I overdid the first half of this summer. In the past two months, I’ve traveled to Seattle, Venezuela, Aruba, Frostburg MD, and Aspen, as well as finished my first year of graduate school. Fortunately, that time is almost over–only one trip left for quite a while.
My trips to Frostburg and Aspen were both for “conferences.” The whole conference system is such a fascinating part of academia. In my experience/reading/conversations, they can be almost equal parts professional/social/vacational (I just made that word up, don’t worry). I’ve spoken to people who hate going to conferences, and see them largely as a necessary evil + time drain. In Aspen, several of us compared it to summer camp. The popular writers’ conference Bread Loaf apparently has the nickname “Bed Loaf,” after what goes on in the evenings.
Frostburg was a purely academic conference. I discussed it in my last entry – the conference was the 2013 Computers and Writing gathering. I presented on a panel about crowdfunding, and spent my time outside of that presentation listening to other people’s panels, eating the provided lunches in a gymnasium, checking out Frostburg’s local scenery, and attending a karaoke night targeted directly at the conference-goers. Two notes on that last one – 1) It had the highest average skill level of any karaoke night I’ve sat through and 2) Apparently we left right before a fist-fight between two conference attendees. Yes, I was very disappointed.
There’s so much going on with conferences that I have a hard time wrapping my head around all the little facets. Conference presentations often end up as a line on a student/professor’s resume/CV, even though for most entry-level academics hardly anyone shows up to your presentation and thus there is no metric whatsoever of quality. If you bomb, or even completely skip out on your presentation, there is nothing stopping you (outside of some rare circumstances) from listing it anyway. The only thing that gets reviewed (for my field, anyway) is an abstract proposal you submit months before you present or, in most cases, even begin creating your paper/talk.
Then there’s the economic/professional incentives of the conference organizers themselves. There’s a sense of competition between the hosts of various years when they’re at universities. The larger ones that are hosted at hotels and conference centers instead of universities receive bids from the hosting locations way in advance to convince them to head that way. The 4C‘s (composition’s largest conference), for example, will be in Indianapolis next year, and that’s not chosen at random.
Creative writing conferences have their overlaps with academic conferences, but there are a lot of differences as well. Since they’re not as much for professional development, and most people attending are not academics, there’s a greater sense of the participants wanting to be there. As I mentioned, several people compared the class to attending summer camps as a kid, in the sense that it’s a brief isolation from your normal life in a space that’s fast-paced, emotionally intense, and slightly uncomfortable. This analogy holds extra true for my two trips to Aspen: I stayed in a shared hostel room complete with bunk beds both years.
Both types of conferences are known for their social scene. I have yet to attend something like this that didn’t include an extensive discussion of where the evenings’ drinking would take place, or of hearing whispers of who was hooking up with whom. Networking of the more professional kind happens at both as well, and a little charisma goes a long, long way in the room.
I’m curious to hear from others on the topic. When it comes to academic conferences, I have yet to find someone who is more than lukewarm on them–the best thing I’ve heard on the subject is how excited they are to see their friends/ex-colleagues.
I’m also planning on tackling the actual content of the creative writing conference classes I’ve taken in the near future.
Outside content: Really, really excited that my article’s abstract is up. Hoping a hard copy is in the mail soon. A second link since I don’t want to overload the self-promotion (ha-ha, a BLOG trying to limit self-promotion) – an interview between Charlie Rose and David Lipsky, the latter of which was my fantastic instructor in Aspen.