Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The weirdness of academic conferences

We just finished up last Sunday the annual Canadian Association of American Studies (CAAS) conference, my favourite academic organization. I’ve been attending CAAS for four years, and have been on the executive committee for almost that long. Last year I organized the conference and hosted it at Memorial; this year, happily, it was held in London Ontario, which meant (a) I was on very familiar ground, and (b) I got to spend time with Kristen (I’m writing this entry at her place while she growls at the Library Sciences paper she’s writing).

(I also have a post on the CAASblog about the conference here).

The annual CAAS conference is a highlight for me, in part because it always feels a bit like going home (even when it’s not actually in St. John’s or London). I am and have been a member of a variety of scholarly societies, and usually attend the Congress of the Humanities every year in May. CAAS is the pleasant antithesis of the Congress—small (this year there were about ninety papers), tight-knit, friendly, and supportive. There’s something to be said about seeing the same faces every year, especially when you can be confident that this will lead to fruitful collaborations and discussion.

CAAS is a comfort on this front, because academic conferences—especially the larger they get—can be, if not necessarily daunting, then certainly odd.

There’s always a moment at conferences, usually when I’m sitting in on a panel whose papers are all way outside my areas of expertise and interest, when I reflect on the strange beast that is the academic humanities conference. I’ve tried to explain to non-academic friends and family the ostensible purpose of usefulness of conferences, and I have on occasion defended them in principle when friends and colleagues in academia inveigh against them as wastes of time, money, and energy. The thing is, I sort of agree with both perspectives; I always look forward to conferences as a chance to travel (even when the location is no great destination), to see friends and colleagues from other universities, and, yes, to see papers and engage in discussions about the subjects being discussed.

At the same time, there are always points at which the conference experience can be excruciating—even when the topics or themes under discussion are of interest to you. It is at times like that that I wonder why we do it, usually when I’m sitting in an overly heated hotel conference room in an uncomfortable chair trying to be interested in a poorly presented paper droning on well past its allotted twenty minutes … with no indication that the panel chair will be taking steps to bring the presenter to a close. Of course, the disturbing thing at those moments is wondering how many people in my audience will be thinking that about my paper.

The fact is that at your average conference you have to kiss a lot of frogs, and realize as well that you will yourself be one of those frogs for any number of people. Which is why, in my experience, the larger the conference the more likely that feeling of futility will surface. I return to CAAS every year knowing that the conference will be more of a collaborative effort than an atomized group of people there to put in the twenty minutes necessary to get a line on a CV.


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