at fun restaurants close to the hotels, restaurants that can get booked very quickly.
5. Be a Tourist
In the midst of the wonderful professional opportunities, don’t forget to take some time to enjoy the city you’re in. Obviously, grad student stipends don’t allow for some of the more pricey tourist options (don’t forget to look for student discounts!), but you can even just grab a coffee and enjoy a small walk around the city. It’s silly not to take even small advantage of the cool cities which host MLA.
6. If You Can, Attend Before Your Job Interview/Presentation
Again, financial resources don’t always allow it, but you have the extra money or if MLA is located somewhere near you (it will be in NYC in 2018), it’s worth making a trip, even if it is just for the day. It is an odd, exciting, over-stimulating environment, a more exaggerated version of conferences you already have attended. If you are able to experience this for the first time before the pressure is on to present a brilliant conference paper or sell yourself in an interview, you will be better able both to appreciate the excitement of MLA and navigate its stressors when you need to be at your sharpest and most prepared.
These were my tips. Anyone else who has previously attended, what would you recommend?