Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Mystery at the MLA by Cynthia Kuhn

LUCY BURDETTE: Having been a student for a large part of my life (and still continuing to be, as you saw yesterday), I love reading about the inside scoop in academics. In fact, I have a book set in a psychology department that I hope to resuscitate and finish one day. So it's with great pleasure that I introduce Cynthia Kuhn--you can tell she's the real deal! Welcome Cynthia!

CYNTHIA KUHNEver since the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series has emerged, I’ve found myself having conversations that go a little something like this.

Person: What do you write?
Me: Academic mysteries.
Person: Oh! That’s nice. (long pause) And what is that?

I usually just say, “It’s a mystery set at a school.” But that’s not always the case.

One of my favorite academic mysteries takes place at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, which is the governing body for literature and language studies. Murder at the MLA was published under the pseudonym “D.J.H. Jones”—presumably to protect the author as they satirized the experience of attending the conference, as well as the experience of being in academia. (Through the magic of the internet, you can readily find their identity, but I’m not going to reveal it.) And every time I revisit the book, I re-live what it’s like to attend MLA.

MLA is sort of like Comic Con for academics. There’s not so much Pop Culture Celebrities, but there are Very Important Scholars as far as the eye can see. No cosplay, but there’s tweed. Now, I don’t tend to encounter much tweed on campus, but the last time I went to MLA, it was as though all of the remaining tweed in the world had been drawn together into a fabric sea that steadily engulfed the conference hotel. True story.

Then there’s the Nametag Check. Attendees are constantly scanning each other’s conference badges for name and school
information—it’s practically involuntary. And it’s completely understandable that people feel the need to cut to the chase and know who they’re dealing with. It may be someone on your panel. It may be the editor of the journal where you hope to place an article. It may be the person who might hire you. It may be the Famous Scholar whose work changed the way you see the world. (Speaking of Famous Scholars, you must be on guard against blurting out, as I once did upon meeting one, “I just quoted you in my paper.” Because they might say, as my listener did, “What part, exactly?” Word to the wise.)

While conference-goers are attending panels and parties, and the academic societies are meeting to celebrate their research crushes, something else is taking place: all around the conference hotel, hopeful candidates in search of tenure-track positions are facing hiring panels. This is, without question, a nerve-wracking experience. Murder at the MLA describes certain interview techniques as follows:

“. . . what they’ll do is, they’ll wait until you’re sitting down, probably on the sofa, some place that’s not an easy place to get up from. Then one of them will smile and ask you if you’d like to help yourself to coffee or tea.
Even if you don’t really want any, . . . there’s something about the way it’s offered that is an order, really. . . . They know you’re nervous. They want to see how you handle that nervousness, physically.
It’s all about details . . . Can you pour your coffee without spilling any? Will you have the nerve to take sugar and cream? Did your spoon make a scraping sound? And see, there’s no table here at the sofa. They don’t want you to have a table. They want to see how you’re going to sit down with that cup and how you’re going to hold it.” (Jones 79-80)

Whether or not this is a truthful scenario (one hears rumors, after all), it is certainly not unimaginable. Which is some of the pleasure offered by academic mysteries in the first place.

The lovely thing about MLA is that whether you are applying for your dream job, giving a paper, or simply wanting to keep up with the disciplinary buzz, there are myriad opportunities to discuss highly specialized topics you care about with others who care as much as you do. That is pretty spectacular.

So: academic conferences, particularly MLA, can be fabulous. They can be terrifying. They can also be some blend of fabulous and terrifying. What a wonderful place for a mystery to be set! If you’ve already attended the conference—or if you’d like to experience it vicariously through fiction—then Murder at the MLA is for you.

And yes, I have plans to send Lila to an academic conference someday. How could I not?


Works Cited
Jones, D.J.H. Murder at the MLA. U of New Mexico P, 1993.


What kind of experiences have you had at conferences or other professional gatherings? What are your favorite aspects?


Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, which includes The Semester of Our Discontent and The Art of Vanishing. She teaches in Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.

