The Conference Convention

campusI’m back from Louisville, where Dan Green, David Winters, and I presented a panel of papers on criticism in the internet age at the 44th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900. The panel itself was something of an anticlimax (more on that in a bit), but it was a genuine pleasure to meet both Dan and David in person and share stories and ideas about blogging, criticism, and working online. Another highlight was hearing Mat Johnson read from and discuss his latest novel Loving Day, and I also really enjoyed chatting with the amiable Woolf scholars I sat with at the conference dinner.

I built some slack into my travel schedule as I was quite anxious about being delayed by winter storms, if not here, then in one of the other wintry airports I had to pass through coming or going (Ottawa, Chicago, Montreal): miraculously, even the record-breaking snowfall in Ottawa that hit just as I was passing through did not hold up my flights, so I arrived a day before the conference began and had a little time to play tourist (on my own dime, don’t worry). I passed up the Louisville Slugger Museum in favor of the Frazier Museum, as I’m not a baseball fan and I like to get a sense of the local history; then, when that turned out not to be a particularly time-consuming expedition (it’s not the biggest or most fascinating museum in the world), I headed to the Kentucky Derby Museum where I paid tribute to the spirit of Dick Francis. After a lot of diligent conference-going, I took a bit more time near the end of my stay to walk in Waterfront Park, including trekking across the Big Four Bridge to the Indiana side and back. It’s probably a prettier park when it greens up, and the river itself seemed kind of a muddy mess, but (after a bitter cold start to my visit) it was 21 C that day and a treat to be outside coatless in the sunshine.

derbyEven taking these good things into account, though, I left Louisville feeling more than ever that, as a profession, we need to rethink how we do things. One of the main incentives for me to participate in this panel was that I have recently been given emphatic notice that I haven’t been going to the number of conferences expected of someone in my position. A significant number of academics apparently consider frequent conference-going a key measure of scholarly productivity and knowledge ‘dissemination.’ Frankly, I thought this was bollocks when it first came up as a criticism of my record, and my experience in Louisville only confirmed me in that view. Here’s why: Under pressure to show I am doing the “right” things professionally, I traveled a long distance at great expense (a significant amount borne by me personally, as the funding available did not cover nearly the full cost) to present a 20 minute paper to an audience of 8 people. All around me, hundreds of other academics were there doing the same, sometimes to even smaller audiences (the smallest I saw was 3 people plus the panelists, the largest, excluding keynotes, was about 16 — for a panel on Joyce — and one of the keynotes itself had an audience of maybe 15). Though there’s no doubt that some of the attendees were genuinely engaged with the papers they heard, most of them will take little concrete away besides a vague sense of the argument. One questioner at a panel I attended prefaced his remarks (as usual, questions were usually of the discursive rather than inquisitive variety) by saying that he’d heard a paper at another conference by someone whose name he couldn’t remember making an argument he dimly recalled had been somewhat similar to the one he’d just heard: though I’m sure there are some exceptions, that impressionistic result seems to me pretty typical, at least of a conference as diffuse as this one.

MLA-logoThe small audiences and inchoate overall experience is in part a function of the kind of conference this was: papers were collected under a very large umbrella, and (I suspect) accepted somewhat indiscriminately, perhaps with the admirable goal of being inclusive. But when there are 10 or more concurrent sessions in every time slot, there’s little chance of robust numbers at any given panel, and even less chance of a sizable cohort of conference-goers having much of a common experience and thus much deep, shared conversation. My experience of ACCUTE (not to mention the MLA) has been very similar: I’m not faulting the Louisville organizers in particular. Even the BAVS conference that I went to in 2011, though considerably more focused and thus more productively collegial, was fairly dispersed. At BAVS, though, I felt my own contribution got more attention and thus generated more valuable discussion for all concerned: remember, the purpose of these events is not supposed to be accumulating lines on one’s c.v. but having a face-to-face intellectual experience that matters so much it’s worth the time and money and environmental impact of all this gadding about.

