Planet for a Small Conference

November 11, 2013, 11:22 am

chicago_vacation2Just back from a whirlwind trip to Chicago — well, actually, Evanston — where I attended and presented at Sexual Reputations, a conference hosted and sponsored by Northwestern University’s Department of Sociology, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN), and the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.

I had fun. I had so much fun. Thank you.

I had fun despite the fact there is so much to be said for not traveling halfway across the country for 48 hours: air travel is just. so. bad. I thought the broken down American Airlines seat was going to cripple me halfway through the return trip. For the first time I regretted that my resentment of à la carte air travel is so firm that I had refused (as I always do) the $90 upgrade to first class. Ninety dollars is not so much, I reflected, somewhere over Pennsylvania. I also regretted that my seatmate, who didn’t want to pay the $25 bag fee, was permitted to board the plane with a portmanteau twice as large as anything that could fit in an overhead compartment. In her failed attempt to stow it, she dropped it on my head. This is the third time I have been clocked by a suitcase this year, and I blame Jimmy Carter for this.

But this post is really not about travel; it is about the beauty of the small conference. The topic was, in many ways, a provocation rather than a mandate. The organizers, Gary Alan Fine and Clare Forstie, pulled together a lively group of people working in the field of sexuality and asked us all to think about reputation. This meant that, in addition to presenting our work to each other, we spent two days thinking through a problem together, as each person’s research was gradually braided into the conversation. It also meant that each of us was encouraged to look at our own ongoing research in a way we might not have framed it originally. This gave every presentation the air of something being tested and provisional, rather than finished or predetermined.

Furthermore, unlike the large conference where people scatter to different panels or leave for extended shopping trips, we were all in the same room together for the duration of the conference. Our formal conversations were amplified by spontaneous gang breakfasts in the hotel, two dinners, and a Saturday lunch where we broke into small groups and wandered off to chat in twos and threes.

The conference, in addition to leaving me with a number of great ideas about my own and others’ work, also left me with some questions that I hope will be pursued in the comments.

  • Large conferences, in big cities, can be exhilarating, and presenting at them gets one’s scholarship to a potentially big audience (unless you are on one of those panels that has six people in a room built for 100.) However, they are also very fragmented and alienating, particularly for people new to the profession or who do not already have extensive networks. The sense of continuing conversation is completely lost when people go to panels for different reasons, only some of which may be scholarly.
  • The other side of exhilaration is conference-induced ADD: I not infrequently have the sense of having been seen without really seeing others; of conversations whose potential is lost as another distraction whisks by. There are so many people to be greeted, avoided, introduced to, caught up with, to meet for business and publishing reasons that I often find it impossible to feel that I am doing any real work at all. Yes, I realize large meetings are important: but is there any way to either shrink the size of professional conferences, or make them feel smaller? ThatCamps are one good innovation, but what about cutting the whole program by 25%? What about creating visible paths through the program that are not field-driven but concept-driven? What about creating simultaneous mini-conferences in smaller venues?
  • Attending Sexual Reputations was dramatically less expensive than going to one of the big professional meetings, even aside from the fact that they were able to defray our expenses with a nice honorarium. Despite soaring rates of contingent faculty, and flat lined or reduced salaries and research budgets, most professional meetings still proceed on the assumption that attendees will have sufficient funds to cover expenses that are growing every year. As it happens, I do have that budget. However, I also know that I just plunked down almost $800 for my AHA hotel room alone. This is more than a third of what I used to have available to me for the entire year at Zenith, a budget that was intended to cover two conferences. Even if I share that room with someone else (and God help me, I hate sharing rooms) it will be more than I spent this weekend on the conference hotel.
  • This conference was multi-disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary, which I found very satisfying. Most of the attendees were sociologists; there were three historians and one English prof (who recited an Emily Dickinson poem from memory; I am sure you lit people are used to this, but it got my attention.) Why did this matter? Well, interdisciplinary conferences are often theory driven and fuzzy-wuzzy when it comes to research, data and interpretation of evidence. I found the empiricism of this conference exhilarating, and frankly it was all far more accessible and pragmatic than some of what passes for activist interdisciplinary scholarship nowadays.
  • I also had this thought: the sociologists were nearly all collaborating with someone else, often someone — perhaps a graduate student — at another institution entirely. Why are historians and lit profs so allergic to collaboration? Is the pathological desire to work alone something the humanities needs to address? I think so. By not disrupting it, our conference models promote individualism, with only slight attempts here and there to do something different. It’s not that program committees deliberately valorize the hero-scholar model, I think; it’s just that, even though year after year small collaborative gangs of scientists and social scientists win highly publicized international prizes, humanists take it for granted that scholars should work alone. Professional meetings need to update this antiquated view of knowledge production.
  • How do we continue to add to our friendship circles as academics? Big conferences push you every more towards people you already know. Social media is offering some promising ways of creating intellectual connection, but the small conference — for all the reasons I describe above — is a promising strategy for helping us refresh and rebuild our professional networks, across generation, field and geography. They are collaborative, not competitive: no one is looking for jobs or publishing contracts; and there is plenty of downtime to explore other connections and mutual interests.


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