Submitted by Karen Gross on September 15, 2009 - 2:59am
Before I became a college president, I enjoyed cooking for family and friends. Many of most well-liked recipes were reflective of holidays – brisket, sweet potato casserole, turkey stuffing. I also made a quality spaghetti sauce and my lasagna wasn’t too shabby either. Fruit soup was another specialty, and I had a gift for salads of any sort. Desserts were not my forte but I made pretty tasty brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
I always made extras”of everything, and people left our home with containers filled with the evening’s leftovers. I am a big believer that breaking bread with others creates important bonds. With leftovers, the warmth of a wonderful evening carries into the next day.
Now that I am president of Southern Vermont College, we entertain in our home all the time but my cooking for guests has come to a virtual standstill. With a full schedule, I barely get home in time for the events themselves. Then, there is the wee problem of food shopping – I rarely have time to go to the supermarket or smaller specialty shops (something I love to do). As much as I would like to cook for college guests, I am missing the most important ingredient: time.
I recently saw the movie “Julie and Julia” (starring Meryl Streep as a wonderful Julia Child). I smiled and laughed and cried. There was the sensuality of the cooking process and the gracious dinners for friends and associates that followed a day of cooking. There was competitive zeal of Julia chopping onions and Julie’s failed boeuf Bourguignon. While Julia was saddened by her lack of children, I saw her cooking as evidence of her creativity and her book and television show as her link to a new generation. Julie’s struggles with her mother – who did not believe in her – were played out in the kitchen as she conquered her fears: think lobsters and ducks.
The day after I saw the movie, we welcomed 50 college staff to our home. It was a lovely catered event to launch the start of the academic year. People seemed to be enjoying themselves. I gave a toast to the upcoming year and the importance of everyone there helping our students to succeed. All was proceeding swimmingly until one guest asked, with a wink in his eye, whether I had spent all day cooking since the food was so good.
Pause. It was like a stab in my heart, no doubt exacerbated by the movie. No, I had not cooked. I silently rushed through a list of what I had actually done that day instead of cooking: met with a prospective donor, greeted new SVC students and their parents, talked to the provost about both online hybrid courses and faculty development, visited our new Healthcare Simulation Laboratory, welcomed returning SVC Mountaineer athletes for the pre-season, and conferred with our new athletic director about our fall sports and the New England Collegiate Conference.
Two things followed.
First, I offered to bring the staff member who made the quip some matzo ball soup when next I made it. He seemed pleased. (He shouldn’t expect it before winter.)
Second, I reflected on the event at our home and realized that while I may not literally be cooking for guests in our home, I am still cooking. I am finding and blending ingredients; I am measuring and adding spices; I am helping create and shape an institution and those within it. At the end of the day, food cooking is all about producing something remarkably wonderful. That’s what leading a college is about too – producing something remarkable, including students who will be the leaders of tomorrow.
The recipe for that is even more complicated than Julia Child’s recipe for cassoulet, and the product is equally, if not more, delicious.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.
Ah, summer. The time to catch up on tasks neglected during the school year. I don’t lack good intentions, so I make a goal to throw away a few nonessentials every day. There’s just one little problem.
“My name is Maria, and I am a packrat.”
An archaeologist excavating an ancient site could not be working much harder than I am as I sort out papers, books, magazines and miscellany that have accumulated in my home office. Despite the stress of doing so, I must push against my natural tendency to collect. I must grit my teeth and sort, pitch and reminisce.
The truth is that I love the printed word in all its variegated forms, from classic literature to third-class mail. I love it too much, and I never know when I might want to read something again. Or order coffee from a company I never heard of before. But I don’t live in the Library of Congress or a print shop. I’m in a four-bedroom colonial shared with my husband and son, heaven help them.
I wish I could say it is just the home office that is, if I may gently suggest, messy. There is also the dining room table, under the table, and around the table. Plastic files. Folders on wheels. Brief cases. Canvas bags. Both of my clothes closets have just a little spillover on the floor. Writing stuff. Teaching stuff. Writing stuff. Teaching stuff. I have tucked some things in the piano bench. I once made the mistake of putting papers in my clothes’ drawers. My husband and son did an emergency maneuver of dumping them into several trash bags. That made the point.
