Wednesday, 13 April 2005

Conference Story

This blog is registered with the PhD weblog ring, so I guess I better not post another dumb cat photo today. Or go into my views on child actors either, though technically that would be related to my research area. So instead I'm going to give you a rundown of my Big Academic Adventure last year when I went to the USA to participate in a conference on literature and film.

My conferencing experience in Australia isn't extensive, but almost every meeting I've ever attended has been a miserable waste of time - too few participants, not enough common ground, too many speakers unable or unwilling to open up the arcanities of their research to interested non-initiates. So when I heard about the literature & film conference - and who the keynote speakers were - I was totally, totally determined to get there. And yay! my paper proposal was accepted. My university contributed $2400 to the cost of the trip and I went into a serious handbag-making frenzy to cover the rest of the expenses. We also borrowed money so that my partner could come too & we could do some touring afterwards (Dorian stayed in LA while I went on to Florida alone for the conference bit.)

By the time I got to Tallahassee I was totally hyper with excitement, jetlag, weak dripfilter coffee, and a weird, sneaky, peripheral-vision kind of culture shock. Australians are very familiar with the more operatic dimensions of American society and culture, but I hadn't expected things at eye-level to be quite so different. How strange the non-walking thing is! I walked around the town (which is rather like Canberra) a lot and never met anybody else on foot. One of many things that freaked me out: I stepped in the fine sandy soil around an anthole on the nature strip a few metres from the hotel on my first morning, and each successive day I saw again my own Camper-soled footprint there, undisturbed. It was fun walking down the street where the fraternity houses were: they have Greek letters stuck to the front just like in the movies! The kids going in & coming out looked gratifyingly dopey and jock-like, too.

So yes, I was as excited as a kid on her first day of school, and expressed it by doing the adult equivalent of bear-hugging random kids in the playground & shouting 'be my friend, be my friend'. The first person I talked to was a woman staying at my hotel who'd come alone from Chicago. Over subsequent days it became apparent to me that of the two hundred or so participants, she was one of only two African-American people there apart from the kitchen staff. One day I was a bit late to lunch and I saw her sitting by herself - the only person sitting alone in that huge room. Whatever that all adds up to, I don't know, but it was fairly revealing. Of something.

I somehow didn't get the conference program till I arrived, so I hadn't realised just how many famous people were speaking (famous to me anyhow: if I've read your stuff, and it came between hard covers, you are famous, ok.) The weirdness of the responses forthcoming whenever I mentioned to people that I'd read their book, well, it pretty much ran the gamut from blushing and clamming up, to saying things along the lines of 'wow, I never imagined people in Australia had even heard of that', to an open sneer and literal back-turning from one man whose work I'd really seriously admired...up till then. I don't remember anyone actually being willing to talk about their work. Are such people able to write amazing stuff because they conserve the mental energy normal folk expend in serious conversation? The people who were good to talk to were mostly peers: un- or under-employed postgraduates working on their dissertations.

OK, my paper. Definitley the lowlight of the whole experience. I must warn you, this part may sound a bit whiney, but hey, remember i spent eighteen hours on airplanes for this! Anyhow, I chose a topic I thought would be interesting to that audience: the dynamics of memory and longing in Beau travail, Claire Denis' magnificent, poetic adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor. Already, in airports and other odd places, I'd found that many Americans have some experience reading Melville. It seems they often encounter him in high school (which is interesting in view of the fact that I have been agitating to get some onto the curriculum in my department but the official view is that he's too difficult for our undergrads.) So that part was fine. But most people I spoke to seemed deeply uninterested in hearing about how a French woman making postcolonial cinema might reinterpret one of the central texts of their literary tradition. I actually spoke to a man who said he taught French cinema at a reasonably well-known institution, & HE DIDN'T SEEM TO KNOW WHO CLAIRE DENIS IS. American literature and film is so rich that I guess it's often found absorbing enough on its own. I'm getting off track. But how else can I understand the fact that my panel session was a total disaster??

