Now that the conference season has wound down for me (after 5 in about 6 weeks), I have had some time to reflect on the process. And, like my colleague and friend, Megan Lavengood, I think we all benefit by speaking freely about our experiences in the professional circuit (cf. the end of her post). All told I presented at 4 conferences and attended a grad student workshop, and, in short, I’d recommend against squishing so many conferences into such a condensed time. I was utterly wiped by the last couple, and though I really appreciated the variety of feedback I got on my work from multiple places, it was simply too much.
I’ll get to my talk itself and the feedback in my next post, but I’ve come to appreciate conferences as vehicles for scholarly and professional discourse. My very first conference was the mega-SMT/AMS/SEM joint conference in New Orleans, which was a bit overwhelming to say the least. I knew almost no one, the conference was spread throughout multiple buildings, and I wasn’t even sure I’d want to stay in either music theory or academia. I went to a bunch of papers I barely understood, and asked a critical but incoherent question to a senior scholar and was immediately shot down by another senior scholar in the audience. Overall, it was less than ideal and fostered a clear sense of hierarchized proceedings and competitive discourse.
Now that I’ve co-chaired CUNY’s music grad conference, gotten to know some people in the field, and have an adequate background in music scholarship, these meetings are generally more enjoyable. But, as a recent thread in SMT-Discuss revealed, there are still a bunch of issues, especially at our big national conference. Lots of smart people brought up lots of important points in that thread, and, writing weeks after, I’m not adding much to the discussion. I’m also ignoring the selection process, which can be problematic itself, of course. But I hope my personal mini-distillation might bring some of our tiny subfield’s problems into dialogue with broader issues rumbling throughout higher ed.
Short of adopting the free beer standard of some other conferences, a couple of things I wouldn’t mind seeing. (There’s also been a lot written about making conferences more accessible in general, so I won’t rehash these valuable perspectives here, but I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with some of the ways to make presentations and meetings more inclusive and accommodating.)
1. Fewer long papers, more short papers
Music grad conferences usually adhere to the 20-minute-talk to 10-minute-discussion timing. This is so much better, in my opinion, than the regional/national tendency towards 30-15, which, in a 4 paper session/panel, gets a bit tedious at best. If the panels were seminars, wherein everyone has done requisite reading, is ostensibly interested/invested in the topic, and can participate, then 3 hours would be totally reasonable.
To that end, I’m all for a mix of presentation lengths, scopes, and formats; even though I was frustrated to condense my work into a 10-minute “short paper” for a regional conference, I ended up really valuing the experience of crafting concision. We need to remember that a conference talk is a very different genre than a journal article or book chapter. It should be a teaching opportunity and a chance to engage in real-time discourse on work-in-progress, not an attempt to present a complete and comprehensive account of something. That work-in-progress should be coherent, well rehearsed, and carefully crafted, but it should be flexible and somewhat open too! That’s the whole point of the Q&A, and the conference presentation should galvanize an informal peer-review process.
2. Present, don’t read
A huge problem with conferences is that there’s an inordinate amount of professional capital invested into these talks for folks earlier in their careers. So taking a risk and not just reading a paper, but actually presenting ideas is, well, risky. Academics, especially in the humanities, tend to be rather nit-picky in terms of language, and, even if you haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s easy to imagine whole Q&A sessions devoted to tearing apart the casual use of a single word—like “genealogy” or “structure”—or bogged down in minutiae that completely ignore any discussion of what was actually at stake. For early-career scholars, this kind of response and reception can be paralyzing and defeating; thus it pays to be more careful and conservative, and to painstakingly adhere to a pre-determined, safe script. It’s difficult to be vulnerable in a highly competitive professional field, especially for marginalized groups, and a paper acts as a security blanket.
When I entered the field, after an undergrad in science, I was confused as to why people just stood there and read a paper—why not just post this somewhere for me to read on my own time, with ample opportunity to pore over examples, figures, or difficult passages instead of letting them fly by in a monotone reading voice? Of course, many people are great at reading their papers and write them in a conversational, engaging manner; but lots don’t.
My first conference presentation tackled some traditional music theory stuff, and I simply had a Prezi and talked through it, without any written notes. In the end, I got only one question, and people’s eyes were glazed over. Ever since, I’ve been reading papers as a way of better controlling the discussion. (Though in retrospect the audience’s lack of enthusiasm was probably because I was youthfully evangelizing classic serialist analyses rather than anything in my speaking.)
In any case, I’ll plan to put my money where my mouth is at my next conference presentation, and will not read a paper. But, if you’re going to read a paper, at least post the script somewhere for folks to follow along with. As someone with a hearing problem, and someone who has a less than stellar memory, I really appreciate having a text at hand. (It also tells the audience you’re prepared and will adhere to the allotted time.)
3. Longer breaks to chat/commune/critique/meet
Again, I think the main point of conferences should be to confer with other like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people in and around the field, and to this end, I’d like to see longer and more frequent breaks to just talk. It’s a way of transcending the hierarchical practices in higher ed, of problematizing the notions of meritocracy, and of building community. Explicitly framing the discussion around “community”—rather than through the impersonal, professional “networking”—helps to excavate and replace the underlying careerist roots of the problem.
A tightly packed series of presentations coming at the end of a highly competitive selection process reinforces the pressures to make perfect presentations, of justifying the committee’s choice to include a paper. This again leaves scholars less likely to take risks or to try out new ideas. So, I think it’s useful to broach difficult topics in small, informal group or one-on-one settings. Plus, it’s important to learn about other programs and institutions, shaking us out of academic solipsisms and too-narrow attentions. Commiseration is a good thing for community building.
These little conference changes are simple ways of making our field a bit more lateral and generous, building one approach towards some problems that plague higher ed more generally. Conferences present an obvious site for an immediate and effective confrontation of the accelerating degradation of academic careers. In his recent manifesto, Maximillian Alvarez suggests that “the more that we [as scholars] act in our daily professional lives as if we are not already embroiled in this ongoing crisis—the more that we pretend that it’s only going on somewhere in the background—the more we surrender both strength and power to the forces that are destroying what we love.” His essay is an impassioned call-to-arms, and though the simple changes to a single academic medium in a tiny subfield that I outlined above are minuscule in comparison, they at least open the doors to future change. If we, especially as untenured and early-career scholars, desire “dignity of fair and equitable treatment in our careers,” conferences are one place to unleash such a galvanizing force.