Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Chronicle: 12/19/2003: Signifyin' at the MLA

Signifyin' at the MLA


Each December, several thousand literature professors pry themselves away from the comforts of home and flock to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, held during the final week of the calendar year. It is a winter tradition -- not as ancient as Hanukkah or Christmas, but older, at least, than Festivus.

Reporters from the local press attend, then publish articles that invariably cite two or three outrageous titles of scholarly papers presented at the meeting. Researchers believe that custom began in 1989, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick read her legendary (not to say seminal) paper "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" -- a title mentioned in The New York Times and cited with horror by neoconservatives ever since. Indeed, some theorists maintain that those attending the conference now sometimes give their papers titles designed to win such notice (or at least to hook an audience).

Thus we are pleased to announce the winners of The Chronicle's First Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative MLA Paper Titles (also known as the Provokies). All selections are cited as listed in the program for the 119th MLA Annual Convention, to be held this month in San Diego. (In other words, no paper titles were made up.)


The use of parentheses and slashes to create unpronounceable puns has fallen off considerably since the mid-1990s, when convention bylaws required every panel to include at least one paper referring to "the (m)other tongue," "hetero/textuality," or "derr(ier)(i/e)da." That tradition continues in a decidedly lackluster vein with this year's session on "Schopenhauer's Corps(e): The Body and the Canon."

Times are changing. And so the Award for Transgressive Punctuation honors Yvonne K. Atkinson of California State University at San Bernardino for the daring and innovative use of multiple apostrophes in her paper "If I'm Lyin' I'm Flyin' and I Ain't Seen a Bird All Day: Signifyin' Theories."

Honorable mention goes to the panel "'She Must Be Raggin'!': Children's Literature and Menstruation."


Criteria for the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness incited heated debate among the judges.

Some held that the award should go to a title reflecting scholarship that keeps up with recent cable-television listings. They nominated the paper "Taking Away the Threat: Cribs and The Osbournes as Narratives of Domestication," by David S. Escoffery and Michelle Sullivan, of Southwest Missouri State University and the University of Pittsburgh's main campus, respectively.

Others contended that the winner should be "très 1990s," just like Mr. Ross's own bad self. They argued strenuously for "Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (but I Owe My Job to k.d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies," by Kim L. Emery of the University of Florida.

Following tense e-mail exchanges, the judges awarded the prize to Amy Abugo Ongiri of the University of California at Riverside for her paper "Jethro, Mama, Sassie Sue, and the Midnight Plowboy: Hillbillies, 'Common Sense,' Urbanity, and Blaxploitation Film" -- on the grounds that the title was so achingly hip that nobody had any idea what it meant.


No such dispute attended the Award for Best Slavoj Zizek Knockoff, which went by acclaim to "'Dude, Where's My Reliable Symbolic Order?': Gross-Out Comedies and the Rewriting of the Expressible," by Luther Riedel of Mohawk Valley Community College, in New York.

Likewise, the judges quickly reached consensus on Most Provocative Panel Title: "Apertures and Orifices in Chaucer." As luck would have it, Most Provocative Paper Title went to a presentation to be delivered during that same session: "'The Entree Was Long and Streit, and Gastly for to See': Visual and Verbal Penetration in the Knight's Tale," by Disa Gambera of the University of Utah.

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Section: Short Subjects
Volume 50, Issue 17, Page A6

Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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