Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I sometimes caution my senior students, thinking about grad school, that the jump-on-the-sofa passion they feel for history may not survive the first few weeks of their MA year. If their prior experience is like those months of fun and flirtation at the beginning of a relationship, grad school is like moving in together, and discovering that the object of your affection puts ketchup on eggs and breaks wind in her sleep. The love may persist, but you have to put up with a lot.

Take academic conferences. Please. My own dissertation advisor once opined that conferences, like wisdom teeth, were best suffered through only once and preferably in a stupor; renewing the former metaphor, they also illustrate how one's own infatuation is often the source of bafflement and tedium to others. Recall Walt Whitman's description of his own encounter with a scholarly lecture in this famous poem from Leaves of Grass:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Look around the room sometime at an academic conference, fellow scholars. What do you notice? Most people aren't paying attention. In fact, it's probably the case that, much of the time, you aren't either. Oh, there are good papers and there are bad, but, admit it: after lunch in particular it's hard to stay focused on someone reading a sheath of pages excerpted from their latest book or article. I try to take notes when other conference presenters are talking, but I confess that these often degenerate into "to do" lists, especially in those too-frequent cases when the speakers seem to have learned nothing about the art of public speaking in their long careers. During a conference I attended recently, I saw academics nodding off, chit-chatting, reading the program, sorting their wallets, and, in the case of some younger ones, texting, while papers were being presented. I looked up during the middle of my own to notice that most of the audience looked, as Whitman put it, tired and sick. I felt a certain empathy - it was a data-heavy paper and I was slightly tongue-tied and uncharacteristically nervous. Quite reflexively, however, I slipped into professor mode and said, "So…everyone with me? Everyone good? Any questions up this point? Okay, I'll go on then." There were visible looks of annoyance. It was a very professorial thing to do, but, then, this audience of professors was doing the very things they chastise their students for doing in class.

In the question period that followed, I received not one useful question or piece of commentary, but I departed that day with an extra line on my CV and, more importantly, a hefty honorarium and a cheque to cover my flight, meals, and accommodation. In academe, we call this expanding the frontiers of knowledge. Others can be forgiven for seeing it as their tax dollars at work.


Graham Broad said...

Back with a new screen-filling template!

Adam Crymble said...

Great description. Sounds like there's some extra fat in the federal budget. Maybe we shouldn't speak too loudly.

Alison Hunter said...

That Whitman poem is one of my faves. He super rocks out to the max!