Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

50 Shades of MLA: The Scholar Who Sought Role Play on Craigslist Is Really Sorry

Full 01092014 craigslist

Is it the freshly-published monographs on display? The thrill of building the perfect panel schedule? The sheer abundance of tweed? Hard to say, but it’s been established that there’s something about academic conferences that makes scholars want to engage in a little higher-ed hanky-panky.

This year, though, the sexy side of the Modern Language Association’s annual convention was, er, thrust into the spotlight when a professor took to Craigslist to solicit a partner for an elaborate “MLA mock-interview make-out session.”

“MLA interviews, fraught with tension, can also be thick with eroticism,” he writes. “As a veteran of many (and a current job candidate), I'd like to indulge in a little stress-relief fantasy role-play at this year's conference.I propose to play interviewee to your interviewer.”

The author, who identifies himself as a 37-year-old assistant professor, then helpfully goes on to detail exactly how this scenario should play out. (Yes, his tenure status was noted. Because if you’re looking on Craigslist for a booty call, you’ll want someone with job security.)

More on the MLA: A Brief History of MLA Anger | 4 Scholars to Watch | Kill the Conference Interview!

“I will arrive at your MLA hotel room, in my interview suit, ready to discuss my research, my place in my field, my theoretical approaches, my teaching methods, etc.,” he writes. “You ask me the appropriate questions and listen, interrupt, challenge, acting as a typical faculty member of a hiring committee. You explain that your colleagues are respectively ill in bed and unable to attend because of personal obligations, but, yes, you are authorized to advance my candidacy.”

That said, he’s also open to “flipping the script” and letting the woman play the job applicant. Either way, one can assume where the interview heads next. (I’ll give you a hint—He probably won’t ask about her Fulbright scholarship).

The “casual encounter” posting—which wasn’t the only one of its kind, just the most complex—went viral. The academic Twittersphere was buzzing about it, and it caught the attention of Jezebel.

Obviously, it piqued our interest, too. So we asked the question that seemed to be on everyone’s minds: Is this a parody, or a legitimate request for companionship? Lucky for us, the author agreed to chat via email. As it turns out, he was serious.

The author, a successful guy who works at a research university, has had a few flings at MLA conferences in the past. Out of seven trips to the annual event, he says, he’s “gotten together with someone twice”—good for a solid .286 batting average. What’s more, he says, “one woman turned out to be from a nearby school, and we made plans and went on several dates over a period of months.”

But he adds: “This was my first attempt to do something via Craigslist.”

The reaction to the personal ad has been mixed. Behind the scenes, he’s received an upward of 20 messages, half of which appear to express genuine interest in the hook-up. On social media networks and websites, though, the response has been … well, less than entirely positive.

So it’s worth noting that after the backlash, he issued a surprisingly contrite response.

“I am rather ashamed to have been blind to the fact that my proposal can be easily seen as playing into power structures and abuses toward which I harbor great opposition—having to do with gender and rank,” he said. “I am now trying to think of ways I can remedy what damage I have done.”

He considered taking the post down, he said, but “it is likely out there on the web until armageddon now.” So he instead published an addendum to the ad to clarify his intentions. In academic fashion, pillow talk quickly turned into theory-and-praxis.

“It came to my attention rather belatedly that this post has gone rather viral and caused much consternation and controversy,” the note states. “The debate has drawn my attention to the fact that the post can be seen to perpetuate two power structures within the academy: those of gender and academic rank. The fact that this was inadvertent is irrelevant; I understand now I have done a disservice to all scholars who are victim of these structures, and all those who will be victims of it in the future. I am sorry.”

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