Call hoarding what you will (collecting, storing, keeping): I’ve got it bad. I ache for the past, and how can I remember it without mementos? But it’s not just sentiment. I’ve got logical reasons. I have three part-time teaching positions but inconsistent office space. A career counselor friend of mine believes that I have a “spatial memory”; I know what I have by seeing it out in front of me, somewhere, and am not much helped by file folders, filing cabinets, and organizers.
Going back to childhood, I had the reverse example of my parents, who were immigrants and able to pitch and sort at will, bringing their key worldly possessions thousands of miles in just two jumbo trunks stored in the attic. I often meditated on those trunks and have probably overreacted, accumulating enough to fill the equivalent of those trunks in the past year alone. But above all, everything I save has words on it. All it takes is a glance at the words to be transported backward or forward in time, wherever the text wants me to go. That is a feeling hard to surrender.
Until recently, my purse was full of Post-it notes I use for quick reference, and I will not swear that former purses tucked into various closets are totally empty. You never know when I’ll feel like changing my purse on a whim … and that movie ticket stub might find its way to a memorabilia scrapbook … or I might need just a few more cents to give exact change to a harried clerk as I buy a cup of coffee to fuel an all-night purge of papers. But the purge of files usually turns into a merge.
A Darling Definition
So what exactly is a packrat? In a town with a renowned natural history museum and a wonderful metropolitan park system, I lazily turn to Wikipedia. Immediately, I feel less alone in the universe. There are 22 species of packrat listed and it’s also known as a trade rat or wood rat. I’m walking prouder already.
“In houses, pack rats are active nocturnally, searching for food and nest material. A peculiar characteristic is that if they find something they want, they will drop what they are currently carrying, for example a piece of cactus, and ‘trade’ it for the new item. They are particularly fond of shiny objects, leading to tales of rats swapping jewelry for a stone. They can also be quite vocal and boisterous, sounding at times as if a ‘family rift’ is taking place.”
Family rift: Yes, I’m married to a very neat guy who doesn’t have an extra piece of paper anywhere in his den and periodically loses his patience with his fuzzy spouse. Nocturnal: Affirmative. Married to a morning person. Searching for food: Indeed, I snack at night, especially during those quiet hours when I labor to peel layers of stuff off the dining room table. Incidentally, I do prefer even costume jewelry to a stone, but I’ve been known to collect a few stones. In a fit of generosity, I gave my memoir-writing class semi-precious stone hearts I ordered from a catalog that I wish I had kept because I am nostalgic to order the complete set again. Pitching leads to great problems.
Driven to Distraction
“A pack rat ‘midden’ is the nest of a pack rat.” Could a car be considered a nest? That is a cozy, preferable to the term my husband once used -- “rough draft wagon” -- referring to my proclivity for transporting student papers in their variant versions back and forth. “Due to a number of factors, pack rat middens may preserve the materials incorporated into it up to 40,000 years” [read: miles]. This can yield valuable knowledge of the past. I guess that’s what I’m hoping for. If you ever need a 1984 Writers Market, call me.
If only I had possessed the innate organizational instinct to create a scrapbook of my son’s art from his early years (he is now 16). I would have had to begin long ago. I thought I’d be in the mood to organize when my son was small. That was before I found that once he no longer had a crib, he wouldn’t be napping. And that I’d rather be playing with him and helping his own habits of collecting (plastic animals, stuffed animals, Pokemon cards, books, art supplies, whatever). He has outgrown his need for these things. I have not.
