It was in 1991, I think, an American Studies regional meeting at San Jose State. I was in my second year as an assistant professor at Emory and had never even considered giving a conference paper while still in grad school or as a lecturer (I spent a year after the Ph.D. teaching survey courses containing 300 to 450 students looking to fulfill a gen-ed requirement). In fact, I still didn’t feel qualified to do so at age 31 with three semesters of faculty experience behind me. To stand before 20 scholars and merit their attention for 20 minutes required a few more years of teaching and study, I assumed. Take the podium before you had acquired the composure and expertise that comes from many years of homework and you were ripe for humiliation.
But a senior colleague had noticed no conference papers on my C.V. and frowned. Others my age were piling up appearances. I was told of one peer who compiled 30 talks while still in grad school. “You gotta get out there,” he urged, “show your face, spread your name around.” (Two years later in my fourth-year review, an outside evaluator queried why he hadn’t come across me at any gatherings.)
So I got the trip covered by my department, spent a month polishing and rehearsing a text, and flew cross-country. The opening session had around 45 folks in attendance, a small number given that the conference had some 20 or so panels with three to five people presenting at each one. I expected, too, that a few dozen people would join the meeting even though they weren’t on the program. They would come for the edification.
The attendance only got worse as the hours passed. I know because I spent two days morning, noon, and afternoon listening to one panel after another. Some of them had less than 10 people in the room. I don’t remember anything about my own session except that it came off like most every other session—a dozen people listening and four speakers delivering more or less competent statements about U.S. history and culture. A few papers were dreadful, to be sure, obviously last minute cut-and-pastes, and most of the deliveries were monotonal. But generally the commitment to the work on the production side appeared sincere.
One fellow, a flamboyant guy dressed in black, tall and savvy but not a poser, gave a slide show on the subculture of a tiny labor group: men jumping around the west looking for oil and gas deposits. He spoke off the cuff, describing his experience among them. I never saw him before or after his moment on stage.
The second night I watched a modern dance performance by San Jose State dancers. Very nice, but only a few conferees showed up. People paired and trioed up for dinner elsewhere. Lots of folks seemed to know each other already. Of the 10 people in the audience, time and again, half of them sounded like friends of the presenters.
How much money did universities spend to send them there? Perhaps $40,000. And how much advancement of the American Studies research enterprise transpired?
The third morning offered one final round of sessions. I slipped into one of them, then slipped out as the Q&A began. My hatchback rental was down the street, and I hopped in and drove over to San Juan Bautista, site of the two climactic scenes in one of Hitchcock’s two best films, Vertigo (the other is Psycho; I don’t get the admiration for Rear Window, which is Hitchcockian fluff dressed up with voyeurism and 4th wall trickery). It all looked the same as in the film, eerily so—although minus the tower which Hitchcock painted in. One could easily picture Madeleine/Judy dragged across the lawn as a duped and destroyed Scotty peered upward at the sky.
I returned home and told my senior colleague about the trip. “How were the papers?”
“Interesting now and then, a few good ones,” I replied. “Do these conferences really matter for tenure?”
“Yeah,” he muttered. “Do lots more. And get that book in press soon.”