Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mastering the MLA labyrinth

After a full day of sitting and more sitting, I relish the opportunity to do some walking today in San Francisco, but it's not easy. I walked over to the Hilton this morning for a few sessions and I kept trying to take the stairs instead of those horrible MLA elevators, but the hotel is a labyrinth: stairs go to this floor but not that one, dumping me in odd corners far from comforting MLA signage.

Conference hotels, I am convinced, are designed to disorient the visitor, keep us trapped in a labyrinth that leads inexorably back toward the gift shop and the restaurants. I counted 27 people standing in line at the Starbuck's in the Hilton's lobby this morning, and the line kept growing while I walked past. Visible just across the street is a local coffee shop with no lines whatsoever, but to get there, you'd have to find your way out of the labyrinth.

I fought my way out this morning at 6 a.m. (because my body thinks it's still in Ohio) and walked down Market Street to the Embarcadero and back, accompanied only by the snap-crackle-pop of the streetcars, the snoring of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, and the occasional frantic flutter of a flock of pigeons. Walking on hard pavement is jarring to feet accustomed to gravel roads and mud, but on the other hand, I found plenty of interesting things to see. Store windows sparkle with dresses I can't imagine wearing, though it doesn't hurt to look; I've been lusting after a pair of boots on display in a store window a block from my hotel, and one of these days I'll go in and try 'em on, even though they look a little beyond an English professor's budget.

Down in the Financial District I walked past the Federal Reserve building, which looks the way a bank ought to look--as if it would be the last building standing after the rest of the city is reduced to rubble. Massive columns and acres of marble rise imposingly into the sky, and the street level is surrounded by large protective planters strong enough to repel the advances of a truck bomb but still capable of sustaining life in the form of azaleas, impatiens, and ornamental ficus.

This combination of power and vulnerability keeps cropping up in the sessions I've attended, most of them focusing on pedagogy. Everyone agrees that pedagogy in the humanities is in a vulnerable state, and everyone keeps trying to articulate reasons that the humanities are powerful and important and essential to human life as we know it, but it's a difficult proposition. Humanities pedagogy is powerful and must be protected--but if what we do is so powerful, why can't it protect itself?

And how can we protect something we don't know how to pronounce? In the three pedagogy sessions I attended this morning, there was no consensus on whether pedagogy ought to be pronounced with a long o or a short one. One scholar pronounced it two different ways in the same paper. There may be a way out of this labyrinth, but the signs are ambiguous, the stairways are hiding, and no one knows how to pronounce the words.

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sexy said...
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