David Lodge. Small World. Prologue.
The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink, and make merry in their company every evening; and yet at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
David Lodge is one of my favorite academic novelists and the prologue to Small World sums up academic conferences quite succinctly. I just returned from a conference in the deep south and I must say I had a great time. I think every conference should be in the south. The food was great, the scenery was charming, and the weather was nice. It was 80 degrees everyday, which is a far cry from the current fall weather here in the midwest. The theme of the conference was really exciting as well. It was in a discipline to which I am tangentially connected. If the conference was Basket Weaving Studies then I am Global Basket Weaving. I don’t know if that makes sense, but what it meant for me is that I came into contact with people who I was not familiar with, but who I need to become acquainted with.
As far as socializing, I went to lunch with a grad student I met. As far as networking, a more advanced scholar of Global Basket Weaving was on my panel and it was great to get on her radar. She has a book coming out and she is now in promotion mode. She said she wants to organize a panel for Global Basket Weaving conference and she would keep me in mind. Additionally, she said she was thinking about doing an edited volume on Global Basket Weaving in Particular Country and she would keep me in mind for that too. I basically came away with that one meaningful contact, but at this point I’ve come to realize that one meaningful contact is really all I can hope for at these things. It seems like everyone else is trying to meet and mingle with “more advanced scholar” or “more famous scholar,” both of which I am not. And “famous scholar” is only trying to network with other “famous scholars.” As a post doc I guess I was “more advanced scholar” for the grad student I met and hung out with. But I also got to meet “more advanced scholar” as well. And for that I am happy.
One of the hi-lites was seeing a professor who I had as an undergrad and whose class really influenced me. He said he would come to see my paper, but he wasn’t there when I gave it. I think he too was trying to network with “more famous scholars.” Ah, the academic ladder.
Over the years, I’ve learned that part of living academically is constantly networking. I’ve realized though that, for me, coming away from a conference with one good contact is really the goal and a victory if scored. Having achieved that goal, and having enjoyed the conference, I can happily report that upon return from my “pilgrimage” (as Lodge puts it) I am improved.