Here's how the session went, from an email i sent home a few days afterward:

Seven people came to my paper, one of whom was the technical assistant person, one the so-called 'moderator', and one was the psychotic Italianist who was the other panellist.  Mr XXXXX retold everyone the whole entire story of the Decameron as a preliminary to delivering his paper, opened the window and shouted something about Pasolini (in Italian) to somebody in the carpark, then spilled a glass of water on the vcr and exploded it (gesticulating), then raved like a crazed loon fro 45 minutes.  I had ten minutes to give my paper.  Oh well.

I gave a 4000 word presentation (with clips and slides) in 10min. It is a fucking good paper too, but it must've sounded like one of the Chipmunks was delivering it. One of the happy few did ask me a question after I finished speaking - how did I get the film segments onto a DVD? So at least I was able to clear that up for somebody. Yup, I was disappointed, who wouldn't be, but not depressed by it. The whole thing was just way over the top into Fawlty Towers territory. Though if I ever see that italian freak again I will pull out his chair just as he's about to sit on it.

After that things did pick up. I heard some really good papers and also some satisfyingly stupid ones. I listened to one genius confidentially slag off another one, and also got my fill of watching early-career academics grovel and suck up to influential people. Is it wrong to derive enjoyment from exhibitions like that? I don't think it is if the alternative is to be made miserable by them. But it's a fine line isn't it, between cynicism and.....non-cynicism.

I haven't anything more to add except that when I got home I had a fine time looking up all the people who annoyed me on, and seeing how much they annoyed their students also. I hope this has been an interesting story, and scholarly enough for the most pointy-headed reader.


Mel said...

What a satisfying post. Conferences are just rich humiliation mines, aren't they? Is there an Australian equivalent of RateMyProfessor? I would love to seek out my nemeses.

Brownie said...

It was most interesting to this blunthead. thank you. did anyone ask if australians spoke spanish down there?

Jenn said...

ok. so you have me hooked. I will have to see this movie. but I am sure I will have questions for you after...

Susoz said...

It's very reassuring to read your story. I was recently turned down for the forthcoming Australian BlogTalk conference! I just don't have the knack of writing proposals for Australian academia, I guess. I can console myself with your story and be glad I don't actually have to present a paper.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. I absolutely loved it. It totally intrigued me, and I am from America. Well done!

Lucy Tartan said...

onya Susoz. it's much more enjoyable to listen to other people's papers than to actually give one yourself so yeah, be glad.

Mel, I don't know if there's an Aus equivalent, I really hope not: it would just about kill me to have things said about me by anonymous students like what you can read on that site.

Anon, thanks: I was a little concerned on rereading what I wrote that it looked like a rant against Americans, which was far from my intention, so you reassured me. cheers.

Scrivener said...

Great post, Laura. I tried to comment yesterday a number of times, but Blogger refused to allow me in.

Of course, the first thing to say is you left out the part of the story that most intrigues me--that keynote speaker we have in common. Was that because you didn't want his name associated with the negative post? I think you've told me before that his paper and meeting him was a positive experience, right?

Of course your comment to me earlier asking if I was at this conference suddenly gets cast in a slightly different light now, doesn't it? Maybe you asked before to decide whether you still wanted to speak to me? Maybe I should be glad I wasn't there!

So sorry you had such a negative experience at the conference, of course. I was at a differnet conference in Tallahassee within only a couple of weeks of that one, and had a very different experience--though one panel I was on was seriously underattended and didn't generate anything like critical engagement (should I say that in public?). But the other one was more engaging, and I had some interesting and useful conversations with quite a few colleagues while I was there.

I'll be going to a big interdisciplinary conference in Oregon this summer--I hope it'll be a positive experience and I can blog about it some and perhaps convince you that not all US conferences are this bad.

iBeth said...

What an interesting account--thanks for posting it. So glad you didn't actually step in the anthill because those fire ants have nasty bites. I've been to some terrific, friendly conferences (e.g., CCCC) but lit ones tend to more snooty, imo. Then again, I don't go to many lit conferences anymore. :)

katy said...

I was glad to hear a full account of this conference after you off handedly referred to it on one occassion. I heartily sympathise.

The only conference I've ever felt was a bit of a waste of time was one held in Australia where those of us working with High Theory (in one guise or another) were practically shunted to the side as the organisers celebrated the pop scholarship end of the spectrum (which is actually a really valid thing to do, but at the expense of difficult but rewarding work in this case). We ended up banding together and getting drunk and egging each other on in grand gestures of disdain for TheoryLite, and then all felt horrible and dirty about it.

