Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Loathing Academic Conferences

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably start off by admitting that I'm in the middle of a particularly heavy conference stretch right now, which clearly informs this mini-tirade.

American Studies, one of my favorite annual meetings, held its conference in DC this past weekend, and the event overlapped with the American Academy of Religion's gathering in Montreal. I'm finally just back from both, and the National Communication Association's conference starts tomorrow. In Chicago!

It seems that many of the academic associations (at least the ones putting on conferences that I've planned to attend) have conspired to meet at one and the same time most years. Indeed, some folks might even push for a few extra weeks in the Fall semester just to accommodate all of these meetings.

I have to admit that I really enjoy a great deal about these conferences. At ASA, I hung out with old classmates from Columbia, and met up with Doug Mitchell from the University of Chicago Press, the editorial impresario responsible for much of what's most amazing about Chicago's backlist.

Then I hopped on a plane for AAR (finishing, in flight, the provocative epilogue for Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980, a powerful argument about the links between liberalism and black radicalism/nationalism written by Devin Fergus, who matriculated through Columbia's History Department while I was making my way through Anthropology).

I have only been to three AARs in the last decade or so (and once it was simply to screen a film that I helped produce on African American deployments of the Bible), but I immediately got caught up in the energy of the meeting this year. Besides taking part in a panel that I found particularly useful for my own work (a session examining methodological concerns specific to the ethnography of religion organized by Marla Frederick and featuring Kersten Priest, Tracey Hucks and R. Marie Griffith), I also hung out with old friends, reconnected with new ones, and had a great discussion (about so much more than just my current book project) with Sharmila Sen at Harvard University Press.

But given all that, why am I back in Philly and feeling so drained? Usually, good conferences energize me (Ford Fellows Conferences got me through my final years of grad school), and I would characterize my experiences at both of these recent events quite positively.

Part of my problem, I think, is that I'm still trying to figure out how to "do" academic conferences properly. At this point, I spend so much more time just chatting with people in the convention hallways and grabbing "coffee" at hotel lounges (as opposed to sitting attentively through actual sessions) that it almost seems scandalous. Indeed, I went to a total of two sessions at AAR (besides my own) and not even one at ASA. I told you: scandalous! Granted, I only had a day (less than a full day) at ASA before shuttling off to Canada, but it still felt wrong.

And I made a pact with myself way back in graduate school that I would never read a paper at an academic conference. And I've stuck to that irrational decision. Maybe it is my own idiosyncratic version of ADD (academic-speak deficit disorder), but I get super bored when most scholars read papers, especially when they don't even seem particularly moved by what they're saying. So, I have lunged in the other direction. I just try to talk my stuff out. Sometimes with notes and sometimes without, which usually means that I forget semi-major points (even when I have the notes in front of my, I tend to make the mistake of not looking down at them) and probably come off as somehow not taking the event seriously enough (because I didn't read prepared comments). It also means that I don't always bring everything back together neatly at the end of my 20 minutes. But I think I am getting better at that. And cultivating such a non-readerly skill is worth the minor embarrassments along the way.

So, I come back from conferences not quite sure of what (substantively) I got out of them. And then it is right off to the next one.

In early December, the American Anthropological Association meetings are here in Philadelphia, and I am going to take part in all of that one, too. This time, at least, I won't be presenting. But I have already committed to checking out several sessions on every single day. I'll let folks know how that goes.