Who needs scrapbooks when the whole house is a packrat’s den? Like most writers, I have portfolios of my work, arranged and rearranged periodically. But narrowing the pedestrian aisles (please walk mindfully if you visit) is the work that has not yet made it to the portfolio and the extra copies of some work that has.…
Why do I have so much stuff? Some of the papers are work-related from various writing and editing jobs, now represented as just a line or two on the C.V. I save back-up, what led to a finished product. I’m process oriented. And then there are the handouts I’m forever tweaking for my students. And students’ writing. And the extra readings I love to share. And the extra copies of whatever, as I’d like to save at least a few trees in my lifetime. And student evaluations. And samples of good writing. And self-help materials. Inspirational articles. Science News. Tricycle, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Reform Judaism, and because I am ecumenically inclined, Daily Word, Unity Magazine, UU (Unitarian Universalist) World, Natural Solutions, Quill, to name about one fifth of the publications I read regularly.
There is nothing like a move or two to put a dent in knowing what is where. I undertook one such move as a dewy-eyed newlywed from my mother’s house to an apartment with my spouse who, as yet, did not know what he had gotten into. Six years later, a move from that apartment to a house had among its surprises the unexpected discovery of the box of cheese croissants left over from my wedding reception’s buffet. We always wondered where they went, and as starving graduate students, every leftover counted. Surprise! They had been somehow placed with other wedding mementos in a durable, airtight, cardboard box. They were intact, just waxy to the touch. (Don’t worry, I did pitch them.)
A Silver Lining
Some genuine treasures have emerged in excavations, such as a book I read over and over in my teens: Conversations: Christian and Buddhist. I found a precious handwritten account of Army life by one of my community memoir students now deceased; looking at the words makes me remember in an instant this man’s wit and grace. I see an assessment sheet in my own graphite printing assigned by an ambitious fourth grade teacher who had us rank our fellow classmates who had given oral reports. I find (and then misplace again) a postlude in my loopy fountain-pen script that I wrote in the seventh grade in response to a story about a young Native American who must decide whether to accept an out-of-town offer of education or to stay on the reservation. The last two items survived various moves since childhood.
Teaching About the Real World
Because I have an artistic side and liked the layout and design of invitations to benefits that were held three months ago, they might be saved. Samples of effective marketing writing and advertising might come in handy when my students are in the persuasion unit. Who says college teachers live in an ivory tower? I’m a teacher who recently got an idea about how to teach the sentence fragment while cutting up a box that had held teabags over the recycle bin. The cut-up box got rerouted to a new incarnation into the classroom. Temporarily. Now it’s in a plastic bag of teaching essentials somewhere on the dining room table.
The headline in a Suite 101 online article on organizing impertinently asks me: “Do you have hoard and clutter syndrome?” Yes, add HCS to the list of acronyms that describe me. Meyers-Briggs personality lingo pegs me as INFP (an introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving type). Maybe it’s attention-deficit disorder, ADD, that makes me loathe filing. Perhaps my hoarding is suggestive of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) rather than a charming personal quirk. On the brighter side, I do have an M.A. in English, and I’m working on an L.P.C. in a program accredited by CACREP. I’m a proud member of SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English).
By the way, don’t believe the rumor my husband has shared with visitors that my home office still has sample student papers from my first year of teaching, 1982. I threw them away in the great purge of 2006.
Maria Shine Stewart teaches, writes and eludes the fire marshal in South Euclid, Ohio.
As on a plane, in cyberspace there is little room to maneuver when split-second decisions must be made. Fasten your seatbelt, breathe deeply, and don’t alarm others. I relearn this lesson whenever I log on.
At a college where I teach freshman English, we had a rousing discussion by email about a new textbook option. The finalists included a traditional reader with text-heavy articles, the kind of book that was a staple of freshman English in the past. A young upstart was a serious contender, aiming to teach literacy with new media: email, listservs, blogs, chats, wikis, and other terms that formerly were random Scrabble tiles.
We are a flexible department. After our flurry of emails and rush copies ordered, the new text won.
A feeling of serenity enveloped me when I handled the book. It had dark type on durable paper, not interrupted with charts or graphics. Some research suggests that traditional, slow reading is at risk, and with more than 50 percent of my students in one class saying that they would not be upset if the library vanished tomorrow, I'd better keep up with the trends. So, I will continue to fly in cyberspace, with a book at my side. I need all the help I can get. Let me tell you why.
