You are right that $220 for non-member registration is a low conference fee. The fee is even less for MLA members.
But the convention fee is not the point of my post.
Instead, I suggest that both the MLA and MLA non-members might benefit from more openness and clarity about the content of the upcoming convention Jan. 6-9. Access to information, not fees, is at issue here.
I registered as a nonmember with the MLA site, but was not given access to the schedule chronologically, as it appears in PMLA. Instead, I was offered three ways to search: by Participant, Subject, and Meeting Type.
If I happen to know exactly what I’m looking for (e.g., a talk by a particular person), then the search options function.
But if I’m browsing and want to control my own progress through the panel information, I’m out of luck. The user interface is unnecessarily fragmented. For example, I found session #331: “The Open Professoriat: Public Intellectuals and the Social Web” by wading through 261 “Special Sessions.” If I hadn’t known of its existence from the Digital Humanities sessions posted on Mark Sample’s “SampleReality” blog, I doubt I would have found it on the MLA site.
“The Open Professoriat” certainly seems like it ought to be open to the public, but neither the session description nor general information on the MLA site indicate whether non-registered guests might attend. I’m inclined to think “The Open Professoriat” is CLOSED to the public.
Walling off content is a sure way to limit its influence.
On Sat. Jan. 8, David Parry will present “Be Online or Be Irrelevant” (at 606: Methods of Research in New Media). The subhead on Mark Sample’s SampleReality blog says: “Own your ideas. Make them free.” Cory Doctorow, the fiction writer, Boing Boing co-founder, and net neutrality activist, gives away large chunks of his intellectual capital and has found that free access to his ideas spreads them and, counterintuitively, earns him a tidy living.
What might happen if MLA convention information were published in the open, not behind firewalls?
The MLA might find a population of unaffiliated experts who collectively possess a vast, diverse range of opinion and skill.
It’s a little more than 10 years since I filed my dissertation in English with UC Berkeley. In that last decade, I’ve seen some friends from my cohort (and from similar departments) scatter into fields far from the Ph.D. training we engaged in during the 90s. I haven’t done a survey, but I would guess that about 50% of my cohort got jobs in the field (defined broadly to include jobs like mine, an NTT composition position). The other 50% are working in digital media and advertising, selling products in small storefronts, attending rabbinical school, working as college admins, writing commercial books, making commercial videos, staying at home with kids, teaching adjunct, founding independent theaters, directing plays, teaching K-12, and the like.
These are people Ph.D.s and ABDs who may well have interesting things to contribute to the MLA, but who lack the information to even know what’s happening in the field, let alone judge whether they’d wish to participate.
The MLA doesn’t have to permit everybody to attend its conference. It’s a professional organization with specific work in the field to be done. But opening its information–starting with a clearer, more transparent website–could only vitalize the MLA.