Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Conference: Types & Observations

Some types:

  • The emeritus in the baggy suit that once fit.
  • The earnest grad students giving their first papers, sitting and reviewing their text one last time while sitting cross-legged on the floor.
  • The aggravated panel chair at the registration desk. One of the presenters is a no show for his panel. Did he check in at the conference?
  • The sleepy grad student dozing in a big over-stuffed chair in a side alcove.
  • The old grad-school buddies laughing together in the bar at dinnertime.
  • The attendee who brought family, kissing their spouse and kids goodbye as they leave to go to the zoo.
  • The young publisher rep at the book desk. She has sad eyes. Is this were she thought she’d end up when she started grad school?
  • The aging hippy with the graying ponytail. They’ll make a snide remark about Nixon or Reagan in their panel that will be met with sad nods by the older audience members, but with slightly confused looks from the 20-something’s.
  • The aggrieved activist. How can you ignore that the government/corporation/society is oppressing Y? They’re probably right about Y’s situation, but most of us are trying to get by day-to-day. We look away and promise ourselves that we'll try to do something when we’re back home.
  • The lost attendee standing in the hotel hallway wondering “Where is Ballroom C?”
  • The hotel staffer picking up the abandoned coffee cups at the back of the conference room. How many different groups do they clean up after? Today it’s academics, next week it’s an industry group. After them comes the medical association. They all leave the same trash behind.

Some observations:

  • The five minute "question" in which you only brag about your own research is not a question.
  • A problem for statistics class. Or maybe philosophy. There are four papers scheduled to be on this panel. All else being equal shouldn't there be only a 25% chance that the panelist I want to hear is the one that cancels at the last minute? So why is it always the speaker I want to hear that is missing?
  • A 5:00 pm panel on the last day of the conference? Either you pissed off someone on the scheduling committee or you have a very unpopular topic.
  • Is there anything at a conference more beautiful than a table full of new books in your area, and there is sign stating "50% off all books"?
  • Math word problem. (As best as I can mimic one at least). The projector in the meeting room is not working. There are five professors are on the panel. X=5. There are seven people in the audience. Y=7. How many people will it take to fix the projector? Show your work.
  • "I haven't gotten that far in my research" is a great way to say "I do not know the answer to your question."
  • There is a new journal called Porn Studies? Seriously? Oh my. Yes, I am sure it's very interesting. I won't ask if it has pictures because I'm sure that joke is very, very old already. I'm just wondering how long it will be before we hear some state legislator having a fit and cutting his state school's spending after he hears that one of their departments bought a subscription.
  • Finally, there is something sad about the last day of a conference. People are checking out so the lobby is busier than the meeting areas.. The book room is closed. The last person at the registration desk is playing a game on his phone. Little chaotic piles of papers lay about, announcing panels already held, receptions already finished, calls for papers for the future that there is no one left to pick up. The recycle bin awaits. A mixture of emotion is in the air--fulfillment, disappointment, exhaustion, and a sense that opportunities have been both met and missed. Tonight the books will go on the shelf. The spouse will get the book that you thought they’d like which you picked up from the book display and the kids will be given the little toys you bought in the airport gift shop. The conference program will be tossed or put on a shelf, the latter only if your name is in it. Receipts will be filed, and the attendees will go back to their routine. Next year’s conference will be in that city with the good restaurants and great museum. That should be fun.


  1. An evocative description; thanks, MM&M!

    I have to admit that I'm feeling ambivalent about that fact that, thanks to reading blogs, I can name two conferences (PCA and a Shakespeare one) that took place in the last few days, in a period that overlaps with both the holiest 4 days in the Western version of the Christian calendar (Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday) and, I believe, part of Passover (though perhaps not the most crucial part). On the one hand, I know that we live in a society made up of people of a number of faiths (and no faith at all) , and I'm a strong believer that Christian holidays should have no more influence on scheduling decisions than those of other faiths. I also realize that these conferences may be regularly scheduled for the last weekend in March, which will sometimes overlap with Easter and/or Passover (and possibly the spring festivals of other religions, too), and sometimes not. That kind of consistency can work very well for avoiding overlap with other conferences. On the other hand, as a believer (both in a faith and in the general principle that faith-based holidays are important times for faith communities, and often also families, to gather), it makes me a bit sad, and I find myself hoping that attendance was down a bit this year. That's probably the correct response for anyone who, like me, is bothered by the timing: just don't come. There will, after all, as you mention at the end, be other conferences, and other years (and these are decisions that non-Christians have had to make for years, though I have sometimes heard complaints about conference schedules overlapping with Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah or one of the Eids; give it another decade or two, and practicing Christians may be rare enough to argue from a similar position of being not the de facto established religion, but a religious minority. Maybe that won't be all bad; we might have to be clearer about what we believe and do, and why).

    1. The PCA is always held right before Easter because so many schools have a break then. That's why it ends Saturday and not Sunday. And why so many people rush off Saturday, so they're home at Easter. I'd rather it be held in summer myself.

    2. Major conferences scheduled during Easter is what you get with a bunch of Godless academics in charge. Oh, and some posts in Russian.

  2. I hate those five minute questions that don't ask anything. I got asked one of those once and could not resist replying, "That's all very interesting, but do you have an actual question? Because if not, we'll move on."

  3. This is a great post, MA&M. You captured everything so well. I haven't presented in a while (lack of PD funding means I am not going anywhere because they don't pay me enough to foot the bill on my own) but my memories of the last one a few short years ago lingers for the very reasons you cite, especially the five-minute masturbatory "questions" that are really excuses to show off how much the person knows. If I ever get another one, I think I will just say in return, "That's really interesting. Why aren't *you* on this panel?"

  4. Another type:
    • Young, drunk proffie speaking from the podium--without notes--to about 600 people.

    To this day, I am not sure whether or not the old-timers knew I was drunk. If they knew, either they didn't care or they thought it was better to never say anything about it.

    The grad students, on the other hand, were apparently clueless. They rushed up to the dais afterwards with their comments and questions for me.

    Those were not my better days, but I weathered the storm.

    Good list, MAaM.

  5. The newly minted gumdrop unicorns go to all the talks.

    The newly tenured types go to the talks that interest them.

    The older tenured types skip the talks and just roam the venue looking for their friends.

    The masters sit in one place and wait for their friends to come to them.

  6. Whenever I'm at a major academic conference I feel like I get so flabby from all the committee meetings and dinners of rubber chicken.

    What do you all do about getting your body moving and putting some exercise into the routine?

    1. If the conference is in New Orleans, I dance. If the conference is at Disneyland and there's line dancing in the pseudo-Western bar, I guffaw.

  7. I'm very thankful that I'm now employed securely and thus out of the "sweating bullets for interviews" demographic and into the "giving one paper, and chairing another session, hence attending two sessions total and drinking with pals from grad school and sightseeing" demographic.

  8. Great post. A couple of other types:

    Mid-career man trying to look laconic in cowboy boots, jeans, button-front shirt and tweed blazer. I always feel like offering this type a long piece of grass to chew.

    Mid-career woman multitasking dynamically in moderate heels, knee-length skirt, nice T-shirt and suit jacket. They used to inspire me. I'm still amazed that they always seem to know exactly what to say.