Monday, December 29, 2008

MLA Day Two: listen like you mean it

I've been attending fewer panels than usual--at the moment, I'm on track to see five or six over the conference's three days--but as usual some have been good, some bad, and others might have been good had their papers been better delivered or I not undercaffeinated, overfatigued, or wedged into a hot, crowded room with a whirring exhaust system.

Given the effort required to focus on anything for 75 minutes, I often blank out for a minute or two during even the best papers--and during the not-best I may give up the attempt to follow along at all. Because I've been civilized (or trained in the arts of dissimulation, which amounts to the same thing) I usually manage not to show my lack of engagement, instead keeping my eyes fixed on the speaker with a look of intensity or encouragement, laughing when the rest of the room does and smiling now and again as a recognizable phrase or fact penetrates my brain.

I always feel a bit bad about this--even when I'm secretly and simultaneously envisioning a panelist's head exploding and cutting short her talk--but it wasn't until today, as I sat there letting a speaker's words pass unimpeded through my brain, that it occurred to me that I was probably feeling what my students sometimes feel listening to me: that even while I was certain that what I was saying was hilarious, or vital, or even just reasonably interesting, they were wishing I'd be done already. . . and registering only vaguely that I seemed to be joking, or hammering home a point, all while mysteriously delighted with my own charm and brilliance.

I skipped the next session. Self-knowledge is overrated.


life_of_a_fool said...

It's not my level of civilization or training that gets me to try to look like I am enthusiastically paying attention -- it's thinking about how annoying and distracting it is to have 35 blank student faces staring up at me (or at their phones/sidekicks/etc.). And I often experience empathy for students at moments like this.

Shane in Utah said...

Five or six panels?!?! You're a better scholar than me, evidently. I typically make it to one or two other than my own. Granted, these last three years I've been busy doing Delegate Assembly stuff, and I usually have at least a couple of job interviews (because I can't stop myself from compulsively applying for jobs every year even though I have a job that I'm moderately happy in). But even at conferences in my subfield, I have trouble doing more than two panels in a day. I have the same problem that you do staying focused. In fact, I seem to have some serious attention disorder that makes it nearly impossible to follow along as someone is reading out loud. This is why I never do books on tape, and this is why I require students to include visual aides in their presentations that include any long quotations from their sources that they plan to read aloud.

These are bad qualities in an English professor, I know. Somehow I've managed to fake it this long.

Flavia said...

Shane: I'm never an epic panel-goer, even at conferences in my subfield, but in the past I've managed 8 or 9 over the course of MLA's four days or half days (this year, for the record, I went to five: 2, 2, 0 and 1--and that felt just riiight).