Sunday, April 08, 2007

Conferencing: part the first

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.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Flavia, I completely agree with you about the hyper self consciousness of behavior at conferences. I kept wondering whether it ever goes away. I would like to become more confident about my self presentation, but conferences are breeding grounds of awkward moments and frosty misunderstandings.

At the last one, I got unreasonably upset on the last day when I asked an old grad school chum if I might join her and her new friend (who I enjoyed knowing in undergrad) on a brief excursion and she said no because I hadn't been "invited." For godssake! It took me another half hour to realize I was just capitulating to the social pressure of the conference, which is magnified and intensified if you have to spend 4 days with the same group of people in the same remote hotel.

As a correlary, I also wonder whether as women we might be more aware of this? I'd be happy to stand corrected.

And finally, does it help or hurt to have a so-called 'posse'-- to surround yourself with friends that then act as a kind of human armor to boost one anothers' confidence? I saw a lot of junior prof 'posses' (well, ok, only one obvious one) at the two conferences I recently attended. (And I'm not saying I haven't been part of one too; though at this last conference I simply refused to be a 'hanger on'). But by the end it all felt a bit "high school" to me. Perpetuated, no doubt, by my own feelings of insecurity as a new prof. And I did note that the 'posses' tend to be male, albeit terribly charming and entertaining.

gwoertendyke said...

i love how you put this: that conferences teach you how to *do* academia. this seems spot on to me.

negativecapability said...

Oh, you were in my undergrad city...which I totally pine for. (one of my friends was at the same conference). Like you, I am constantly amazed by the lack of consciousness of self that most people seem to have.

irina said...

I'm afraid I'm a little bit confused... do you think the people who are communicating self-absorption or arrogance or condescension are actually none of those things but, by giving off the wrong cues, come across as such? I guess I always assumed that people who seemed to be that way actually *were* self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending.

Ok, that's not really wholly true -- at this point, when I meet someone who comes across as extremely arrogant, especially in an academic environment, my first assumption is that they're insecure. But in that case, I think they're trying to be arrogant to cover up their insecurity.

(I should probably also say that I haven't met too many such people. Most of the people I've met at conferences were genuinely nice. Maybe I need to get out more.)

Margo, darling said...

I know I should let this go, but I am kind of smarting from sfrajett and I not even making the highlights reel of your last conference. How come we didn't even get so much as a discreet "met bloggerfriends" note? It's like we failed Flavia's blogger meet-up.

Flavia said...


I know! I've actually been kind of stressed about not mentioning how much fun I had with you & Sfrajett--but I wasn't sure, first of all, how open you are about your geographical location & how open *I* wanted to be about the geographical location of that particular conference; I like to boast about my blogfriends by name, you know, and I wasn't sure about doing that in that one--I kept thinking that I'd do a separate post after that first about meeting you guys, but then I didn't.

But can I say that one of the reasons I'm most looking forward to that big conference in a few months is getting to see you again? If you forgive my neglecting you the first time?

Pamphilia said...

It was GREAT meeting you Flavia! I wish we could have talked more. Maybe I'll see you at the next Donne or Milton conference.

Flavia said...

Oh, and Irina:

You make a good point. I think that I do mean that the people in question may not be truly arrogant (or no more than the rest of us are!), but that they aren't self-aware enough to realize how they're coming across. Think of it this way: surely there are people whom you dislike or disrespect, but whom, for one reason or another, you act extremely friendly toward in public. That's a skill, and a useful one. Not acting like you're as self-absorbed as perhaps you are? Also a skill.

I tend to think that many of us are equal parts insecure and arrogant. The trick is to present a self that's neither one of the two, or that's charming despite those (equally unattractive) characteristics.

Anonymous said...

You think about this stuff WAAAAAAAAAY too much. Reading your above post made my head hurt.