Once again the modern linquists have come here to associate.
Their jargon fills the hotel lobbies, hovering above their name tags in dense clouds. There are some 10,000 of them, a veritable sea of humanities. They come every year at this time and New York pays its usual tribute of ignoring them. They are MLA, which is not a casualty report but the Modern Language Association.
They convence. They hold caucuses in suites and forums in ballrooms. In these chambers strange things happen. Right out in plain view the other day, for instance, leading scholars from four countries attempted to define postmodernism in literature. Then, even more incredible, some other eminent academics considered whether it is meaningful toclassify literature by distinct periods.
There is no telling where this kind of activity may lead. Indeed, a program of Asian poems, songs and dances here concluded with a performance of dhikr , an ancient Sufi ceremony performed by dervishes of the Jerrahi Order, so virtually anything is possible.
But there are rituals even more bizarre and chilling than these.
The dance of desperation is one. Every year, the MLA sets up its giant employment machinery, a great system of interviews designed to bring job seekers together with college department heads. At the same time, it spreads the word that there are virtually no jobs available.
Here before your very eyes, a celebrated chronic condition spring to life: the PhD job gap. For years, America's universities have been spewing them out, then refusing to take them back in. PhDs gotta teach. Teaching jobs are scarce. So the doctor is out. Here at the Modern Languish Association you can see them twisting in the wind, no longer mere abstract statistics.
"In our standard form letter," said Roy Chustek, "we tell people you may expect 100, 200, 300 applicants fo rone job paying $11,000 or $12,000." Chustek was quite cheerful, since he already had a job, coordinator of MLA's Job Information Service.
However, many of the others wandering around the Americana hotel were not so cheerful. Many of them were reading the walls, which is just one step removed from climbing them. There were jobs on the walls. The walls said for instance that the University of Manitoba is seeking teachers of Ukrainian language and literature; that Princeton has a vacancy in modern Japanese lit.; that Riyadh U. in Saudi Arabia needs English teachers. Also, the CIA wants people who can monitor foreign publications. The walls have ears.
These particular jobs held no appeal for George Camamis, who is a Cervantes specialist from Queens. He had sent out about 45 resumes before the convention and got back three invitations for interviews. This was redundant, because due to his work he already appreciated the meaning of the word quixotic.
Camamis of course has a PhD and also five years of part-time and substitute college teaching in the state university system here. He had brought with him an issue of American Hispanist magazine containing his article on Cervantes. And he had brought his problem -- which is that he's considered overqualified and also overaged, at 48, for the junior position of assistant professor he's looking for.
The day before, though, he had run into good luck. The interviewer from Kenyon College in Ohio turned out to be an old classmate. He said that he had 80 applicants for the job and that 40 of them clearly were qualified. But Camamis thought that the interview went well and he was encourged.
Now he was back in the foreign language interview room quietly waiting for the inquisitor from Occidental College in Los Angeles to appear at her numbered table. There were other PhDs scattered around the perimeter of the room, poised to spring when their opporiunity came. "I've been waiting an hour," he said. "I called her room and she isn't there."
He said that he will take anything he can get, anywhere.
This is not exactly a horror story, but there are some being told around the convention hotels. Roy Chustek heard a good one. It was about a guy specializing in Renaissance drama having to sell his blood for a living.
The modern language most frequently heard around the MLA convention is academese, although it sometimes borrows from the ancient languages. "Want to leave a vita?" one MLA administrator said to a resumeholder who seemed unoffended by the unmodern usage.
Then there was John Russell, a Germanist searching for a Slavicist. Russell is chairman of Germanic and Slavic languages at the State University at Stony Brook, out on Long Island. He was interviewing. Or at least he was looking to interview, sitting at table No. 58 waiting for someone to talk Polish at him. They have a Polish exchange program at Stony Brook so they need such people. "Everyone knows Russian," said Russell. Even with this exotic need Russell's ad in the MLA's publication in October drew 46 responses. "It's certainly a buyer's market," he said. "It can get surrealistic trying to choose between so many highly qualified people."
Russell indentified himself professionally as "essentially a Germanist... I spent a year in Poland so I can survive in Polish." But what are German and Slavic doing in the same department? "Administrative convenience," he said.
Not everyone accepts the conventional wisdom here. A guy from California who was caught reading the wall said that he didn't believe the job situation is as dire as it is made out to be. He took a positive outlook. "Most of the people in my field are getting jobs," he said. He just got his PhD in Spanish literature from the University of California. "I don't want to be discouraged before I even try. One interviewer told me that with the job situation the way it is, I hope you apply for other positions." The guy from California is suspicious. He figures the interviewers are trying to condition people to accept lower salaries.
The guy was also peeved at the MLA. He said that he had to borrow the $600 to come here from California to look for a job in his chosen field and this was annoying. So was the non-member registration fee. "It's a racket for the MLA," he said. "Everybody who comes here begging for a job pays $40, and to stay in one of these hotels costs $30 a day."
The guy from Califonia didn't want to give his name because you never can tell whether you're going to be quoted right and anyway, somebody with a job to give might take umbrage at his remarks. Though insisting that the situation is far from hopeless, the California guy did assure me that it he does fail to land a job after all the trouble and expense of acquiring his degree, he intends to become embittered.
Some of his colleagues have already become so embittered that they've quit trying. According to Roy Chustek, the job coordinator, the number of requests for the MLA's job list went down by 600 people this year. "We assume people are giving up," he said. "This is first year that's really happened."
Also, for the first time, the association invited to its convention hirers who are not academic -- people from business, publishing and jounalism. "We have to assume that supply and demand will catch up," said Chustek, "and people will wise up and drop out."