I was imprinted early with fear of technology. One day, as a first grader, I walked home for lunch and found that my mother, a part-time bookkeeper, had borrowed the adding machine from work. In a moment of sheer abandon (attempting to play “Chopsticks” or positioning my own exact age?) I simultaneously pressed the “6” and the “7.”
No prodding or crying would loosen the stuck keys. The trauma of a winding cab ride downtown (we didn’t drive), the repairman’s scowl, the sharp tools, the gobs of smelly, lubricant: all to undo the consequences of spontaneity. I have never lost the fear of pushing the wrong button.
On the other hand, my fingers can fly. My mother insisted that my sisters and I learn to type at an early age. But flying at 80, even 100 words a minute doesn’t protect you from those whose fingers fly back. Not long after getting a simple email device, I joined a spiritual listserv. My then 7-year-old son and I stared at the green message light as if it indicated life on another planet. The first post was from someone overseas describing her loneliness on her spiritual path. A responder from another country offered support and counsel. My mind embraced a caring, global community.
Each morning at breakfast I reviewed geography on my son’s plastic placemat of the world. Reading posts from remote places on the listserv, my lofty aspirations (delusions of grandeur?) took flight. Soon I was making friends in cyberspace. Or so I thought.
My enthusiasm was too obvious and I was offered a spot on the list management team. Keep an eye out for offensive posts, escalating conflicts, or violations of Netiquette. Simple. Having a contemplative bent, and enjoying the idea of pacing imaginary corridors of an electronic monastery day and night, I accepted.
My first panic attack was when a member had an onscreen outburst, objecting to my writing in the third person about the need for civility. He had taken a boilerplate reminder personally. Bingo! He threatened sanctions, such as going to the board of this organization. He threatened to leave the listserv and seek a better forum for free speech.
Rather than bouncing delightedly in cyberspace, some people wear boots or stilettos, eager to kick the gossamer net of human relations. Around this time a friend told me that he signed off another listserv -- on meditation -- because it was so contentious.
Head in the Clouds
It is good to Google oneself now and then. The phrase calls to mind something that is not physically possible, to tickle one’s self. (I know it’s impossible. I’ve Googled it.) A teacher who’s always learning, I heard of a site that allows students to “rate” professors. I checked it, saw nothing, exhaled in relief. And then, I visited the site again to find a tangle of typos and judgments. Some students saw me as too easy … too hard … too nice … even “cracked out.” Ignorance was bliss.
A nightmare? You decide. A well-meaning contact wrote an entry for me in Wikipedia and proudly sent it to me, thinking I would be pleased. Instead, I was shocked, tried not to hyperventilate. Uncertain what to do, I waited.
A few weeks later, I did the unthinkable again -- I Googled myself -- to find that details had been added. Panicked, I began to whittle the entry down. I considered deleting it all, leaving only my name. A few hours later, a red and black message hovered above my bio, like a telegram announcing a death. A discussion was underway to boot my bio. Destined for the void, I found myself reciting Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”
As in ancient times one might have consulted the Oracle of Delphi, I Googled “notability and Wikipedia." I found that a Slate columnist, Timothy Noah, described a proposed deletion of his own bio. In his case, readers rallied, generating a discussion that (if transferred to paper) would span a short runway. The debate on me was limited to one small, folded tissue, the type in a travel pack. I expected it would soon blow away. It has; I am gone.
One Last Bump
I have been resuscitated on something called “Wikibin.” Perhaps, just as birds search for bits of ribbon or twine for their nests, a search engine saw something colorful in my profile.
Or maybe, as my now-teenager put it: “Mom, it’s as if you’re in the dust bin.”
Was my unsuccessful attempt to unjam 6 and 7 on the adding machine prophetic?
Is technology in anyone’s control?
Wherever we go, there we aren’t. Or are we?
Maria Shine Stewart is a freelance writer in Cleveland who also teaches English. She has taught writing for 20 years at public and private universities throughout northeast Ohio.
