Archive for November, 2008

I just returned from an academic conference in Massachusetts.  I was not presenting a paper this time, which made for a different sort of conference experience: a conference without the anxiety of performance, where I could feel like an insider and outsider at the same time.  Because I am an area chair, I had to select paper proposals and invite presenters, and, once the conference started, I had to chair my panel.  The focus is never on the chairs, so my only worries are about making sure the AV equipment works correctly and hoping that a couple of people will wander into the session, so it is not just the presenters and me sitting there. The organizers had arranged for a musician to perform after the first sessions ended Friday night, so we got to listen to Cape Breton Celtic fiddler Kimberley Fraser, who was very talented.  I bought her CD and got her to sign it for me.

The topics presented at the conference ranged widely across many different academic disciplines, providing an opportunity to find something of interest.  I realized that professional academics, like the students we teach, have very widely varying talents.  The presentations in my panel were both interesting, well-done, and professional.  I sat in on another panel where the papers were mostly interesting, but the presentations were a little flat, and the writing not especially scintillating.  I wish scholars would realize that the obscure references to meticulously fastidious points of theory, while they may be important and significant in a written work, do not soar in an oral presentation.  I, too, appreciate Fredric Jameson, but by the fourth reference, my eyes began to glaze over.

This was not the most egregious difficulty, however.  In fact, academic conferences typically feature more obscure references per mile than anything outside of a monograph proudly trumpeting its allegiance to the Frankfurt school.  No, my most tedious experience was listening to the most disjointed, rambling, incoherent thing I have ever had to sit through without the power to grade it at the end.  The scholar began reading her paper, but for some reason gave up on that about a page into it and just started talking, apparently about whatever vaguely related thought popped into her head.  I was so embarrassed for her, I could not make eye contact, and started writing on my little yellow pad to make it look like I was paying attention and following along.  Here is what I wrote:

What is she saying?  She appears to be rambling & doing a lot of plot summary & only makes passing references to crticis or any other sort of analysis.  Jumping from bbiographical material and back to plot summary gets very confusing.  Does she have any idea at all of what it is she is trying to say?  I have no idea where she is going with this.  Is there a thesis here?  Is there any clear, sustained argument?  She appears to be making this up as she goes along.  I do not understand what point she is trying to make & it is driving me crazy!!  What is the point of the maps [she projected images of maps for no reason at all]?  How does the pilgrimage relate?  Why is the culture significant?  I do not see her point!  Ramble ramble ramble.

The panel chair, peace be upon her, managed somehow to find some sort of question to ask the woman at the end of her presentation.  Fortunately, we ran out of time before the silence became unbearable.  What a mess, though.

The high point of the trip was the chance to meet with one of my former students.  I had not seen her in a couple of years, and, even though we keep in touch on e-mail, it was very good to sit down across the table from her and have a real conversation.  She was, without doubt, my favorite student of all time, and has become a very good friend since the first time she sat in my classroom almost five years ago.  As a bonus, she is, naturally, a true book geek, and we hit a couple of her favorite bookstores before going out to get something to eat.  Clearly, the basic requirement to become my friend is to cherish a love of small bookstores.

I picked up four books:  Tara French’s In the Woods (my friend’s recommendation), Chet Raymo’s The Path, Charles Norhoff and James Norman Hill’s Men Against the Sea, and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder.

Going to conferences is a bit of a pain, but the way this trip ended made up for that.


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