A Tale as Old as Tenure

Marc Muneal's experience at a corporate trade show made him realize it's time to rethink academic travel and professional development.

February 27, 2020

In her last few minutes before the session begins, the scholar decides on the placement of some 11th-hour punctuation. It's important to get this right: she's paid for airfare, ground transportation, a hotel room and a $300 registration fee, to say nothing of meal costs, and her institution will reimburse only a portion of what she's spent. But it's worth it because she gets a line on her vita and demonstrates that she is contributing to her field -- must think about that pretenure file!

She gathers her things and, after a bit of a hunt, finds conference room Partridge-C. Thirty chairs are neatly arranged before the dais, where three other presenters are seated and a sleepy moderator half-heartedly fiddles with the AV equipment. The scholar sits next to Julie, a fellow presenter, and exchanges a few small pleasantries.

The minute hand arrives at the top of the hour, and the 30 seats are still empty. Luckily, the door creaks open, and three people walk in. One makes the obligatory joke about being lucky to get a seat, and the other two greet Julie, their colleague. Julie delivers her paper, taking far too much time, and then her colleagues begin shuffling out, apologizing that they want to catch the end of the session in Flamingo-B. Off balance, the scholar rushes through her paper, abandoning all her practiced breathing and pacing. The overcompensation means that she finishes her presentation in 10 minutes.

The moderator calls for questions. The comedian raises his hand and announces he has a question for the scholar. She looks at him gratefully and forgives the antiquity of his humor. He rises, mentions a tangential point she made, and proceeds to hold forth about his own work in that area. He concedes that he doesn't really have a question but would like to hear her opinion on his thoughts. Before the scholar can say anything, the hotel staff arrives to refill the water jugs, and the moderator thanks everyone for a productive conversation.

The scholar reflects upon her experience and its price tag. Well, she thinks, at least I still got the line on my vita. She notes that two of her senior colleagues are presenting next at concurrent sessions. She plans to attend the first half of Flamingo-A and the second half of Emu-C.

The Vicious Cycle

Chances are that at least a few elements of the above picture will resonate with most academics, and many of us have had an experience that comes close in all respects.

In fact, many aspects of this story are undeniable realities for a number of scholars, particularly those at "teaching" institutions. We are, rightly, expected to engage in professional development, both pre- and posttenure -- the goal being to make us better teachers and more productive members of our intellectual communities. But conference travel, even with the penny-pinchingest sensibility, is an increasingly exorbitant affair, with junior faculty members disproportionately affected. That's to say nothing of adjuncts, lecturers and independent scholars who have fewer avenues of support open to them. And those who do receive institutional support must make the unavoidable internal calculus of deciding which one conference is affordable on a limited professional development budget.

Given those obstacles and hard decisions, a disappointing conference experience becomes an even more bitter pill. The open secret -- and here, perhaps, is a rare morsel of truth in popular culture's exaggerations of academe's intellectual onanism -- is that conferences frequently fail to deliver on the advantages we ascribe to them. In perhaps not most but many instances, they provide a relatively meager reward for the time scholars spend on research, the effort organizers spend on planning and the money everyone spends on the whole process.

But even though we all quietly acknowledge these realities, conference presentations on the vita remain an academic shibboleth. Tenure committees and search committees look for those lines but, less frequently, engage in constructive discussion about what they mean and what intellectual fruit they bore.

Nothing will change overnight, but perhaps we have collective and individual responsibilities to figure out how our thinking about professional development might evolve. On the collective level, that involves thinking more broadly about how we, particularly senior faculty, might at least question established ideas and resist the tyranny of the expedient. It means not throwing out the idea of academic conferences, but rather listening to and supporting those who offer innovate directions and formats.

On an individual level, we have responsibilities to ourselves to identify forms of professional development that would be most beneficial. We must advocate for ourselves (and I recognize the challenges for junior faculty in doing so) in requesting and justifying institutional support, or seek allies who will help us make the case. After all, our administrations are asking us to be forward-thinking and visionary, are asking us continuously to prove the relevance of our fields in a changing world. If we are to discover new frontiers, we must be allowed to venture beyond the old places.