David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.
Has RateMyProfessors.com changed the landscape of American higher education? Probably not. RATE (as I will hereafter refer to it) is in one respect merely a public space to enable students to do what they have always done privately: criticize or celebrate their professors. In many other respects, though, RATE alters the stakes of student criticism and changes the nature of student authority.
The change is not for the better. Compare student evaluations. They've been around so long by now that it seems idle anymore to remark how routinized the evaluation process has become: students take five minutes to mark a checklist, department committees can effectively ignore the results, or local administrations often manipulate them for their own purposes. We have heard it all before. Now student evaluations are part of educational business as usual, like customer surveys.
But wait. One thing you immediately learn when you visit RATE is that students generally seem to care more passionately than you realized, and some are able to write with more wit than you saw in your own course evaluations. A Top Twenty from the site circulates online, including "Three of my friends got A's in his class and my friends are dumb," "If I was tested on herfamily, I would have gotten an A," and, my own favorite, "BORING. But I learned there are 137 tiles on the ceiling."
From a reader's point of view, who cares if these comments are accurate? They're fun to read. From a colleague's point of view, who cares if just about any comments are just? They're irresistible to read, like gossip. RATE opens up the whole evaluative process insofar as teaching is concerned. Suddenly students get to say what they really think, not just to themselves but to a potential audience of thousands. Rather like guests on certain afternoon television talk shows, individuals feel inspired to be more recklessly candid.
But the trouble begins here. Like those guests, students turn out to be candid about the same thing. Rather than sex, it's grades. Over and over again, RATE comments cut right to the chase: how easy does the professor grade? If easy, all things are forgiven, including a dull classroom presence. If hard, few things are forgiven, especially not a dull classroom presence. Of course we knew students are obsessed with grades. Yet until RATE could we have known how utterly, unremittingly, remorselessly?
And now the obsession is free to roam and cavort, without the constraints of the class-by-class student evaluation forms, with their desiderata about the course being "organized" or the instructor having "knowledge of subject matter." These things still count. RATE students regularly register them. But nothing counts like grades. Compared to RATE, the familiar old student evaluation forms suddenly look like searching inquiries into the very nature of formal education, which consists of many other things than the evaluative dispositions of the professor teaching it.
What other things? For example, whether or not the course is required. Even the most rudimentary of student evaluation forms calls for this information. Not RATE. Much of the reason a student is free to go straight for the professorial jugular -- and notwithstanding all the praise, the site is a splatfest -- is because course content can be merrily cast aside. The raw, visceral encounter of student with professor, as mediated through the grade, emerges as virtually the sole item of interest.
Of course one could reply: so what? The site elicits nothing else. That's why it's called, "rate my professors," and not "rate my course." In effect, RATE takes advantage of the slippage always implicit in traditional student evaluations, which both are and are not evaluations of the professor rather than the course. To be precise, they are evaluations of the professor in terms of a particular course. This particularity, on the other hand, is precisely what is missing at the RATE site, where whether or not a professor is being judged by majors -- a crucial factor for departmental and college-wide tenure or promotion committees who are processing an individual's student evaluations -- is not stipulated.
Granted, a student might bring up being a major. A student might bring anything up. This is why RATE disappoints, though, because there's no framework, not even that of a specific course, to restrain or guide student comments. "Sarcastic" could well be a different thing in an upper-division than in a lower-division course. But in the personalistic RATE idiom, it's always a character flaw. Indeed, the purest RATE comments are all about character. Just as the course is without content, the professor is without performative ability. Whether he's a "nice guy" or she "plays favorites," it's as if the student has met the professor a few times at a party, rather than as a member of his or her class for a semester.
