Monday, July 25, 2011

Academic Thoughts II: The Conference

Regular readers probably expected that since the first post in this series ended with the statement that it would be continued the next day, that probably meant a delay of at least the weekend. What was perhaps less expected is that the declared topic--"What's Wrong with Current Videogame Scholarship and How the Solution is Me and Only Me (I'm paraphrasing)"--quickly veered into a discussion on the blog as a forum for academic promotion. Well, I still want to talk about videogame scholarship, but I think we'll take the scenic route, which means today is a leisurely stroll through the gently lolling (LOLing?) hills of the academic conference.

As my frequently perused media sites are currently bombarding me with information regarding the just-concluded San Diego Comic Con, it occurs to me that an academic conference is similar to comic book convention, much as both sets of attendants would be loathe to admit it. Both events provide a justification for a large number of people with shared interests to congregate together. Both also provide justification for travel, and a structured event around which to plan aforementioned congregations. And both blur the line between the line between serious business and spirited play (the spirited play part being one of the guilty secrets of the academic conference; if you doubt its presence, try frequenting the hotel bar of a conference in progress). Of course, there are significant differences, with two big ones in particular. First, in general, the academic conference sides more towards the serious business, and the comic con sides more towards play. And second, the comic con is based rather highly on an exchange of finance, whereas the primary currency at the academic conference is (ideally) the idea.

Let's expand on that first point. I've been to quite a few conferences at this point, of varying sizes. Of larger conferences, I've delivered papers at the Society for Science, Literature, and the Arts Annual Conference, and at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. And I've participated at a number of smaller conferences, including most recently, the aforementioned graduate conference in Ottawa on Digital Play and Narrative. But there's been no conference that quite drove home to me the line between play and business like my first big conference, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts 2007 (possibly 2008) conference.

With its focus on fantasy literature and the presence of several notable fantasy writers, the conference blurred the fan con/ academic conference line more than most. The theme of the conference had been the sublime, and I was presenting a paper on the ecosublime, as it appears in the work of Robin Hobb and Tamora Pierce. On a personal level, it was a very odd experience for me, as it was both my first conference and a week long conference on a huge scale. It combined my research interests--I got to meet Brian Atterby, for example, a reasonably big name in fantasy theory, though I didn't recognize him until after we'd talked--and my personal interests, as I had a chance to meet and gush in a fannish manner with fantasy authors such as Guy Gavriel Kay and Stephen Donaldson. (I particularly remember a session where someone was giving a paper on the ending of Kubrick/Spielberg's AI, and the author of the book, Brian Aldiss, crashed the session to give his own opinion.)

The juxtaposition for work and play was quite explicit in my case: the conference took place in Orlando, Florida, and my parents had decided that my journey there made for a good excuse for a family vacation. And thus, while I was attending sessions on postmodernity in Resident Evil and the translation of Dungeons & Dragons into movie conventions, the rest of my family was exploring Disney World. It was also the most international conference I've ever been at, as I rubbed shoulders with people from Norway, China, and Australia. At the university I was doing my MA at, my research was definitely on the fringe of the department's specialties; it was immensely rewarding to see that other people, on a global scale, thought that the same areas were interesting and important. On a personal level, I can't think of a more ringing endorsement of the academic conference: it reminds you that you are part of a community greater than its parts.

But let's go back to the other big difference for the moment: capital vs. idea. To say that academic conferences aren't financially oriented is a bit of an untruth; there's quite a lot of money involved. There's the cost of transportation, accommodations, and food. There's the table of books set up in one of the rooms, showcasing the published works of the presenters (conference tip: try to save your academic book purchases for the last day of the conference--that's when they start getting desperate to sell.) There's even the cost of registration to attend the conference at all. But the big focus is the exchange of ideas, the paper itself and the conversations you have apart from your own panel. It's through this exchange that the purpose of the academic conference comes out: you're not selling a product, you're selling yourself.

That is, the purpose of the academic conference is to sell your professional persona to anyone who looks like they're buying. In a less crude, non-neoliberal formulation, the purpose is to forge bonds that may be of use, both in terms of developing your ideas and research, but also in terms of developing your career. Again, regular readers know that, outside of this blog wherein my personality and razor wit reign supreme, I can be somewhat reticent and retiring, but even I rarely leave a conference without at least an exchange of email addresses. For the forging of academic ties, the value of the conference can't be overstated.

And, unlike the blog, the academic conference has a definite place on the standard CV. The catch is that it's a relatively small place. No conferences at all is a small problem; a regular attendance at the right conferences is a mild boon. Note the emphasis there on "right conferences"--what conference is right for you and yours depends on your area of study. As a digital media drone specializing in video games, my attendance at anything from the SLSA to a grad conference on video games is rather justified, but if I was an 18th century specialist, it would look a little stranger, especially if I failed to have a good slate of 18th century related activities on my list.

But while the conference presence really needs to be there, it alone isn't enough. The problem with conferences is that the people reading your CV go to them too, and they thus know exactly how much effort and academic value is expended on the average conference paper. Something more is needed, and we'll get exactly what that something is--after a brief stop at the untamed wild that is the undergraduate course.

PS. I rather doubt I'm the only one with a rewarding (or at least vaguely interesting) conference story. If you've got one you'd like to share, I'm all ears.

Later Days.


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Person of Consequence said...

I appreciate the effort, Sara, but that wasn't the sort of academic conference experience that I meant.