Attending a Conference, Looking for an Exit

Terry Caesar recalls presentations in search of an audience, and other awkward moments.
March 27, 2008

What would constitute a good example of the nadir of experience at an academic conference? Halfway through reading your paper, you get a coughing fit and can't continue? Outside in the corridor you bump into someone and it's your ex-spouse? (Or the ex-chair from your ex-university where you were denied tenure.) But these are exceptional, individual moments. Recently I experienced a more routine, structural one.

It took place during am early-evening session of a large regional conference. From the point of view of a presenter who would hope for a decent audience, such an hour is never good; too many are already meeting in the lobby and going out to dinner. All the more reason for my wife and I to support friends assigned this unfortunate presentation time. In one sense, apart from meeting us, our couple had flown 2,000 miles to deliver respective papers. This night was his turn; she sat next to us.

Three presenters were scheduled. Three were in evidence at the front of the room. But wait: two were in fact a couple, from the same university. It wasn't clear if both had written the paper. He said that she would read it, while he sat facing her. Neat trick, I thought; both were thereby guaranteed an audience, and probably each assured as well some travel funds from the same institution. Meanwhile, though, where was the session chair?

The three of us (or three and a half) who comprised the audience squirmed. Minutes passed. Our friend held his paper. The couple held theirs. What precisely was going to happen? The audience couldn't very well leave. (Thereby dissolving the session.) The presenters couldn't leave. Yet without a chair to begin the proceedings, all suffered a slippage into a conference version of No Exit: hell is not so much "other people" as other papers, only nobody shows up to introduce them and no one appears to hear them.

Suddenly, five minutes after the session was scheduled to begin, the door opened! Who could it be? Someone looking for another room would be too cruel. So would a custodian checking on the DVD player. Another member of, or rather for, the audience would be nice. Instead, even better it was . . . the chair! I don't know about the others. I wanted to shout, hurray! She apologized for being late. We forgave her, silently.

Our friend read first, as scheduled. Good paper. I'd never heard of any of the writers he discussed. His isn't my field. No matter. Some provocative questions were raised. The great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett was once asked about something he had written down. "I didn't write it down," Beckett replied. "I wrote it up." For a conference, you somehow need to write it up, and allow your audience some larger, more expansive vantage.

Next, the couple. The wife never took her eyes from the paper as she read. My head sank. Terrible paper. It could have been written in 1968, and in fact probably was. Every larger question muffled, subjects not so much covered as plowed over. I squirmed. I writhed. Before the thing commenced, the companion of our friend who had presented had exited. Could I sneak out before the last paper, thereby abandoning my wife to sole occupancy of the role of The Audience?

Reader, I exited. But wait! Not without good reason. Once the second paper was over (and the year returned to 2008) the third presenter -- also the session chair -- announced that her paper was in Spanish. Blessedly in this instance, I don't speak Spanish. Never mind that this paper might have been more pleasant to hear than the last one. I just got up out of my chair and scurried away, trying not to make eye contact with my wife, who might have been glaring at me. She speaks Spanish so had no excuse.

Later, I learned that the discussion had by the remaining five people wasn't so bad. So it usually goes at conferences. Even the skimpiest occasions can somehow be redeemed. I had just experienced this at the session in which I read my own paper, alongside a man who was in fact an undergraduate. (The third presenter didn't show.) My first undergraduate! The imperative to "professionalize" CV's has lately made all but the most prestigious national conferences available to grad students. But now undergraduates? And yet the young man handled questions pretty well, and the discussion (emanating from an audience of nine souls) could have been much worse.

This particular conference consisted of 351 sessions. What exactly goes on in each of them? Who can say? It might well have been possible to have attended sessions in most of the time periods over the course of four days and to have found each one to be similar to the one I've described-muffled, interiorized, shrunken. Yet it might have been just as possible to have attended the same number during the same days and found each session comparable to the best ones at the national level -- confident, resonant, expansive.