RATE comments are particularly striking if we compare those made by the professor's colleagues as a result of classroom observations. Many departments have evolved extremely detailed checksheets. I have before me one that divides the observation into four categories, including Personal Characteristics (10 items), Interpersonal Relationships (8), Subject Application/Knowledge (8), and Conducting Instruction (36). Why so many in the last category? Because performance matters -- which is just what we tell students about examinations: each aims to test not so much an individual's knowledge as a particular performance of that
Of course, some items on the checksheet are of dubious value, e.g. "uses a variety of cognitive levels when asking questions." So it goes in the effort to itemize successful teaching, an attempt lauded by proponents of student evaluations or lamented by critics. The genius of RATE is to bypass the attempt entirely, most notoriously with its "Hotness Total." Successful teaching? You may be able to improve "helpfulness" or "clarity." But you can't very well improve "hotness." Whether or not you are a successful teacher is not safely distant at RATE from whether or not you are "hot."
Perhaps it never was. In calling for a temperature check, RATE may merely be directly addressing a question -- call it the charisma of an individual professor -- that traditional student evaluations avoid. If so, though, they avoid it with good reason: charisma can't be routinized. When it is, it becomes banal, which is one reason why the critical comments are far livelier than the celebratory ones. RATE winds up testifying to one truism about teaching: It's a lot easier to say what good teaching isn't than to say what it is. Why? One reason is, because it's a lot easier for students who care only about teachers and not about teaching to say so.
Finally, what about these RATE students? How many semester hours have they completed? How many classes did they miss? It is with good reason (we discover) that traditional student evaluation forms are careful to ask something about each student. Not only is it important for the administrative processing of each form. Such questions, even at a minimal level, concede the significance in any evaluation of the evaluating subject. Without some attention to this, the person under consideration is reduced to the status of an object -- which is, precisely, what the RATE professor becomes, time after time. Students on RATE provide no information at all about themselves, not even initials or geographical locations, as given by many of the people who rate books and movies on amazon.com or who give comments on columns and articles on this Web site.
In fact, students at RATE don't even have to be students! I know of one professor who was so angered at a comment made by one of her students that she took out a fake account, wrote a more favorable comment about herself, and then added more praise to the comments about two of her colleagues. How many other professors do this? There's no telling -- just as there's no telling about local uses of the site by campus committees. Of course this is ultimately the point about RATE: Even the student who writes in the most personal comments (e.g. "hates deodorant") is completely safe from local retribution -- never mind accountability -- because the medium is so completely anonymous.
Thus, the blunt energies of RATE emerge as cutting edge for higher education in the 21st century. In this respect, the degree of accuracy concerning any one individual comment about any one professor is beside the point. The point is instead the medium itself and the nature of the judgements it makes possible. Those on display at RATE are immediate because the virtual medium makes them possible, and anonymous because the same medium requires no identity markers for an individual. Moreover, the sheer aggregation of the site itself -- including anybody from anywhere in the country -- emerges as much more decisive than what can or cannot be said on it. I suppose this is equivalent to shrugging, whatever we think of RATE, we now have to live with it.
I think again of the very first student evaluation I received at a T.A. The result? I no longer remember. Probably not quite as bad as I
feared, although certainly not as good as I hoped. The only thing I remember is one comment. It was made, I was pretty sure, by a student who sat right in the front row, often put her head down on the desk (the class was at 8 a.m.) and never said a word all semester. She wrote: "his shoes are dirty." This shocked me. What about all the time I had spent, reading, preparing, correcting? What about how I tried to make available the best interpretations of the stories required? My attempts to keep discussions organized, or just to have discussions, rather than lectures?
All irrelevant, at least for one student? It seemed so. Worse, I had to admit the student was probably right -- that old pair of brown wingtips I loved was visibly becoming frayed and I hadn't kept them shined. Of course I could object: Should the state of a professor's shoes really constitute a legitimate student concern? Come to this, can't you be a successful teacher if your shoes are dirty? In today's idiom, might this not even strike at least some students all by itself as being, well, "hot"? In any case, I've never forgotten this comment. Sometimes it represents to me the only thing I've ever learned from reading my student evaluations. I took it very personally once and I cherish it personally still.