twitterlogoOnce upon a time going to conferences really was our best option for letting a wider audience know what we are working on, for getting feedback on work in progress, and for networking with colleagues in our field. But while I think it is possible for a conference experience to be genuinely valuable, particularly if the conference has a narrower focus and a different format (a friend of mine speaks very highly, for instance, of the Shakespeare Association‘s annual meetings), we really do have other options today for many of the functions conferences used uniquely to serve. Just for instance, Novel Readings may be very small potatoes as blogs go, but I still reach more people with every post here than I have ever spoken to at a conference (sometimes more than all of my conference audiences combined), and the comments are every bit as engaged and engaging as any in-person sessions, and often more because they arise from a written text (not, as with most conference papers, a written text read aloud, with all the attendant disadvantages). Here I can link to things I’m talking about, creating a tangible network of related material, and my writing can be referred and linked to in turn. As I have often observed, my blog is not a particularly “academic” blog (setting aside for the moment the question of when reading, or writing about reading, counts as research) — but the form of a blog is perfectly suited to sharing just the kind of thing usually presented as a conference paper and getting feedback and suggestions for furthering “the larger project” (if I had a dime for every time I heard that phrase in Louisville, I think it would have covered the rest of my hotel bill!). Twitter is great for networking — admittedly, there’s a learning curve, but compared to the dreary 24 hours (literally) I spent traveling to and from Louisville, the time it takes to populate a useful Twitter feed and learn how to use a hashtag is nothing. And these are just the most obvious alternatives to flying half way across the continent to sit in a dingy room telling a few hardy souls (some of whom, it must be said, are actually editing their own papers or checking Facebook rather than listening intently to you) about your insight into Woolf’s aesthetics.

southridingI think I personally would have found the Louisville conference more intellectually stimulating if I were a modern literature scholar myself: I had a harder time even than usual latching on to the papers’ arguments because they were typically quite specialized contributions to scholarly inquiries I know little about. I went mostly to Woolf panels because at least there I knew the primary sources a bit! (I was interested to note that there were no papers, much less panels, on Winifred Holtby or Vera Brittain at all; there was one paper on Sayers, but I saw no sign of Rebecca West or Rosamond Lehmann or Mollie Panter-Downes or Elizabeth Taylor or Olivia Manning or any of those I think of as the ‘Virago’ set. Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Joyce, a bit of Lawrence and Forster — this was a pretty canonical outing. You 20thC people can tell me if that’s typical or just Louisville.) I’m not sorry I went: it was an adventure, it was a change of scenery (which I really needed), I spoke with a number of really interesting people and made a couple of new friends. But why anyone would insist I should do this kind of thing more often, while shrugging off the other ways I share my writing, network with other academics, and facilitate not just my own but other people’s ‘knowledge mobilization’ completely escapes me. Just because that’s how the profession has operated for a long time, or just because it is the kind of scholarly activity some academics are used to and perhaps even enjoy, simply does not mean it is the best use of my time or the university’s resources. We need to be open-minded about other options that serve the same purposes, often more efficiently and effectively. In this, as in scholarly publishing, it seems to me that the familiar form is too often valued over the real function of the work itself.

11 thoughts on “The Conference Convention

  1. Susan Bailey February 23, 2016 / 12:22 pm

    Wow, thank you for this! Where do I begin? I think my Louisa May Alcott blog is similar to yours in that, while I am not a traditional scholar, I do make sure I support my arguments with research and cite my sources. Blogging is still not considered all that legitimate by many circles but if a blog is done well and responsibly, it should be. I’m with you on the interaction – I have met so many people with a sincere and passionate interest in Alcott and we’ve had wonderful discussions (in fact there’s one going on right now about sexuality and the Alcotts, mostly from a health perspective but of course other things come up too). But I think the point I’m making here is that I am grateful for this post because I believe it adds legitimacy to what I do. I have only been to one academic conference (and not as a presenter) and my college education consists of a BS in Elementary Education; I am mainly self-taught. So my official credentials are few. I work hard to make up for that in the quality of my posts.

    I might add, the Summer Conversational Series run each summer for one week at Louisa May Alcott
    s Orchard House is a magnificent gathering of noted Alcott scholars, teachers and people like me – passionate fans who love to study. I’ve heard several times of how generous the Alcott community is and I have certainly experienced that. We are like a family and we love getting together. I consider myself quite blessed to be in such close proximity to something so wonderful.