Who cares? Who cares, that is, as long all registrants get their discursive turn and all enjoy some institutional support. In this instance I'm pretty sure of the first condition; virtually every paper proposal in this particular organization's annual conference is guaranteed to be accepted. But with respect to the second, not all participants are guaranteed some funding, and, indeed, many undoubtedly have to pay out of pocket for their plane fares, discounted hotel rates, and overpriced meals. My undergraduate, for example, told me he had to bear all costs himself, while back home his professors continued to work to extract some reimbursement from the local administration.

Finally, though, why attend such a conference? It's a different question from the bottom than from the top. Of course nobody expects his or her session to take place at the bottom. But it seems to me naive not to fear the possibility, unless your session has an unusually good time period or features either a really sexy subject or a really sexy academic star. After all, today we academics live in an age of conferences: big ones, small ones, and all sizes in between. No matter their subject or focus -- specialist to interdisciplinary. These conferences can't all be worth having, although if there are enough sessions nobody need object, unless you happen to be part of a session that nobody else cares about but you.

And then if you are part of such a session, venerable professional reasons for the conference itself ring rather hollow. Yes, yes, the conference as a whole is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, the fruits of research, and so on. Furthermore, who is to say that your own paper is not as good as any other's, or at least doesn't deserve its public moment? Trouble is, though, from within the energies of the actual conference your own colleagues will in fact judge, by voting with their feet, and from within the confines of each individual session, its claims to knowledge will still have to be made good, or not.

Once, it might have been the burden of a conference is prevent a session such as I have described from appearing on the program. Now it's the burden of the conference to include it. The easiest explanation for our present age of conferences is that each one -- the more slight, the better -- comes stricken with all manner of professional imperatives, in which students and faculty, undergrads and grads, adjuncts and full professors are now all mixed up alongside each other, trying to build a better CV or meet a friend. Few have any interest in distinguishing among these reasons or any others, because everybody knows that a conference is, when all is said and done (which it never is) a fine thing, especially if the department can fund your travel or if the dean came up with a last-minute sum that enables you to cover at least the first night of your hotel.

People attend conferences for two basic kinds of reasons: professional and personal. But when even the most casual conversation at the cash bar can be (or become) an example of "networking," how to keep these two reasons apart in lived conference experience? You may as well try, on some intellectual or performative basis, to separate the heights of one session from the lows of another. I lately experienced the separation. (Who hasn't?) But it's much harder to justify, or even explain it, especially when you worry about whose interest is being served in the process. After all, each of us wants nothing more, at bottom, than merely the opportunity to "contribute" something, same as anyone else.

Once at a conference I was scheduled in a session to read a paper along with the usual two others. In fact, one of these two was also a couple: two colleagues (so they said) from the same institution who had devised an elaborate slide presentation. When no audience appeared -- not one person -- these two insisted upon presenting anyway "because it cost so much to fly here." So we wound up becoming our own audience, first reading our papers to each other, then having a little discussion about them, and finally agreeing that the session wasn't so bad, even if, alas, no one else could ever attest to the fact but us.

Sudden question: could conference lows -- at least on the level of performance, like theater -- be as varied as the heights? I know a woman who counts it as one of her finest conference achievements to have convinced her fellow presenters not to read their session papers to each other, once it was clear no one was going to show up. One of my own fondest rememberances of conferences past is a time when the audience at a session consisted of one person, me, only there because I knew one of the presenters; when it was clear I just couldn't leave, everybody relaxed, all three papers were duly read, the audience had questions about each, and no great harm to the discipline was done.

However, speaking for myself anyway, such experiences are not ones that I would wish to be repeated -- even if they had better be anticipated, possibly never more than now, in today's expanded, don't ask-don't tell, come-one come-all phase of conference history. Or at least some conferences, some histories. The heights (we might add) will be able to take care of themselves; that's why they are the heights: big-name appearances, cutting-edge perspectives, institutionally-supported investigations. The lows, on the other hand, will never be able to take care of themselves. That's why we should at least recognize their sessions too, even if we can't honestly say that at any particular session we enjoyed more than one paper, and never stopped looking around the room for an exit.


Terry Caesar's last column was about dealing with students who want to find out early about their grades.


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