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.