42 comments:

  1. Cynthia, your book sounds delightful! Although I’ve never attended an MLA conference, I’ve discovered that each type of conference has its own style, its own set of expectations and participant behaviors. I’ve been to teachers’ conferences and I’ve helped put the program together for aerospace education conferences. Both were good experiences, but being a presenter for a session is definitely a nerve-wracking experience . . . .

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    1. Hi Joan: Agree completely regarding different vibes at different conferences AND presentation anxiety! Excellent points.

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  2. What a coincidence. I just finished Semester of Our Discontent last week! Really good book.

    I've only ever attended mystery conventions, and as a fan, so it's not really the same as a professional conference. Definitely sounds like that could be a challenge.

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    1. Mark--thank you for reading (and for the kind words)! Mystery conferences are so terrific, aren't they? Love the panels and I learn a lot, every time.

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  3. Cynthia, congratulations on the release of the Art of Vanishing!

    I had spent most of my 25 year career in the Canadian federal government as a climate change researcher before retiring last year. I was lucky to attend both scientific conferences and professional association conferences in North America and Europe/Asia almost every year. Usually, I did oral presentations (or poster presentations) to my peers, or moderated a panel session. It was never as nerve-wracking as the experiences you mention above! I enjoyed it immensely!

    Attending mystery conventions are kind of similar in format...parallel one hour sessions on a certain theme, jumping from session to session to see a paper (presenter/author).

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    1. Thank you, Grace! Your work sounds wonderful (congratulations on retirement too). Presenting can be so energizing...hope you received lots of positive feedback every time. :)

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  4. As a person holding a long-dusty PhD in linguistics, I can relate to this post! (And I wonder how many times the following will be googled today: DJH Jones pseudonym?) The LSA (Linguistics Society of America) used to, maybe still does, hold their annual conference adjacent on the calendar to the MLA, and perhaps in the same place, because there was so much overlap for some attendees. I attended many times, as well as other academic conferences (Romance Languages, Acoustical Society of America, Berkeley Linguistics Society, and so on).

    I clearly remember the first time I had to, as a grad student, deliver a paper at one. I was not so comfortable with public speaking then as I am now and was frankly terrified. A good friend standing with me at the back of the hall beforehand said, "Don't forget to breathe." Oh. This turned out to be brilliant and much-needed advice I have carried with me into many daunting experiences since, and of course have put into a book, too. Looking forward to reading The Art of Vanishing - I loved Semester of Our Discontent. But you and Lucy should have mentioned that it's BRAND NEW - came out two weeks ago!

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    1. You're an experienced attendee, wow! And that is great advice, Edith--simple but absolutely wise. Those nerves right before presenting can be so powerful!!

      Thanks very much for the kind words about the books.

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  5. I have a dusty Ph.D too Edith, only in clinical psychology. I'll never forget the first big panel I did as a student. It was my idea for five of us to give short papers on our own family pathology. (I know, what were we thinking!!) And the room was packed--people crammed into every corner and standing at the back. Gosh if that's not a great scene for a murder mystery...

    Cynthia, tell us more about your brand new book, THE ART OF VANISHING (great title!)

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    1. Lucy/Roberta, that is perfect set up! How did that paper go? I bet the panel was a smashing success.

      The new book follows Lila as she confronts more mysterious things...focusing especially on a famous (cantankerous) author who is supposed to be headline the university's Arts Week.

      Thanks so much for hosting today. (And I'm sorry my comments say an url instead of name--after the first one, I can't seem to change it.)

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  6. Sooo familiar--different discipline, same kinds of things happening. One of my most vivid memories--moderating a session of papers on research results from the analysis of archaeological materials recovered from a looted mound. The looters were being prosecuted under federal law. The BIG EXPERTS were clamoring because they hadn't been given the materials. So, in march BIG EXPERTS to the front row chairs, arms crossed, determined looks of concern on their faces. Followed by big let-down when researchers calmly presented results of analyses, without over-reaching (lacking detailed contexts, all you could do was describe--thoroughly--the materials themselves--hundreds of grizzly bear canines, sheets of mica, hundreds and hundreds of leaf-shaped flint tools, crystal and obsidian tools, actual bits of leather and fabric--and this huge landform had never been identified a prehistoric mound. Deflated and embarrassed BIG EXPERTS at end of session.