  2. Craig Monk February 23, 2016 / 1:47 pm

    I have given forty-eight conference papers since 1994, and I don’t think there is much I have not seen. A big room is a thrill; it’s sad when there is almost no one in attendance at a small one. I hate it when my panel is on at the same time as a panel I would have liked to attend. During my first paper ever, in Keele, UK, the chair mistimed the start of my 20-minute paper and handed me a note that read “5 minutes left!” after I had been speaking for 5 minutes. I once gave a 16-minute paper in a 15-minute slot, and when the next speaker was cut off at 23 minutes, he thundered from the dais, while pointing at me, “You let him go long!” For my first paper at Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (then “The Learneds”), in 1997, the chair required that I submit my completed paper to him one week before the presentation. It resulted in some of the best questions I was ever asked, and a great discussion, but I was never required to do that before or since.

    So, obviously, lots of opinions about what is good and what is bad about the activity. It’s not in my personality to be an expert networker, though I see the value of that for folks who can be. On the other hand, conference season has always given structure to my year. I propose something in the autumn, say, and it’s a “state of the union” for that on which I am at work. By the spring, there is a 2,000-word version of something that should be article length by the end of the summer. This pattern, sometimes running concurrently across two or three projects, served me well. Congress, with its multiple associations meeting at the same time, has always allowed me to participate more broadly during a single, extended trip. I cannot imagine the stamina required for many multiple trips to smaller conferences throughout the world, but the change of scenery, as you attest, has some value. I’ve more often found myself at an interesting meeting in some god-forsaken place than a mediocre meeting at a resort location.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2016 / 3:14 pm

      I concede that there are different opinions, and also that there are good as well as bad conferences / conference experiences. But it is at least theoretically possible to set a writing goal early in the term, meet it by the end of term, and build an article out of it over the summer without the cost and hassle of travel, right? So while I can see how it works as an incentive structure, it still leaves open the question of whether this kind of event is the best, never mind the only, way to keep things moving along. As with my ongoing critique of narrow-minded views of what counts as “scholarly publishing,” my advocacy is entirely for flexibility in assessing value. If someone chooses to share work and engage with colleagues (and different publics) in other ways, that should not be held against them. That said, conferences are very expensive, WordPress sites and Twitter accounts are free, and budgets are strained. If anything, the discouragement should be the other way around.


      • Craig Monk February 23, 2016 / 3:44 pm

        We have no disagreement, as you know, on the broadest possible routes of dissemination. Conference attendance has worked for me in coaxing out of me my most productive periods, but we also know that there are many different ways to do that. And while there are number of conferences that I have attended regularly, as I suggest, even these have had flaws on occasion. The thing I found that worked best — the submission in advance — has fallen out of fashion, if it ever was in fashion.

        Without getting too personal, I do feel as though I have been one of those people who have encouraged you to participate in conventional conferences. Of course, as you know, though people who have read only your 140-character version might not, that meant for me something more than once in a blue moon and something considerably less than the colleagues we have who seem always to be gone somewhere (even during term). I’d guess I’d wish for you — if such wishes are still seen as appropriate in our sensitive age — a venue that feels as much as home as Congress has for me (and, to be fair, there was once a regional MLA that I used to attend every October), maybe something that blends different modes of delivery and complements your preferred venues of dissemination.

        I have heard it said, over a quarter-century, that conferences are filled with young scholars. It was said to me, derisively, in the ’90s; my contemporaries say it to me now with a slightly different tone (or maybe not that different). I have never thought this, myself, or I have never lamented it, at least. But I cannot help but observe that I really first heard your views about online dissemination a long(ish) time ago when were were young(er) scholars. Those ideas have influenced me for some time, reinforced by this very important space, here. But I first heard those ideas from you at… a conference. And that is probably the way in which at least some people are exposed to some new ideas, still.


        • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2016 / 6:14 pm

          I am perfectly happy to be encouraged to attend conferences. (I actually do have a venue of the kind you describe except it’s the semi-regular “summit” meeting of Open Letters editors, so it isn’t eligible for institutional funding). What I object to is being criticized and penalized professionally for not going to more of them, regardless of their value to me or my investment in alternative activities. (I am not pointing at you here. 🙂 )


  3. Elizabeth Ahlstrom February 23, 2016 / 8:08 pm

    Here’s some anecdotal (although perhaps not scientific) evidence that your social media approach is working:

    I first discovered your blog via a Tweet from Sarah Emsley, and I liked what I read and have continued to come back. I’ve never met Sarah Emsley, never heard her speak personally, and in fact don’t know her at all, but I make sure to read every word of her blog. I discovered HER blog after it was recommended to me by someone in an online “Jane Austen and Motherhood” book club, which I only checked out because one of my favorite authors plugged it on her Facebook page.

    I am not part of academia. You will never find me at one of your conference conventions. Perhaps that means I am not part of your target audience. However, if you’ve reached me through Twitter, there are others like me. (Also, if someone published your presentation to YouTube or LiveStream, we’d happily watch it, giving your conference presentation an even broader audience.)

    Don’t get me wrong, I attend my share of conferences. In the medical profession (in the US anyway), we are required to accrue so many continuing education credits each year. Conference attendance is often the quickest/most efficient way to do so. That means leaving my family, traveling (spending a lot of my own money, because as you mentioned the conference allowances never cover the real expense), taking days away from caring for my patients, etc. The best invention in recent years has been the conference podcast. One of my professional societies publishes a monthly podcast with highlights of the talks from the past year’s conferences. I can tune in to that on my own time.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 23, 2016 / 8:25 pm

      That is a great example of social media at work!

      Your point about time away from family and other obligations is a really important one, and one I’ve made to others about conferences too. In academia, one specific variation on the problem is that many of us have had to relocate far from extended family and have limited support networks, adding to the expense and stress of leaving town. My own children are teenagers now, but there were many years when the logistics were simply too complicated. The idea that we should travel “frequently” seems to me to reflect the norms of a different era.


      • Karen February 24, 2016 / 11:46 pm

        Or reflects the ideal academic worker – no caring responsibilities, willing to spend one’s own time and money on academic progression…


  4. Laura Tanenbaum February 23, 2016 / 11:46 pm

    This was timely for me! It’s been three years since I went to an out of town conference, for all the reasons you mentioned. (In my case the reimbursements are so convoluted I usually give up/miss the deadline). Coincidently, the last one was the very Louisville conference you went to – it was my first time away from my son for more than a day and I kept thinking – if I was going to miss him, I should at least be doing something much more fun. As far as the internet, I still get a kick out of meeting people who aren’t academics who have seen my stuff- didn’t ever think that would happen. When I saw that you were going to this, I kind of wished I was because I’ve always wanted to meet you, but of course that’s because of the internet too .. .


    • Rohan Maitzen February 24, 2016 / 10:23 am

      I very much hope to come to New York next summer with my daughter: if I work it out, maybe we can meet then — without the extra complications of being at a conference!


  5. Jo VanEvery February 24, 2016 / 9:43 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree that there are other things that serve the purpose that conference attendance once served. And while I agree with Craig that there are better and worse conferences, it is precisely because there are better and worse conferences that the advice (from those evaluating your work for professional purposes, I assume) to attend more conferences is bollocks. Because it is.

    I note that 2 of the commentors on this post are not academics, something that seems to be completely consistent with your mission for your literary criticism as I understand it from reading this blog and interacting with you on Twitter. And I have to say that as much as it disappoints me, the folks who are admonishing you to attend more (presumably properly scholarly) conferences are not doing a very good job of hiding their desire for you to want to be the kind of academic they want to be (or at least are resigned to being) and who would really love it if they could continue to say that literary scholars don’t really have an audience beyond other literary scholars.

    You keep doing what you do best — literary criticism that engages with a broad range of readers. And be picky about the conferences you go to. Rate them for the possibility of meeting interesting people, learning new things, or at the very least, providing an opportunity to get together with interesting people you already know and work on some stuff together in person.


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