I often wonder if the academic conference is going the way of the dinosaurs. They are expensive, after all, and all that travel can’t be good for the planet. In a field like English, where we actually just read papers at each other and discuss them, should we just be sending our papers to each other and holding virtual discussions? Setting up video conferences? When I left the house (very) early Thursday morning the video conference was looking good. When I found myself sitting in the Atlanta airport for six hours later that day, it looked even better. While I waited for the airline to locate a plane to take me away, I was online with colleagues at a distance — but not the ones who were already in Nashville. Why couldn’t they just send me their papers? Why was I sitting at an airport gate eating bad expensive food and close-reading the monitors for clues that my flight might actually depart before the end of the day?
If it were only about the papers, of course, the academic conference would have died years ago. But in the two and a half days I spent in Nashville, I did far more than present a paper and listen to others. My presentation, to start with the primary and still very important purpose of the conference, was part of a panel of three papers. The three of us, hearing each other present, all gained invaluable insights into our area of shared interest. The lively conversation that ensued after the panel also bid fair to improve the scholarship we hope to publish from this material. The free-flowing conversation that we had after the presentations reminded me of the best of classroom experiences — one person’s comment would engender another, and the riffs that developed out of initial questions led us to even greater insights. If we think teaching in a classroom is different from teaching online, so is presenting at a conference different from (better than, I’d argue) simply sharing a printed text. So if it were only about the scholarship, it was already pretty valuable.
But in the course of the conference I gained more than just the insights into my own and others’ scholarship that are the ostensible purpose of the conference. I came home with a list of books that I might consider teaching in the future, for example, and I shared such lists with others. I got tips on how certain texts work well in pairs, or what contexts have been most fruitful for which texts. The best discussions of scholarship always, for me, come back to teaching as well — how do we get this material into our classrooms? How does our research influence our teaching, and vice versa? At a plenary session at the end of the conference, one discussion leader asked “what is the point of children’s literature?” and her deceptively simple question sparked a discussion that moved in so many different directions, my pen could barely keep up.
And then there were the discussions that went beyond children’s literature. I’m serving on a curriculum review committee at the moment, and the opportunity to pick my colleagues’ brains about their first-year and general education curricula was irresistible. I hadn’t known, before, which of my colleagues at far-flung schools had just served on such committees or considered such questions, and I wouldn’t have known to ask them over e-mail. But sitting across from each other at dinner, the subject came up over and over again, and again, I brought back new ideas, new insights.
Conferences are intellectually rewarding for those of us at smaller institutions because we are often the only person in our field at our home institutions. It’s reaffirming to be among others who share our interests, whose research dovetails with ours. But even when it doesn’t, we find ourselves with other parts of our lives in common — the committee work, the general education courses, the questions about balancing work and family, the tips about little-known research archives or teaching resources. It’s the serendipity of the conference that I love — the chance conversation that reveals a shared love of cats or bluegrass music, or a common experience of living overseas or taking up a new sport in middle age. Not all of these are quantifiable, and I can’t make them part of my expense report, but they live on in my memory. Next time I’m sitting in an airport waiting through a delay, wondering if the trip will really be worth it, it’s those serendipitous encounters that I’ll try to remember.