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    1. Oh my goodness, Flora! That would make a great scene. So much wonderful tension. Thank you for the comment.

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  7. I ran screaming (figuratively) from academia upon completion of my master's degree, and my professional conferences were mainly in the banking industry. The biggest thing I remember was my naive surprise at being hit on. I mean, there were many positive professional networking experiences, but definitely a few cases where a male colleague clearly had a different kind of "networking" on his mind.

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    1. excellent background for murder motives Susan!

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    2. Susan, that is something else, isn't it? And what Lucy says--a motive indeed. :)

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  8. Love your books, Cynthia! And such a funny situation when a group of intense and focused anyones get together. The Investigative Reporters and Editors Convention is fabulous--to me, at least. But it is a mob of type As all of whom are clamoring to be better better better and know more. One of my favorite memories--our speaker was Robert Caro. After his seminar, we all gathered around to ask him about his techniques for keeping on organized filing system. We were riveted!

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    1. Bless you, Hank! Thank you for the kind words.

      "As all of whom are clamoring to be better better better and know more." Sigh. Can see it.

      And oh, how I love that story about the organized filing expertise. I would have bought a ticket to hear those techniques! :)

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  9. And oh, I forgot! My short story in Murder Most Conventional (in which all stories had to include something about a convention) is about a Nancy Drew convention where everyone is dressed like Nancy Drew. Including the detective, the killer and the corpse. (Cop: Ma'am, Do you have a description of the fleeing suspect?") .
    Let me go find a link for you.

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    1. Hank, I absolutely loved this story. There was so much about it that made me chuckle.

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  10. Here it is! http://hankphillippiryan.com/pdfs/The-Clue-In-the-Blue-Booth-Hank-Phillippi-Ryan.pdf

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    1. Hank, I loved this story.

      Mary/Liz

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    2. I loved the story too, Hank! As soon as I read your description, I had to read. (Nancy/Nancies AND Ned!) Thanks for the link...

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  11. I've only been to Army Family Support conferences (where we learned how to present information to the families of deploying/returning soldiers to help them with the process) and mystery conferences. But I can only imagine the pressure of trying to present or nail that dream job!

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Mary, those conferences you attended sound wonderful!

      And yes, I agree that the dream-job aspect does intensify things a great deal.

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  12. We used to do annual conferences at the DDJ. We'd bring all the international staff to HQ for a week and I got to spend the week listening to people whine about how "my" numbers didn't work for them. And then I got to spend the week explaining back that they weren't "my" numbers, they were math's numbers and it wasn't my fault if they didn't like them. Math was math and it was going to do what it was going to do.

    Now, I just do writing/book conferences and it's fun and I get to see people I love and no one yells at me because they don't understand how books work. I enjoy these a lot more.

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    1. Aimee, that sounds like SUCH an experience. ("and then I got to spend the week explaining back that they weren't "my" numbers, they were math's numbers and it wasn't my fault if they didn't like them" = HA HA!) So glad that your new conferences are more peaceful and fun. :)

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  13. Cynthia, I love academic mysteries! And I love your cover! Do tell us more about the new book.

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    1. Hi Deborah: Thank you! The book focuses Lila's attempts to solve a mystery involving a famous author who is scheduled to headline "Arts Week" at her university--his disappearance throws everything into chaos and kicks off a string of other unfortunate events...

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  14. Congrats on the new book, Cynthia! You mentioned the pleasure of discussing "highly specialized topics you care about with others who care as much as you do." I'm curious what some of those topics were. I'm always fascinated by the highly specialized areas of study that people undertake, probably because I can't imagine having that level of focus!

    Mystery conferences are great; not only because you get to meet readers, but you get to catch up with fellow writers/friends who you only tend to see once a year. I just got back from the Tucson Festival of Books, and I highly recommend it to any book lover. Authors from all genres participate, the panels are great, there's lots of entertainment, and the sun! I actually saw the sun!

