I'm just back from #shakeass14--my fourth and final conference of the term, which is at least two too many--and as usual I'm filled with many feelings. Though I still don't quite feel that SAA is "my" conference (not being a drama scholar and all), it's the one where I feel most in touch with my corner of the profession, for good and for ill.
That's not so much about the work being presented, but about the size and the nature of the conference and to some degree its timing: it happens in April, after all the job market gossip is out. Even with its recent growth, the conference remains small enough to fit in one hotel and large enough that it seems everyone I know is there. Most importantly, it's a conference that remains welcoming to very junior people and those on the margins of the profession; its seminar format, where works-in-progress are precirculated and everyone gives feedback to everyone (grad students to very senior scholars and vice-versa) is a large part of this. SAA is kind of like Twitter: it's not that there's no hierarchy (or no jackassery), but it creates a space for conversations and friendships that set age, rank, and status aside.
For that reason, I was disappointed that the official conference made some missteps; not only did the programming skew toward older participants, but there were a number of unprofessional, self-indulgent, and/or ungenerous statements made by senior people speaking publicly at various podiums (I witnessed two and heard about two others). That still amounts to only a small proportion of the conference, but it's not a good tone to set. One person is an anomaly. Multiple people getting prime airtime feels like an endorsement.
But if the tone of the conference struck me as less welcoming to The Yoots than it might have been, I myself spent more time with grad students or recent PhDs than I have since I was one myself. This wasn't, like, a project on my part; there just happened to be a critical mass of interesting younger people around--some of whom I'd met at previous conferences or on social media while others were the friends, acquaintances, or grad students of my friends. And they were at the bar and I was at the bar and whether any of us now remembers our conversations clearly, it was still a good time.
Hanging out with fun people is its own reward, but for anyone concerned about the larger profession, talking to grad students and recent PhDs should also feel essential. Our juniors aren't just our future, but our present: the kind of work they're doing is a good index of what the discipline values (and this is true whether they're writing "safe" dissertations or balls-to-the-wall dissertations), and the forms of professionalization and pedagogical training they receive are also worth our knowing and understanding if we hope to hire them. The knowledge-transfer needs to work both ways.
I genuinely believe that most mid-career types want to know, or at least are open to knowing, their juniors. Some don't make much of an effort and others don't know how (whenever I feel slighted, I ask myself: is it possible this person is just deeply socially inept? usually the answer is yes), which is why conferences that foster conversations across rank are so important. But of course, there are scholars, at all career stages, who think the only people worth meeting are those senior to them. And those people suck.
The thing is, the profession is hard on everyone these days. Anyone hired in the past couple of decades either has his own scars or has seen up close and personal those of some dear friends. If you've gone through a hazing process yourself, I don't see how it's possible not to relate to those behind you--and to want to make it easier on them where you can. But as the culture of hazing teaches us, there are those who, once they've made it, buy into its logic, cling to whatever limited status they've achieved, and demand even more obeisance from their juniors than was demanded of them.
Luckily, at the SAA there's an easy way to exorcize such people from one's conference experience: just go to the dance. Those obsessed with status are generally not to be found playing air guitar.