Monday, May 05, 2008

K'zoo! (Gesundheit)

De rigeur: in academia one must loathe the conference. Thus, Gloria Monday (thank you, Shane):
I’ve always hated conferences, but you have to go to the damned things. It’s how you get noticed when you’re climbing the career ladder, and how you make sure you’re not forgotten when you’ve reached the top and are in danger of becoming ancient history. The formula for conferences hasn’t changed in my lifetime: the lesser mortals get shorter slots and the big names, most of whom ran out of original ideas years ago and have nothing left to say (provided, of course, they ever did have!), get the longer slots and are classified differently as “keynote speakers”. I was a keynote this time, which I felt flattered by when invited, but the enthusiasm faded when I saw who else was on the programme – a motley crew of has-beens and wannabes, duller than a wet weekend in West Hartlepool.
Considering that you are smarter/more socially adept/more dignified than everyone else there, why go? The panels will be dull, the food will be bad, the skies will unleash rain or the sun will shine too brightly and you will get your natty clothing all sweaty. The conference will present a dreary parade of everything that is worst about the profession: pride, sloth, lechery, enthusiasm. And so on.

As for me, I like conferences. I learn from the panels and from the informal conversations that follow them. I meet new people who inspire me, reacquaint myself with friends, behold those whom I idolize humanized. So I am very happy to announce that I am looking forward to Kalamazoo. I will also share with you readers that we, the Four ITM Co-Bloggers, so like each other that we are doing our first annual daytrip, to a Celery Farm. Yes, the options are rather limited in that part of Michigan.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the conference soon.

[image of medieval beer funnel from medieval version of Kzoo courtesy of Got Medieval]


Nicola Masciandaro said...

Here, here. Why do academics have such trouble owning, owning up to their profession? Perhaps being in the bodily presence of each other in and of itself threatens too many assumptions through which academic work proceeds. Sounds like self-envy, a hatred of one's own happiness, to me!

Anonymous said...

Please tell me '09 won't be one of those years when everyone decides to take a break from kzoo, because I'm planning on getting there again finally (can't make it this year) and am really looking forward to it.

It sounds like the writer of the column has never met, made, or reunited with a friend at a conference. There must be some applicable Boethian quotation about being able to see the mud or sky in conferences depending on how you look at them.

Since the tea seems to be really kicking in this morning, I'm also moved to suggest a moratorium on academic self-deprecation. I think we may be one of the only professions that goes around gathering material for satirical novels about itself. I'd like to see an end to dissing conferences, backhand remarks about average personal attractiveness, comments about the relative insignificance of a given topic of study. Let's give up the rhetorical moves of casting fellow scholars as strange creatures (crab-like, rodent-like) and when we see sexual harassment let's take legal action, not just plug it into a narrative of sad little souls abusing their power and leave it at that.* We don't need to recast ourselves as vastly important, and obviously we should continue to celebrate our endearing quirks,** but there does seem to be a poisonous character to a lot of professional self bashing -- exemplified by Gloria Monday's post -- that we could do without.

Polemically yours,


*-it is interesting how accounts of systemic sexual harassment often get woven into the larger, supposedly amusing or chummy accounts of the strangeness of academia

**-the comforting and appealing part of narratives of hapless humanities academics is that it identifies some kind of spiritual kinship that brought us here, some sensitivity to lives, texts, and words that binds us -- but it usually comes out described as a symptom, not a boon.

Matthew Gabriele said...

I too like conferences. I don't have anything else to add to that. Just sharing.

Eileen Joy said...

Okay: the sheer meanness and spite of that essay just underwhelmed me. Is this person unhappy, or *whaaat*? Once a grouch, always a grouch. I *will* agree that there are some things about conferences I would like to see change: I'm not sure the traditional 3-paper panel has served us all that well over the years and it *can* be deadly dull, on occasion, but not always. I would like to see more roundtable sessions, also more sessions where presenters have swapped remarks in advance, and sessions where presenters "workshop" ideas as opposed to offering arguments + evidence. I would like to see sessions that offer short mini-scholarly documentaries plus sessions where speakers would be introduced by signature theme songs and sessions that would offer mixtapes of scholarly notions and sessions where scholars would share ideas that were promising but never actually went anywhere and they are releasing them into the world for others to take [by the way, that's Kathleen Kelly's idea, plus I am thinking of Milosz offering up his unused poem ideas in his book "Roadside Dog"].

But having said all that, I will go further than Jeffrey [while agreeing with everything he said] and claim that conferences are a lot of fun! And as BLB pointed out, if I did not go to Kalamazoo every year, I would not get to see some of my favorite people in the world. And thank you, BLB, for asking for that moratorium on academic self-deprecation, or I would say, self-loathing. As I wrote in an earlier post, I recently participated in a colloquium panel on images of professors in literature and film and it was depressing to say the least: enough already. Also, Gloria Monday [whoever she really is] has a very dim notion of what an academic life is and could be: apparently in involves staying in one place, where you teach, let's say, and working on your own in your quiet study and never having to go out and actually take the risk of being with others like you. Too bad. Conviviality will always be the heart of life, and yes, it can happen at conferences. And sometimes, they are even inspiring.

i said...

