Surviving and Thriving at the MLA Convention

If you’ve never attended the MLA convention before, or if you haven’t been to it for a few years, you might be wondering what to expect. Because of its size and the range of professional activities that occur there, the MLA convention is very different from most other academic conferences. Here are a few suggestions drawn from my experience and that of my fellow contributors at ProfHacker that can help you make the most of your time at the convention.

What to Bring

  • Your convention badge, which you should receive via postal mail a couple of weeks before the convention. If you forget or lose your badge, you will need to pay a $15.00 fee for a replacement. Once you arrive at the convention, there will be badge holders available at the registration tables and welcome centers. You need to wear your badge in order to attend most sessions and the book exhibit.
  • Shoes/boots/hat/umbrella, etc., for bad weather. Some hotels will have a check room if you want to check your coat or a bag with muddy shoes, etc. The Convention Daily list of updates (available at the welcome center in the Pennsylvania Convention Center) will provide information about coat check locations and fees.
  • Portable snacks. The convention schedule is really full and sometimes so are the cafés and restaurants near the main hotels. Having an energy bar, nuts, or dried fruit in your bag can be a useful resource, especially if you’re nervous or hurried.
  • In Getting Ready for Conferences, Mark Sample reminds us to consider various aspects of what we need to pack and bring for a conference.

Navigating the Convention

  • There are eighteen MLA hotels, often at some distance from each other. Wear comfortable walking shoes. The Convention Guide (available as PDF or print brochure) includes a map with all of the conference hotels.
  • The elevators, particularly in the main venues where sessions are held, are often slow due to the large numbers of attendees. Plan extra time to get to an interview or session.
  • If you will be interviewing while at the convention, you will probably be told you will either “look us up at the Job Information Center” or “we are in Dr. John Doe’s room at the Hotel X.” Since room numbers are not assigned until a person checks in, you will need to obtain room numbers on site. Keep in mind that hotel operators cannot give out room numbers. One way to find the room number is to visit the Job Information Center at the Pennsylvania Convention Center (204, level 2). Here, MLA staff members will have room numbers for many departments that are conducting interviews in a hotel room and table numbers for all departments that are conducting interviews in the Job Center’s interview area.
  • Not all schools use the Job Information Center, so don’t rely on it if you haven’t been told to check there. In such a case, before your interview, you need to call the front desk of that hotel to be connected to the room of your contact person. When s/he answers, identify yourself and ask for the room number. (Most hotels have house phones available in the lobby that you can use for this purpose.) A flyer with additional information, including telephone numbers for all convention hotels, will be available at MLA convention registration desks and in the Job Center.

Attending and Presenting at Sessions

  • Before you arrive at the convention, take some time to browse through the convention program, available in a print form (as an issue of PMLA), online, and as a mobile app, and choose a few sessions in advance that you want to attend. Note down the session number, venue, and room number.
  • Convention sessions are typically held in two main venues. Sessions now include a variety of formats, such as roundtables and poster sessions, as well as conventional three-speaker panels.
  • Try to arrive a few minutes early, as some sessions fill up quickly.
  • Brian Croxall’s suggestions on Attending A Conference Productively include advice about preparing your presentation, being a responsible copanelist, and how to introduce yourself to people you meet.
  • Erin Templeton’s post How to Deliver an Effective Conference Paper offers excellent tips for preparing your reading copy and practicing your delivery.
  • If you’re presenting or moderating a panel, I suggested some Best Practices for Timekeeping at Conference Panels.

Connecting with People

  • There are lots of opportunities at the MLA convention to meet people who share your interests. Because there will be thousands of people attending the convention, whatever steps you can take to connect with people before you arrive will make it easier when you’re there. That might mean arranging to meet a friend for lunch or dinner on a certain day; e-mailing someone who’s giving a talk on a topic related to your own work to say you’re looking forward to that session; or joining in the preconference conversation on Twitter (follow hashtag #MLA17).
  • If you feel a bit nervous or socially awkward, just remember that many of the other people attending MLA feel exactly the same way. Being the first person to say something can be an act of social generosity.
  • If you’re a graduate student, be sure to check out the list of panels and gatherings of interest to graduate students.
  • As Brian puts it, “Plan meals or coffee breaks with the interesting people that you know you want to catch up with so you make sure that it will happen” while also leaving space in your schedule for serendipity. You never know who you’ll run into in a crowded hotel lobby.


  • Pace yourself. Don’t try to attend every panel session in a given day. It’s OK (recommended, even!) to go out for a walk or back to your room for some quiet time.
  • Take care of your body: fit in some exercise, a bath, or a nap. (Or the self-care trifecta of all three!) Research some dining options online before you arrive so that you’ll know where to go when you walk out of your hotel for dinner. Heather Whitney offers A Few Strategies for Eating Well at Conferences.
  • Drink more water. Dry winter air and overheated hotel rooms can rapidly dehydrate you, leading to headaches and mental fatigue.
  • Do whatever will make you feel relaxed: if that’s going out with your grad school pals or sitting in your hotel room watching TV, then do it.

For all kinds of reasons, there’s nothing quite like the MLA convention. Plan a little before you arrive, get involved, and enjoy yourself!


Julie Meloni

Super roundup of great advice. I’d like to put a plug in for acts of social generosity specifically toward all the people freaking out inside about their upcoming interviews. They’re easy to spot, if you know what to look for (or remember how you felt, yourself).

Even if you’re typically the most nervous or awkward person on the planet (which you probably aren’t), and you’re not interviewing? Say you’re just sitting in a hotel lobby or at a coffee bar or a bar bar and you see someone all pasty or sweaty and going over their notes and CV or all those other things even I have seen so many times at the Convention?

Catch their eye. Smile. Smile knowingly, even. Say “Good luck”. Be kind.

Brian Croxall

Great advice, Natalie and a big +1 to Julie’s recommendation to practice social generosity. It’s not something I’ve done before, but I’ll do my best this time around!


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