Another Way: Finding New Intellectual Homes

In early spring 2018, an advertisement for that year’s International Home and Housewares Show appeared on one of my social network feeds. I’d heard bits and pieces about the event before, and I decided to investigate. I learned about its long history as the world’s biggest housewares trade show and about the 17 miles of exhibits. I also noted that a number of celebrity chefs and cooking personalities would attend, many in partnerships with established brands to promote new products.

This last detail occupied my focus. Some of my research is on the history of food entertainment and food presentation, and I’ve even incorporated culinary demonstrations into some English classes and community education events. An opportunity to attend the IHHS “Cooking Theater,” a state-of-the-art staged kitchen at which the celebrity chefs would perform, was particularly attractive, but I also wanted the chance to interact with the “ordinary” people doing demonstrations on the exhibition floor. I decided to register for the event.

The primary purpose of IHHS, like any trade show, is to facilitate deals and partnerships between manufacturers and sellers. When I visited the website and tried to select a registration category, none quite fit, and the narrative presented by the many options emphasized the event’s business-oriented focus. I almost abandoned the effort at that point but then decided I had nothing to lose in sending an inquiry email. The general inquiry email I sent was forwarded to the design programs coordinator of the association, who was helpful in getting me registered for the show.

What followed was the beginning of an annual scholarly pilgrimage for me, and in March 2020, I will make the trip for the third time to what is now called the Inspired Home Show. As planned, I attended Cooking Theater, gaining much in-person context about food entertainment and audience interaction that would inform my research and writing.

I also learned, however, that at each year’s show, the International Housewares Association hosts numerous educational events. Included are Innovation Theater, four days of education sessions focusing on the latest trends and patterns in the trade, as well as a number of interactive forums on the trade show floor itself. Lively discussion among sometimes scores of session participants has been a given. And in 2019, a consistent theme across many IHHS education events was the centrality of narrative and storytelling to the specific demands of marketing in a digital world. I had not anticipated the ability to begin finding answers, on my own terms, for the questions and imperatives being placed on academe and on humanities departments specifically. In the year since, I have introduced these ideas in my core and general education English classes and in departmental discussions about our curricular path forward.

Moving beyond my specific experience of professional development in an unexpected setting, I share the following takeaways that might apply more generally to others’ undertakings:

  • An unconventional opportunity for professional development will not present itself in conventional trappings. Narratives that imply you don’t belong may actually just say that you haven’t been there yet. Be imaginative about possibilities and be willing to ask questions.
  • The exchange of ideas is not exclusive to academe. Attending many of the education events provided me not only with useful material to prompt class discussions but also a clearer sense of my discipline’s role given the sociocultural realities of today’s business world.
  • Unconventional academic travel can be more affordable. My trip to Chicago for IHHS was less expensive than the tabs for most academic conferences I’ve attended: because of my academic focus, the registration fee was waived.
  • Professional development funding guidelines probably need to be revisited to encourage this kind of thinking. Many institutions support academic travel only when giving a presentation, but other types of travel can ably facilitate research, writing, professionalism and pedagogical growth.
  • Understanding rules and respecting the environment is key. Although I had my own scholarly goals, I made sure they never interfered with the flow of business surrounding me. When people mistook me for a buyer or seller, I immediately let them know I wasn’t, and they made their choices about whether to pay me more attention. I took photos only where allowed, and any questions I did have were asked during lulls.

A traditional academic conference session that catches fire, with presenters making unexpected connections across papers as a rapt audience of scholars looks on and feels inspired to join in, can be a sublime intellectual thrill. Attending such a session and even having access to a conference in the first place, however, can be a game of chance and privilege. I attended an industry trade show that made room for the scholarly and the intellectual.

Much credit goes to academic conference organizers -- a growing number exist -- who conversely view their events’ intellectual imperatives as linked to questions of accessibility and relevance. By addressing barriers to participation -- whether financial, structural or philosophical -- we increase the likelihood of preserving the best in academic conferences while allowing their organic evolution to continue serving our professional needs.


Marc Muneal is associate professor of English at Averett University in Danville, Va.


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