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Words for wary language scholars

E-books and employment are concerns at a Phila. conference.

David Parry, Keith Goldsmith, and Sylvia Ruiz-Tresgallo were pondering the future, each in his or her own way, at the 125th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association this week in Philadelphia.

That future is bringing a change from paperbound authorship to online maintenance of a scholar's writing and the discussion that surrounds it. Publishing is increasingly digital.

As for the present, it's about praying to the academic gods for employment.

Regina B. Oost, chair of the English Department at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., described the employment outlook succinctly: "Fewer jobs. More people looking for them. Tight economy. Ouch."

About 7,400 people signed up to share scholarly thoughts or search for jobs at this gathering of the world's largest association of scholars and professors in language and literature. The convention began Sunday and runs through tomorrow.

Most papers were presented at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown and the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. At the Convention Center, job-seekers in English or foreign language studies were dressed in their interview best to talk to potential employers.

The Modern Language Association's current job list has 900 positions in English language and literature and 750 in other languages at the conference. That's down from last year's 1,380 jobs in English and 1,227 jobs in other languages, said association spokesman Mark Aurigemma.

"I have four interviews in total," said Sylvia Ruiz-Tresgallo, 36, of Santander, Spain. "Actually, that's not much," she said, before walking off to meet with representatives from a New York university, where there's a tenure-track assistant-professor opening in Spanish.

She wasn't nervous, even though she knew the competition was great. "You are competing with people who last year didn't get the job they wanted," she said.

Lori Sundberg, 40, got her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. Now back from a Fulbright scholarship to Germany, she's looking for a job. Sundberg said interviewers want graduates who not only have an expertise, but also can teach courses in multiple subjects.

Those already with jobs in English and foreign language are contemplating future technologies that challenge the very notion of research and writing.

David Parry, a University of Texas at Dallas assistant professor of emerging media and communications, said the era of "dead-tree-based knowledge is not holding together so well."

An author creating a piece of work that never changes is an outdated concept, he said, calling his conclusions "the Twitter take-away."

Parry emphasized he wasn't predicting the death of books - a good thing for Keith Goldsmith, executive director of academic marketing for Alfred A. Knopf publishers, which had a large booth in the convention's exhibit hall.

Knopf has yet to see "a lot of requests" from universities for e-texts of course books for readers such as Kindle, he said, though he thinks that day will come. But Knopf has moved into the electronic age, offering both print and download versions of all books.

E-publishing has its limitations, he said. It can't yet re-create what Knopf has done recently with The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov. Each page has a photograph of one of the 138 handwritten index cards on which the Russian author wrote the book - his usual writing method.

The photos even have perforations so readers can punch out the cards and make a facsimile of Nabokov's original manuscript.

Try that, Kindle.

But few in academe are immune to technology's seductions.

Caroline Winschee, staffing the University of Pennsylvania Press booth, admitted she owns a Kindle. She got it as a gift, she quickly added.

"My mother heard me say I thought it was cool," she said. "But it doesn't replace bookshelves."