Had it appeared on RATE, however, the comment would feel very different. A RATE[D] professor is likely to feel like a contestant on "American Idol," standing there smiling while the results from the viewing audience are totaled. What do any of them learn? Nothing, except that everything from the peculiarities of their personalities to, ah, the shine of their shoes, counts. But of course as professors we knew this already. Didn't we? Of course it might always be good to learn it all over again. But not at a site where nobody's particular class has any weight; not in a medium in which everybody's words float free; and not from students whose comments guarantee nothing except their own anonymity. I'll bet some of them even wear dirty shoes.
Terry Caesar didn't even know he had been rated until his editor found this.
I love conferences. What I love most is their air of promise. You might meet an exciting new person, hear a stray, funny story, or just discover a fine, exotic restaurant near the hotel. Of course it matters whether or not you're scheduled to read a paper. (Or have a job interview.) But even an official, public role at the conference through its sessions need not spoil the lure of individual, private pleasures.
In fact, the conference itself need not spoil the conference! At any single one there must be many attendees, dutiful all to a man or woman, who will need to experience several more conferences before learning this happy truth. I remember meeting a man at a conference in Washington many years ago who was outlining the museums he wanted to see as carefully as I was checking the sessions I wanted to attend. Dutiful? Then I was worshipful.
By now my behavior has largely transformed itself into his; the local museum is more compelling than all but the conference's best session. Nonetheless, I confess to a lingering faith in the scheduled conference as an absolute imperative. Anything less, for one thing, means a shameless waste of the institution's money when hotel room, conference fee, and even meals are being covered. But there are other reasons.
I first glimpsed their depths years ago in Philadelphia. It was late in the afternoon. My wife and I had just checked in. We chanced to wander into a vast ballroom, taking it to be somehow part of the conference. There were booths and there were books. But wait: there was also wine and cheese. Representatives at various booths bid us to drink and eat. We were hungry. And we were pleased to ignore the evidence of our soon-sated senses: This was in fact the site of another conference.
Something to do -- it turned out -- with either realtors or the homeless or, somehow, both. Anyway, all honor to the participants as well as the organization. Later in the evening the two of us returned, with a couple people from our own conference in tow, to enjoy the live band as well as more free drinks and even more food. Nobody appeared to care that none of us belonged there. There was plenty to eat and drink. I bought a T-shirt.
Even more, I tried to relish a distinct sense of transgression, especially since "transgression" was the subject of half the papers at the conference in our own discipline that we had come to attend. It's hard to explain the logic. That we were getting two conferences for the price of one? That the rigors of one were reborn in the festivities of another? That partying with professional others expressed some extension of an original felt release, as soon as we drove away from home?
Why do any of us attend conferences? Officially, to participate in our profession, in the form of specialized topics, concerns, and discourses. Unofficially, though, we attend to enjoy opportunities -- social, cultural, touristic -- that either do not exist back home or at least do not exist in the same way. Extend this unofficial rationale far enough and such opportunities come at once to reside entirely away from one's own very profession and as close as another profession's conference right in the same hotel.
I further confess to fond memories of strolling once among booths of some sort of Christian organization, eventually buying (to me, ironically) a couple of "Jesus Loves You" ties. Or another time of picking up some buttons, pins, and other ephemera -- free! -- at a nursing conference, including my favorite, a "Partners Without Pain" button.
Did somebody say, "otherness"? (Another boilerplate notion for years in the profession of English.) In my experience, academic conferences have been slow to market their subjects or concerns in the form of articles of clothing, while the only place you can get a decent button is from a can at a table of a publisher's booth.
This won't do. Academic conferences are in fact too dry. Nothing reveals this like some other organization's conference. On the evidence of those I have wandered into over the years, almost any other occasion is juicier. People seem friendlier. The atmosphere appears more jovial. It's as if there's more concession to the unofficial reasons why people in any organization attend conferences in the first place: to socialize, restage their interests more colorfully, to have -- in a word -- fun.
We academics are suspicious of fun. In a conference context, fun is unproblematic; it might make a good session topic, but does not provide a sufficient gloss for the seams between or among sessions. Fun leads to vulgar commodification; leave other organizations to their do-dads and T-shirts -- we have our books. Fun is too indiscriminate; our interest is in boundaries, margins, clear delineations and proper demarcations.
