Wednesday, December 30th, 2009...10:26 am

Blogging MLA: Day Four

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The last day of MLA’s annual convention. The conference has appeared in local and national news media, as always at this time of year, though this year the headlines have seemed less preoccupied with presenters’ clever or controversial paper titles and more on the deleterious effects of the grim economy and the challenges of digital media.

Last night the panel that I organized, “Translation and Medicine” (which I originally called “Translational Medicine” until conference organizers prevailed upon me to change it) went well. We were exiled to the gulag of the conference: the last session time slot on the last night of the meeting. However, we had about a dozen and a half audience members. Rishi Goyal, MD, (“The Widening Gyre: Transcription and Translation in the Medical Sciences”) offered a rhetorical analysis of the tropes of codes, language, semiotics, reading, and writing that have been used in medical science over the past half century. Anne Bavier, PhD, RN (“Nursing: In a Language They Can Understand”) provided a historical analysis of the ways in which the nursing profession, nursing education, and nursing science have entailed a variety of forms of translation. Finally, Elizabeth Lee, PhD, RN, (“Challenges of Translation in Instrument Development”) described her research translating the Beck Postpartum Depression Screening Scale into Chinese.

The art and science of health care are fundamentally semiotic and hermeneutic activities. The healthcare practitioner reads the body’s signs, attends to and interprets the patient’s narrative of symptoms, and interprets visual representations via imaging technologies or quantitative data from empirical tests. In a reading of Plato, Hans-Georg Gadamer in The Enigma of Health notes the congruence between rhetoric and health care: “Just as the apparently specific tasks of rhetoric must be integrated into the whole philosophical way of life, so too something similar is the case with all those means of treatment which medicine applies to the human body in the hope of restoring its health.”

And as the philosopher of science and the formulator of the concepts of “paradigm shifts” and “scientific revolution,” Thomas S. Kuhn, observed in his essay “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice,” even the supposedly common language of science entails interpretation: “Proponents of different theories are . . . like native speakers of different languages. Communication between them goes on by translation, and it raises all translation’s familiar difficulties.”

Afterward, I attended the reception hosted by Rosemary Feal, MLA’s executive director, held on the 31st floor of the Loews Hotel with spectacular views of the city. Hardly knew anyone there, but wandered around a bit to take in the vistas until I decided to stand with my cranberry juice (I avoid alcohol later in the evening) by the elevator. Standing in one place looking amused, serene, and mildly enigmatic is effective at parties where you don’t know anyone. In short order, Richard Kopley (Penn State), whom I’d seen and chatted with briefly the first day, stopped to chat and we ended up in a lengthy conversation. I first met Richard, who is co-editor of Resources for American Literary Study, several years ago at MLA when he complimented a paper that I’d presented to the Emily Dickinson Society on nineteenth-century verse manuscripts in friendship albums and manuscript anthologies. A scholar in the American Renaissance with a focus on Poet, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville, Richard exemplifies some of what is best about our profession: passion for his work, curiosity, willingness to encourage and promote the work of others. He has had a particularly productive year, after which he is looking forward to some new and very different creative endeavors.

Later this afternoon I will present my position paper (“In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge”) at the final CELJ panel, “Ranks, Brands, and Editorial Process.”


  • Glad you enjoyed my party and made a good connection! Networking at its best! Also, I really hope you’ll publish some comments on our online program We’re hoping it will become an archive for all.

  • Thanks for your comment, Rosemary. I’ve already posted comments on two CELJ sessions. The panel that I organized, Translation and Medicine, went very well.

  • When I was just entering the profession, I hated the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). I thought that it featured “lots of nobodies talking about nothing,” as per Oscar Wilde’s observation about London society in the 1890s. Now, as a tenured old fart, I enjoy it immensely, interviewing job seekers and even giving a paper or comment or two here and there. Like you (at the MLA), I have become one of those “nobodies talking about nothing,” usually (these days) on my own dime.

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