Friday, November 19, 2010

To Conference or Not to Conference

The last time I blogged about attending an academic conference, I found myself mercilessly pummeled by several very upset Chronicle of Higher Education readers (the other place where I blog--a little more consistently). They used my post as an excuse to rail against professors who (irresponsibly!) skip out on their classes in order to attend such "conferences," a practice dismissed as little more than a scam, the kind of racket that allows academics to go off gallivanting in exotic locales under the trumped-up auspices of professional development and research dissemination.

“How many classes did you have to cancel to attend your little conference?” It started something like that. One reader asked me the equivalent of that very question several different times, trying to determine if my conference attendance was at the expense of my teaching obligations. Even after I explained that the conference didn’t require me to miss any of my scheduled class sessions, not one, said reader refused to register my response, asking that selfsame question (about how many of my classes I canceled for the conference) at least two more times.

Several more unhappy readers decided that they were going to use the opportunity to make a larger argument about the complete uselessness (and pseudo-intellectualism) of academia’s self-indulgent tradition of conferencing. Some of them argued that scholars should exclusively tele-conference or deploy other new-media options in their would-be efforts to forge and maintain potentially powerful inter-institutional links with peers. Why, they asked, make a fetish of the face-to-face?

Both those who anonymously posted their anti-conference comments on-line (and the many more who emailed me or called my office phone to express their displeasure over my uncritical celebration of academic conferences) seemed to get particularly upset about the post's characterization of conference-attendance as a mixture of informal chats with other academics in packed conference lobbies and laughter-laced drinking atop cushy stools at fancy hotel bars.

I only ponder that previous debate now because I am currently in New Orleans at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. It is my first trip back to New Orleans since Katrina, which almost seems like a scandalous thing to admit. And coming to hang out in such a mystical town was clearly an added bonus of attending this year’s conference.

I just got in Wednesday night, but I’ve already gone to several panels, one of which included an absolutely fantastic presentation by one of Penn’s anthropology graduate students. And I even checked out the first half of a rather hypnotic ethnographic film, Movement (R)evolution Africa, which examines the evocative links between contemporary African choreography and newfangled understandings of African subjectivity and embodiment.

Still, most of my day consisted of hallway-talk with colleagues I haven’t seen in a while and getting the word out about some new scholarly initiatives that I am helping to launch: a book series on the intersections between race and religion and an ambitious and expansive on-line bibliography for the discipline of anthropology. So, I’ll spend a lot of time in New Orleans leaving panels early, getting to panels late, and sipping cocktails well into the night. (Well, maybe not so late. Even as an undergrad, I got tired by about 10pm.) But I don’t buy the claim that any of this isn’t a legitimate way to make sure that I stay tied to disciplinary conversations.

I realize that many of those aforementioned anti-conference readers will scoff at my claim, but at least I didn’t have to cancel class. Again, maybe that's some consolation.

Not that that would have been a huge issue, either. Several students from my graduate class this semester arrived in New Orleans even before I did, which means that we could have engineered an impromptu seminar discussion in the hotel lobby if we absolutely had to. Drinks optional.