Thursday, November 12, 2009

More on Academic Conferences

Am I the only one who thinks academic conferences are weird? Why do they feel a little bit like a junior high school dance?

For background, go read this post about my last academic conference. I'll try not to repeat what I said there. Because I'm not in a discipline, I tend to go to conferences that are interdisciplinary or a little tangential to some established discipline. This is a good thing as the presentations can be on a range of topics. I was recalling some of my earlier Renaissance conferences yesterday. While the Renaissance is a huge period covering several countries, there are some conventions that get repeated at conferences. It can get tiring to hear yet another paper about women's poor treatment in [insert author]'s work. This latest conference definitely had a wide variety of topics. I heard papers on dna art (very cool), on illness in literature (also cool), twittered subjects (disappointing), and a reading of short stories and essays (perhaps my favorite).

My biggest complaint is the fact that everyone read their papers. This was especially hard on those of us (I'm sure I'm not the only one) who were unfamiliar with the topic being presented. Many of the papers were theory heavy, involving complicated arguments about philosophical positions on consciousness or relationships. Note: people cannot digest such complex arguments in 20 minutes via listening. Perhaps if one is familiar with the theory, one could follow the argument, but most of the time, I could not. Some people, despite reading, did a very good job of distilling the argument into its simplest form. But most did not. Once upon a time, this would have made me feel dumb, but now, I just feel like the people presenting are not doing a good job. If the idea of a conference is to disseminate your ideas to more people, then it seems to me important that the people to whom you're disseminating your ideas understand them.

The name-tag glance that I mentioned in the previous post was almost non-existent at this conference. And surprisingly, I felt totally comfortable telling people that I was an independent consultant and writer. It helps that I'm not looking for anything from these people. I was there to learn, not to network. During one conversation where I described my background and my current pursuits, someone said, "Wow, you're really employable!" And that made me laugh, considering my current limbo state. But, I knew that it was also true and why I feel so comfortable (mostly) being in limbo.

The other thing I noticed, and which I mentioned in the other post was the way that people asked questions to promote their own ideas or knowledge. This happened in the very first session, a creative writing reading. Someone asked if the stories could be tied together using some theorist's work, who said blah, blah, blah. I was rolling my eyes. In Ian Bogost's plenary, much of which I found rather difficult to understand, someone did the same thing and he called them on it, saying, "What you're asking is whether what you're interested in is at all related to what I just said." That made me laugh.

The weirdest sensation I had was that of resistance. Some of the sessions actually made me angry at the way they interpreted very practical things, like programming robots, as philosophical conundrums. It's not that one doesn't need to have some kind of philosophical stance on the nature of learning in order to program a robot, but a robot does not have a consciousness of its own that one can confront. Honestly, I couldn't even tell you exactly how they made the connection.

Perhaps the most frustrating session along these lines was the one that advertised itself as being about Twitter. I was actually interested in hearing a more theoretical stance on Twitter, but instead, I discovered that they'd used Twitter as a metaphor, dismissing it as a real entity that is having a real impact on how we relate to each other. I doubt any of the panelists even has a Twitter account. And that made me really mad. It was a similar move to using concepts from Artificial Intelligence and programming to talk about the relationship of science to art. The people using those concepts as metaphors have no real idea what those concepts really mean. They've never programmed or Twittered or conducted a physics experiment. But I felt like I didn't have a good counter to their arguments, veering as much as they did from any kind of practical reality. I wish I could have stood up and said, look, I'm a programmer and your metaphor really isn't working.

I have always been resistance to theory, primarily when it's drawn from philosophy. What it often feels like to me is that people are drawing on these theories to interpret literature because they're desperate to make their work more relevant. A philosophical theory arises that changes the way we think about our relationship to the world and the literature people are all over it, using it to interpret everything from Shakespeare to Pynchon. I don't mean to be unkind. I have seen theories used quite well, but too often, it becomes a mumbo jumbo that only the initiated can understand. It's at conferences that I most feel that I'm not among the initiated, that I'm not invited to the party.