Because of my recent focus on the fiction writing side of things, I realized that I hadn't been to an academic conference in a while, and I decided I should keep my head in the game. I got a PhD instead of an MFA because I have an interest in and knack for the nerd mongering that goes on in the upper vaults of the ivory tower. Just to keep it real, I gave a paper on heist films.
Academic conferences are strange beasts. In theory it sounds like the coolest thing possible: get a bunch of super dweebs together to talk about the things that fuel their rockets. These people, being in such close proximity, will generate a field of raw intelligence that will blot out the sun. It all sounds to me like a kind of Burning Man for college teachers.
In this temporary geektopia, the world is writ small, and then enlarged again, through the magnifying properties of something people in the know like to call a discourse. When the conference ends, I always expect to return from the mountain, touched by the one or more of the Muses. I always think I will be furiously scribbling notes in the airport and on the flight home. I imagine I'll return to the classroom, tell everyone to stand on their desks and throw out the syllabus—we'll guide ourselves through the rest of the semester with excitement. The upgraded courses will be so full of new ideas and features that students will shut their phones and start taking notes on pieces of paper with real pencils and pens and love learning forever.
But it almost never works out like this.
My experience with academic conferences is so unlike the hope I always hold for them. What's the most depressing, I'm afraid, is the simple fact that most academics are absolutely dreadful in front of a crowd.
If you've never been to one of these conferences or seen one of these presentations, imagine Miles Davis and his late–career disdain for the audience, minus his ability to play the trumpet better than ninety-nine percent of everyone who as ever put a horn to their lips. The issue is not their ideas, or even their passion. They all seem so tired (I guess I'm included), and these presentations are often the last thing on our long list of things that must be done, a list that dominates the other lists of things we want/hope/wish we could do.
Know that I don't arrive as a hostile audience. I am sincerely hoping to have my mind blown. I am the kid who, full of hope and ecstasy, orders sea monkeys out of a comic book, and when they finally arrive I end up, chin in hands, watching clumps of brown powder fall lifelessly to the bottom of the fish bowl.
Usually, on the last night of a conference. I retire to my room. Watch some television, and think to myself as I pack my bags that these hotels and conference centers are where ideas come to die. I want to have a different attitude, but a pattern has been emerging, and I have been observing it for fifteen years now.
There is hope. For every conference, there are a number of confederate ones that take place over dinner, in the elevators, and in the Q & A sessions that follow the gray wasteland of the headliners. I am always energized by the things people say when they are not on the schedule.
So, here's the conference of my dreams: take our proposals, put a dozen of us who appear to be likeminded into a room, bring some nice treats, close the door, and come back in two hours.