In at least one aspect, the Modern Language Association is true to its name: When I went to the annual MLA convention late last year, I heard words being invented right on the spot.
One of these inventions was the word “textuality.” Teresa Ebert, one of the thousands of English professors in attendance, used this one. Her talk centered around the professor’s explanation of how women’s romance novels led to “the violence and carnage of Abu Ghraib.”(As you can see from our previous dispatches, Dr. Ebert’s topic was fairly typical of MLA themes as well.)
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the word in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary and found no matches. “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary,” Merriam-Webster’s helpfully informed me. “Click on a spelling suggestion below or try using the box to the right.” No luck there, either.
Most of the words and phrases employed at the MLA’s annual meeting are real, no matter how awkward the context in which they are used.. What follows are favorite terms of MLA speakers and members as heard at the group’s 2005 conference:
• Hegemonic (This is an MLA standby in all its forms and tenses, particularly when paired with a favorite MLA modifier, e.g., “patriarchal hegemony.)
• Descriptive, not
• Binary (As we use this term in our everyday conversations, i. e., “dismantling binaries,” and “academic vernacular binaries)
• Social constructivism
• Stand point theory
Apparently, if you can use all of these phrases in one sentence, you automatically qualify for the MLA Gold Circle. Many of the speakers at the convention did actually try to do just that, after introducing the thought with the phrase, “What needs to be fully articulated is that…” My nominees would be Kimberly DeFazio of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Anne Mollow of the University of California at Berkeley. Both did work many of the aforementioned verbs and nouns into their respective presentations.
It would be irresponsible of us to suggest going to a faculty party and building a drinking game around the repetition of these phrases by college professors. Had we adopted such an approach at the MLA convention, we would have been hammered before the first lecture ended.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.