I’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.
Even 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.
The 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.
Once 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.
I 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.