But we were spurned! Made to feel irrelevant! And this included OS speakers who had made the trip especially.

Sadly, I think you may have been one of the last pgrads to get funding for OS conference travel from the faculty since its now stated as a matter of policy that only in special circumstances will they even consider doing so. Way to foster collegial development guys!

Lucy Tartan said...

Katy, that policy really, really sucks. They did have it in 2003 when I was trying to get funding, but it was obviously a bit newer then. nevertheless a big deal was still made. So here is the hack: 1) apply during a semester when you're doing sessional so you're technically on staff.
2) They just won't give money for conference trips alone. Soon enough this will apply to f/t staff as well as postgrads. You have to combine it with research preferably of the interviewing and/or archival variety.

I know that people in English have been given money for conference travel since I had my go at the slush fund. Details can be supplied if precedents might help you build a case.

David. The trip for me was a real mixture: I honestly had a ball, Even if some of the enjoyment derived was, shall we say, Jamesian in nature. and you are quite right, that keynote speaker we have in common was quite marvellous. He wasn't the only speaker whose presentation was worth making the journey for, for instance I heard a paper in the very last session which, once it finally appears in published form, is going to set a new agenda for thinking about how we discuss screen acting. The real reason I didn't mention anybody by name is I didn't set out to tell that sort of story: it's about an experience that anybody could have, really. And I think many of us have been on a panel with someone totally mad and out of control like the fellow I described.
Anyone who really needed to know names attached tot his story could work them out pretty easily with a bit of diligent googling...but taking that step would have nothing to do with me.
Anyway. I remember you mentioning some time ago your upcoming meeting - is that the one Le Guin is speaking at? Last week I happened to read the text of an address she gave at the infamous On Narrative symposium organised by critical inquiry. How I envy anyone who gets to hear her speak in person.

Scrivener said...

Laura: yep that's the one (and only) conference I'm attending this year. I'm heartily looking forward to it.

chutry said...

I'm late to the party for this post, but I just wanted to mention that I've had a bad experience with the conference in Tallahassee. It might not be representative of the conference in general, but though my panel had better attendance, I also had a panel chair who allowed a senior professor to talk for nearly 45 minutes. And no, you don't dound whiny at all...

Tallahassee is also a particularly pedestrian-unfriendly town, in my experience. I'd recommend shooting for Society of Cinema and Media Studies next year....


Anonymous said...

Try a film conference. The Australian screenwriters conf. is early next year.

We try hard to be entertaining but I wouldn't say we bring out the intellectual heavyweights.

See grovelling to television executives! See despair and poverty and really really bad op-shop clothes! See people who have lied about their past, have no future and are too confused to inhabit the present!

Just joking..

- barista

Scrivener said...

Well, now that Chuck's left his comment, I guess I should admit that my very first conference was an earlier one in that same series in Tally, during my last year as an undergrad, and it was an extremely positive experience for me. The keynote speaker mentioned the panel I was on in her address and encouraged people to attend, which was incredibly nerve-wracking, but it meant the room was packed. And people asked lots of good questions, none of which I answered because I kept deferring to the other people on the panel, who were all tenure track or tenured profs. But the keynote speaker took me to lunch one day and was mostly very nice and offered some useful advice on grad school and my research. And I met quite a few people in the other panels who were all very friendly and supportive--granted, though, they were mostly not the "famous" people there. There was a group of grad students who did a panel on U2's album Achtung, Baby (which tells you how long ago that conference was), who were all really very cool and we talked quite a bit about various topics including lit theory and grad school.

Maybe the conference has just changed a lot over the years, that's the only time I've been there, but I kept hearing then that it was a great conference because it was so collegial and informal. I wonder what happened to it.

Zoe said...

Oh, excuse me, was that Ursula Le Guin you were talking about? If so, could you take a moment out from your busy conference schedule to dribble on her from me, and tell her that I have bought five copies of "the dispossesed", all of which have been stolen by people who deserved to have it so I couldn't get cut about it?

If not, I'll just sit quietly here in my corner.

Scrivener said...

Um, if I get to talk to her up close I'll pass along your message, Zoe.