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    1. Hi Ingrid, thank you! And oh, the topics range so widely. Here's a link to the special sessions from the most recent conference--so interesting! https://apps.mla.org/conv_listings_type?type=S&year=2016

      I agree with you about mystery conferences. The Festival sounds amazing!

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  15. Cynthia, I'm a fan of academic mysteries, and your series is on my series catch-up list. I need to jump in before you've written any more books in it. I love your covers, too, with the subtle differences. Congratulations on The Semester of Our Discontent being an Agatha nominee for first novel, and I need to remember it's eligible for the Anthony in the same category. Looks like I'll be taking it on vacation with me next week to read and review.

    I've been to a couple of ALA (American Library Association) conferences, which are wonderful because, well, librarians. I got to hear some great talks by reading and literacy experts at these. Of course, Bouchercon is the conference that I dearly love in the mystery community, and I can't wait to attend the next one.

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    1. Thank you very much, Kathy! And I hope you enjoy the reading. :)

      The ALA conference has been on my bucket list--someday, maybe. Glad you had great experiences there. And Bouchercon is so terrific. Cannot say enough good things about that one!

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  16. "Now, I don’t tend to encounter much tweed on campus, but the last time I went to MLA, it was as though all of the remaining tweed in the world had been drawn together into a fabric sea that steadily engulfed the conference hotel. True story."
    Perfectly crafted line!
    Libby Dodd

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    1. :) Thank you, Libby!

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  17. Back when I was a practicing CPA I was required to earn so many hours of CPE a year. What a pain. I would go to conferences in the area, mainly about new tax law. The speakers were almost always boring as can be. After one particularly excruciating session about retirement I was sitting at a table, eating my lunch with a bunch of men. One man was gassing on about how to handle retirement, funding, etc. I killed the conversation when I told him my husband's solution. "Take me out in the woods with a gun and leave me."

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    1. Oh my gosh, Pat! I can't imagine what their faces looked like... ;)

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  18. Congratulations on the new book, Cynthia. I can't wait to catch up with Lila again. Sending her to MLA sounds, well, cruel! I can definitely imagine a murder taking place at the conference. Miss Manners does academia? The most fun I had at a conference was working for a jewelry company. I worked for the sales manager and my job was to go to all the conferences, transport the line, and ride herd on the salemen (they were all male) who were like a bunch of over-sexed high school seniors let out for their first mixer. Seriously hysterical events occurred, bail had to be made on occasion (by me, not for me) and no one would believe the stories if written, but they WERE fun.

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    1. Thanks so much, Kait! Wow, your conference experiences sound Animal-House-esque. And bail? BAIL? Maybe your next book could go in a new direction...

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  19. I was never much tempted by academia, but I think your books sound like great fun, Cynthia. These days I sometimes go with the band to music conferences, like the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) in San Jose, CA, a couple of years ago. I don't play, but I do ride herd on the musicians, the crew, and all their assorted instruments and gear. On the WASBE trip we had to a) get three overweight trunks full of weird (i.e. not easy to replace) percussion equipment from Dallas to San Jose and back again, b) coordinate two "Live at 35,000 feet" in-air performances for Southwest Airlines, c) find a source of insulin for a diabetic musician who had forgotten to pack his, when the local CVS was out, and d) ferry a musician who was having trouble walking to the performance hall and back. (Only when we got home did he tell me he had blood clots in his legs, and should never have flown at all. If he'd died on my watch I would have had to resurrect him so I could kill him myself.) Oh, and let's not forget babysitting the harpist's newborn! During a brief break between rehearsal and performance I dashed up to my room, sharing the elevator with a nice Japanese lady. I asked her if she was here with a band, which she was. I told her I was too, and that we performed that night. "I know," she said with the smile of a true, star-struck fan. Turned out they had come a day early just so they could hear us play. It was so weird to have to make that leap from my frazzled "this turkey better hold together or I'm gonna have to thump somebody" mindset to being the star of the show.

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  20. Oh, Gigi, that must have been a lovely moment after all of the trials and tribulations!! Thanks for sharing that story.

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  21. Thank you SO much, Reds, for letting me visit today! And thanks to everyone who stopped by. This has been very fun. Best wishes to all! <3

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