Recently, I was pleased to visit an area conference of an organization I would not have imagined even existed: Native American Gaming. Long may it prosper! The lasagna was excellent, part of a luncheon spread given, I believe, by a company or companies who sponsor slot machines. "Come have some ice cream" somebody bid. There were tablefuls of freebies: caps, calendars, magazines, pens.
Indeed, there was enough on display to enable an outsider to glean something of the discursive vocabulary of the organization, which consists of background checks and tribal gaming commissions, land use and optimal cycles. A question from an ad in a magazine particularly stuck me: "Is your casino a well-oiled machine?" How to extrapolate this question for academic purposes? "Is your classroom a well-oiled machine?" Your campus?
Wrong thought. The point for an academic to "attend" such a conference -- or that of any other organization -- is not to use it to reconstitute attendance at one's own. What is the point? Just to enjoy, well, otherness. Its joys may be fugitive. They may even be fatuous. Yet they are real. Some of the most fun (I don"t know what other word to use) I've ever had at any academic conferences has been just idling around other conferences that have nothing to do with academic life.
Part of the reason any of us attends conferences, after all, is to enjoy the glamour, bustle, and crisp atmosphere of big hotels. The bigger the hotel, the more concurrent conferences. "I just got back from Kazakhstan," exclaimed one man to another in the lobby of the hotel at the last conference I attended. "It's the Wild West there." I strained to make out his badge. Something about information technology -- one of those things we're now all supposed to understand, while knowing little about any particular instance.
The real Kazakhstan, rather than its representation! Hard to imagine the man himself being comparably delighted to hear about "readers and writers negotiating textual spaces" (the subject of the session I had just attended). Indeed, such language would probably be as unintelligible to him as whatever they speak in Kazakhstan. Nothing like another conference to expose the narrowness of the very language in our own. Professionally, we academics are unto other professions and organizations like separate countries.
Somebody ought to propose a session about this. Trouble is, from within what academic discipline? No one comprehends all the rest, or even aspires to do so. Each possesses its own references, its own idioms. Those of other organizations or professions that are not academic only further confound our separation from each other. Our separateness even within our own disciplines (in my own case, what do I really know about 18th-century British literature, much less the 16th-century Spanish epic?) is bad enough.
And our separateness in terms of other academic disciplines? (What do I really know, say, about geography or physics?) Even more confounding, yet still, perhaps, within the realm of, let's say, discursive potential for any one of these disciplines; that is, somebody could give a conference paper on how alienated scientists are from humanists. On the other hand, our separateness with respect to nonacademic professional endeavor? It's difficult even to imagine a paper, a session, an interest, a discourse. At our conferences anyway, we academics just don't care about realtors or nurses.
Should we? Even if the food is more plentiful or the atmosphere more relaxed? To pose the question in a different way: Should we ever try to recuperate our fateful separation as academics from everybody else? I suspect this question drives much of the continued chatter we hear in and out of conferences about "public intellectuals."
Alas, though, such recuperation has never been on my own mind at a Marriott or a Sheraton while straying into a conference where I didn't belong. Indeed, if I've ever been "in search of" anything, perhaps it's merely for something on-site that is truly unrecuperable. This is hard to do if you remain within the confines of the conference where you belong.
Every look, and not merely every paper, speaks to you in intimate professional ways. However, at the Other conference, there are looks that say virtually nothing to you (except maybe, "welcome") and there are papers being read on the third floor that you can safely ignore completely.
Of course you ignore them as an academic. Finally, even at the Other conference it's impossible not to be one. You wouldn't be wandering around the hotel at all if you didn't have your own conference. Nonetheless, the realization is available everywhere: so many other conferences! Are there realtors or nurses who stray into our own? How do they find them? If we could, what would we say to these people? Simply that they don't belong, which is the same thing we say to ourselves?
Terry Caesar's last column explored students' excuses and professors' reactions to them.