Oh no! I love conferences too! I actually have all along. I prefer the smaller, plenary-type ones to the bigger, because if one of those really gets going, the energy can be like good theatre or a great concert. But I'm ridiculously excited about Kalamazoo -- the fifteen-hour drive with three close friends and colleagues, singing along to the Immaculate Collection and eating at Denny's, the roving bands of Anglo-Saxonists, (NOT the roving hands of Anglo-Saxonists -- I agree with blb), dancing the polka with my bibliography, and a backgammon grudge match with a certain medievalist who always rolls double sixes.

By the way, would anyone like to write the last half page of my paper for me? It's my first try at a somewhat theoretical, not at all close reading paper.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if any of the ITM bloggers have any thoughts on a growing chorus of voices who have begun to call for an end to academic conferences (or, at least, for a growing experimentation with "virtual conferencing, etc.) given the enormous carbon footprint that conferences can leave in the wake of the individual academic. Does the value of conferences supercede their contributions to global climate change? I know that ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) has been playing around with the idea of charging people a mandatory carbon offset fee based on how far away the conference attendee is travelling to get to the conference site. What do you all think of this? I enjoy conferences too, but sometimes I wonder if they are a luxury that we should consider doing without in a world that threatens to be radically altered by climate change.

i said...

anonymous: That's an interesting idea, but I would hope that an association of scholars would first do a thorough critical evaluation of carbon offsets before mandating those indulgences. Aside from their lack of regulation, the fact that many of the programs are premised on saddling developing-world communities with useless or offensive projects so as to allow the developed world to enjoy the same standard of living without guilt, to me at least, more morally offensive than the harm to the environment.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago I took off an afternoon and drove out to South Haven. Walked on the beach, relaxed by Lake Michigan-- and there's also a nice town and biking-walking trail cutting through the town.

Anonymous said...

I have tried virtual conferencing recently. I would say it helps if you know the people already (when is that not true?), but that it is becoming more and more effective as the technology improves.

It is not as much 'fun' because you don't get the all essential socialising between sessions (maybe blogs do some of that?). Although our Environmental Department recently held a virtual international conference over a shared (real) beer - which seems to have succeeded in capturing some of that productive informality without flying hours (and tons of carbon) across the globe.

There is definite environmental imperative, I believe. Whether you believe in global warming or not. But more than that it is damned expensive to go to Kzoo - while picking up a skype headset is something you can do very cheaply on a day to day basis if you want.

OK back to marking ... I won't be at Kzoo this year. Have fun.

Shane said...

I won't be at K'zoo this year but looking forward to my first visit to it next year hopefully. I have to agree with some of the comments above about carbon footprint issues, but I'm not sure that I can learn as much from a virtual environment. I'm a big fun of the after-talk discussion in the bar / cafe, and until virtual conferences are as much fun they just won't be as popular. Perhaps there's something we can do to make them a little more sociable? (I like the idea of the real beer in the virtual environment)

Karl Steel said...

Let me, belatedly, help us remember the love [LINK] of last year's Kzoo. And also, to allay BLB's worries (and also by way of thanking him for his tea-fueled wisdom), let me promise that I will be at all subsequent kzoos. I don't plan on missing another. As for Gloria Monday, although I hate to diagnose something I've never met, I can at least diagnose--or, to speak in the language of my profession, "analyze"--the writing: what strikes me is not its unhappiness but rather its refusal of happiness or even a refusal to acknowledge one's own happiness. Once again, desire has been sacrificed to dignity.

In re: questions about carbon footprints. Good question: this was raised on Crooked Timber, wasn't it, or someplace else where I saw the suggestion of charging more for registration on the basis of how far and by what means the participant had traveled? Certainly the joy of a conference is only partially in attending the panels; every year I've gone to Kzoo, I've got to know more and more people, and I trust this year will just increase my joys. Could we manage this with Skype for the conversations and something akin to the crowds of Mii (for the Wii gaming system) for the sense of crowds and randomness? How much of this could be done virtually and produce, if not the same satisfactions, at least new enjoyments?

Anonymous said...

Some interesting comments on the carbon footprint vs. habitual conferencing debate. Sarah, I enjoyed learning from you about the virtual conference that the Environmental Studies department at your school put on. I am sure for a long time to come it will only be Environmental Studies people who will consider this option, but it would be nice to see some of the humanities give it a try too, especially English or Philosophy folks since those departments so often like to think of themselves as the ones responsible for teaching ethics to students. Thus, it would be nice to see ethical praxis and theory meet up in an environmentally responsible academic conference. And Irina, I couldn't agree more your point about how objectionable one might find the practice of purchasing carbon offsets. Any practices or policies that allow the wealthy to continue doing "business as usual" and polluting as they always do, yet to be able to ease their conscience through the use of a credit card or checkbook merits some reconsideration. I would favor the abolition of conferences and attempts at virtual conferencing before I would support mandatory or voluntary carbon offset fees being attached to conference registration fees.