Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Missing Your Favorite Academic Conference? Don't!

At a work function, a number of my colleagues were talking about attending the Modern Language Associate Convention. MLA is the conference in English and Comparative Literature studies and, as such, it has long been a staple of my academic life. As a new MA student I went to listen to talks, as a PhD student I gave papers, and as someone ABD I had job interviews.

Although my job description is quite postacademic--sales (!)--my role in academic publishing means I am in touch regularly with marketers and editors who do attend the MLA conference, as well as various other conferences in my old field. Sometimes it makes me sad that I'm no longer a part of that world and, judging from Versatile PhD's forums, I am not the only one.

Conference Time...Creative Commons License Christian Senger via Compfight

Sitting at dinner with my colleagues, I bombarded them with questions about MLA.

"What papers did you enjoy? What fancy scholars attended? Did Michael Berube address the poor job market?"

As I hungrily try to catch conversational scraps from their MLA table, it occurs to me that I miss academic conferencing.


But why?

As recentPhD astutely points out conferences are expensive, papers are of varying quality, and socially awkward academics are not everyone's idea of a great party date.

She writes:
I've heard some astonishingly good papers over the years, papers that entertained, papers that made me think in ways I'd never thought before, papers that set my brain on fire through the sheer power and play of language. Papers that just plain blew my mind. But ... a lot of papers put me to sleep, too. More often than not, conference papers are less than brilliant.

JC, too, has written on the topic of academic conferences and privilege.
Let's just start by saying that I find something deeply disturbing about an academic system that pays graduate students and adjuncts poverty wages to do something as apparently important as teach college students ... and then also expects them to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars traveling to conferences while not having any outside employment to help them cover their expenses. The system is basically forcing people who don't come from privileged backgrounds to go into massive debt in order to just go about the expected business of their job. And in the end, what that does is privilege students from wealthy families over others. Wealthy students can go to conferences without incurring additional debt, don't have to worry about outside employment to help foot the bills, and can graduate debt-free. Less privileged students face a completely different situation.So not only do conferences likely not do much to actually further anyone's career, but in my opinion? They do further the obvious (but unremarked upon) class divide in graduate school and academia more generally.

Fuck the idea that we have to go to conferences, and we’re losers if we can’t afford it


And upon reviewing my own conference horror stories--here, here, and here--I am no longer sure why I miss academic conferences! Money, hassle, and boredom aside, I had people proposition me and die en route!

In my case, I think I miss academic conferences because I miss feeling that I "know" a field. I "got" academic conferences; I still do not "get" my new role in academic publishing. Also, I still miss aspects of academia.  miss the "idea" of conferences--furthering one's career, intellectual development, academic nerd camaraderie. Yet in reality, conferences afforded me none of those things. And that's a sobering reality. I'm thousands of dollars out in traveling costs and I never even got to appreciate the (sometimes) cool places I traveled!

For those people who genuinely and truly miss the experience of academic conferences, I encourage you to still attend. I think I may do this myself some day. Treat it like a vacation and go when you have time, money, and freedom to do so, rather than at the whims of the MLA jobs cycle. Register as an independent scholar. Listen to papers. Research and write on of your own. Connect with old colleagues you actually liked. Take some risks--do the kind of paper you felt would have held you back in your professional career. But at the same time, tour the city you're staying in. Take in the sights. Bring along a friend of partner to keep you company. Cultivate real life experiences outside academia. Do your conference on your own terms--a true perk of being postacademic!

1 comment:

  1. I stopped going to conferences when I realized that a great deal of the activity centered around getting wasted every night. I enjoy a good drink, but I can do that without having to fly across the country first.


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