I just got back from a conference in a lovely West Coast city, and although this is the first time I've attended this particular gathering, some things about conference-going are constants: good papers and less good ones; reconnecting with grad school and conference friends; meeting up with bloggers (in this case, rather a large and wonderful number of them).
But every conference has its own peculiarities, and so I felt more conscious, at this one, of observing the goings-on: trying to figure out the culture and the mores. I do this whenever I'm at a conference, though, and that's one of the things that I find most valuable about them: I feel as though I'm learning the culture not just of one specific conference, or even of conferencing more generally, but of academia in the broadest sense. Going to conferences teaches me how to do academia.
That's perhaps a strange thing to say, since I've been a member of this profession (in some fashion) for eight years now, and pretty active for most of the last four. But I feel that I'm always jotting down mental notes as I watch how various people present; how they ask questions; and even how they interact socially.
It astonishes me how little thought most people seem to give to these activities. On the one hand, there are the people I envy, who hold forth easily and extemporaneously on complicated topics in the question/answer period or in seminars (and I'm not merely referring to senior scholars; there's many a young grad student, from a third-tier institution, who seems more at ease putting together ideas on the fly than I do). On the other hand, there are the people who make me roll my eyes--who are such bad presenters, not necessarily of papers, but of themselves: who don't have any idea that they're communicating self-absorption or arrogance or condescension through their words, gestures, and tone.
I write frequently and rather boringly about the performative aspects of my job--boringly because it's nothing that hasn't been said before, and with more insight and complexity--but I suppose I never don't feel that I'm standing outside myself, scripting and stage-managing whatever it is that my corporeal self seems to be doing. (And this isn't just about getting used to a new professional role; I still feel like my performance of femaleness is an elaborate and somewhat hilarious bluff. . . and to the best of my knowledge, I've been female for 32 years.)
It's great fun to watch people do whatever it is that they do, and then either try on their behaviors or expend great time explaining to anyone and everyone exactly how wrong-headed and annoying those behaviors are. But--and more generously--I think that in paying such careful attention to human interactions I'm also trying to be a careful and sensitive reader of people and situations; I want, myself, to do things right--where "right" doesn't mean "professionally acceptable and appropriate" so much as it means "communicating one's intended self as clearly as possible."
Do I succeed in that? I hope I do, mostly, though it's not as if I don't still piss people off or rub them the wrong way (I was treated v-e-r-y frostily for the conference's first two days by an acquaintance who, I think, misunderstood something that happened at a previous conference). But that's the way it goes; the misunderstanders usually aren't the cleverest readers anyway.
But to return to the blogfriends-whom-I-met (who have nothing to do with the foregoing, although they are, necessarily, clever), I gotta say this: dudes. It was rad.