Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Saddest Conference Panel Ever

I've never liked academic conferences all that much.  I am not a schmoozer, I detest talking myself up, and I tend to be wary around strangers.  They often remind me of high school: I'm back to being a wallflower on the sidelines while the popular kids have all of the fun.  Over the years, however, I learned to enjoy small, regional conferences.  The mood tends to be relaxed and the intellectual dick-waving I used to hate at the AHA or the German Studies Association conference is usually absent.  The university in Michigan where I taught as a VAP for two years sponsors one of these conferences, and after I'd moved on to my tenure-track job in Texas, I used attending the conference as an excuse to see old friends and show one of my Texas friends and colleagues (who attended as well) around my former stomping grounds.

He was presenting a paper.  I, on the other hand, volunteered to be a commentator, partly to help the conference organizers, who were always in need of people to do such yeoman's work, but mostly because I got a kick out of it.  After years spent being judged and evaluated as a graduate student, it felt liberating to turn the tables and get to stand in judgement over others.  (This is also why I like writing book reviews.  It's petty, I know.)  Furthermore, if I ever had an academic super-power, it was the ability to be a commentator on "catch-all" panels where the papers had almost no tangible connection between them, either thematic, geographical, or chronological.  This, of course, is what happens when you are a commentator, but not a "name" person, but I still relished the challenge.

At this particular conference I was given a true mixed bag, both in terms of the papers, as well as their authors.  Their topics were: late Ottoman Empire, WB Yeats and Irish nationalism, and Thucydides.  The first was written by an assistant prof with a high-caliber PhD institution, the second by an eldery full prof at a Catholic college, and the last by a master's student attending an online university I had never heard of.  Not only was the lineup of papers daunting, but the paper on Yeats did not reach me until right before the conference, and it was missing citations.  The paper concerning the Ottoman Empire never came at all, which meant I was going to have to offer my comments on the fly, if the person even bothered to show up.

My panel came at the end of the day on Saturday, the last day of the conference.  The last slot is always the worst for panels, since so many people are in the mood to either party or go home, not to sit through yet another round of academics reading off of their papers in a monotone.  There were only a couple of people in the audience, which comprised my colleague and the Thucydides presenter's spouse.  Basically, there was nobody there who didn't need to be there, and nobody to engage in the exchange of ideas that these conferences supposedly foster.  I made some small talk with the presenters beforehand, including the Ottoman historian, who apologized profusely, and had the embarrassed, harried air of a desperate salesman about him.  I was soon to find out why.

The master's student brimmed with enthusiasm.  I soon found out that he was an Iraq War vet, and he showed off to me the same copy of Thucydides that he said had been a welcome distraction during his deployment.  I had never heard of his online university, because it was one of many that cater to military personnel (with dubious intentions).  Once I realized all this, I felt terrible.  The paper made many grandiose claims that it failed to adequately prove, and I had a hard time coming up with positive things to say about it.  In fact, my written comments were pretty harsh.  The presenter was a good guy, had tremendous passion for his subject, and didn't seem to know the rules of the academic game.  It was going to hurt to have to give my criticisms of his work, which was grounded in true enthusiasm for the topic, not the pedantic, calculating result of academia's tendency to crush whatever personal enthusiasm a scholar may have for a subject.  I was also a little worried that the elderly full prof would pull rank on me.

The vet spoke in the clipped, direct tones I'd heard from military men before, but it was a welcome departure from the usual dry monotone.  The full prof offered a clinic on how to do the dry academic monotone with gusto, but his paper had some fascinating points.  Last, the Ottoman historian got up and put a map of the Ottoman Empire on the screen.  I soon understood the wildly nervous look in his eyes when I met him.  He talked off the top of his head about the empire's policy towards its fringe provinces, occasionally pointing at the map.  It soon became quite obvious that this scholar with such an august pedigree had never bothered to actually write a paper at all.  I was amazed at the chutzpah of this man, who by the rules of the Great Academic Chain of Being, outranked all of us.

My comments were not the best I'd ever given.  I tried to be gentle with the veteran, but my words seemed to puncture his very spirit, and his face soon resembled that of an abused puppy.  He'd probably formulated his interpretation of Thucydides while sitting in some godforsaken forward operating base, waiting to get hit by mortar shells, and here he was having his ideas shot down by some tweed-jacketed dweeb.  I did the best I could with the elderly full prof without knowing anything about where his research came from.  I offered some brief feedback to the Ottoman historian after making some angrily passive-aggressive remarks about not having had a copy of his paper beforehand.  My colleague in the audience was fast asleep.

I just wanted to get out of there, but I tried really hard to have a pleasant conversation with the vet and say some nice things to him.  It was the least I could do after giving him a spiritual punch to the gut.  The full prof was glad to query him on his experience, so once they got talking, I turned tail and ran, only after giving the Ottoman guy a mean look.  I hoped that the academic gods would strike him down for his negligence and mendacity.

That sad, pathetic panel (my thrown-together commentary included) made me wonder more than anything else whether the "life of the mind" was a load of bullshit.  That night my friend and I left the orbit of the conference, even though some folks there wanted to schmooze with him.  I needed to get the taste of what I had experienced out of my mouth.  We went to a microbrewery for some pints, moved on to bowl a few frames, and ended up around midnight at a coney dog joint I used to frequent.  I killed my liver and stomach that night, but they were in better shape than my soul.

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