Conferences

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.

5 thoughts on “Conferences

  1. Paula Harper says:

    I was all ready to take you to the mat on your second point, because as an introvert I find extemporaneous speaking hugely daunting, and I inevitably take up huge amounts of my alloted presentation time in “ums,” “likes,” and “uhs” if I’m forced to present from notes or an outline, rather than strictly reading. I absolutely agree with you, though, that it’s vital to think of a paper to be read as a very distinct genre; it’s an “um”- and “like”-free version of what I _would_ say, were I a gifted (or better-trained) extemporaneous speaker.

    The point about providing texts is a good one, though. I’ve admired Robin James for that, and I do keep meaning to do it myself – I’m not brave enough to commit to it for my next conference talk, though, since that’s in two weeks…

    I like the idea that you present in your third point, but I wonder how it might work in practice – or rather, I can think of a lot of downfalls to this proposal in practice, but not a lot of practical, non-hokey ways to address those potential downfalls. For example, at conferences I tend to either flock with people I already know, or push myself to talk to people I feel I “should” know – the latter definitely being more a “networking” strategy than a “community”-building one, to use the distinction you make. Any pro-“community” solutions I can think of immediately are pretty cheesy – structured-in icebreakers, or manufactured breakout/group discussion activities that force conversation out of comfortable modes of chatting with people whose work and ideas are familiar to me. And while I could anticipate such cheesy, forced interactions yielding productive conversations and interactions, I finder it harder to envision how a conference could get its participants to buy in, be game, play along. (Even tougher to imagine how such things might work at larger conferences like the national versions of AMS/SMT/SEM, etc.)

    • Tom Johnson says:

      Thanks for raising these issues! I totally agree that the non-reading mode of presentation is extremely daunting, and it’s definitely not for everyone. I probably spent 3 full weeks practicing my senior capstone presentation in my undergrad (after already getting the outline, slides, information, etc. together), and I still ended up with lots of comments on my evaluations complaining of too many “umm”s. It was a ton of work and took a ton of time, and most scholars frankly don’t have that luxury. Reading a paper is much more efficient. I shouldn’t have phrased it so strongly here, and didn’t mean to demean those who read out loud. There’s lots to be said for the accessibility granted by the paper format, and I don’t want to discount that.

      I would argue that, since most of us teach on a regular basis and many of us in music scholarship have lots of performance experience (whether positive or negative), we’re often uniquely qualified to help push academic conferences away from the ossified reading/paper format. Going script-less might force us to re-frame the conference talk more as an opportunity for sharing and performing; and if it were normalized, the not-reading-but-heavily-rehearsed talk might simultaneously help to dispel *some* of anxieties that arise in these professional settings by shifting expectations within a more engaged, welcoming environment. Plus the practice could help with public-facing scholarly activities as well.

      Your points on the practical, non-hokey ways of community building are well-taken. For one thing, I think it would help to have informal non-conference meetups more frequently (something I’m trying to plan for NYC-area music theory grad students) to lessen the necessity of the “building” aspect here, where conferences could function more as community-maintenance. I agree that at the big national conferences, at least, it might just be impractical to structure and arrange effective events. Interest groups are one opportunity, but with so many meeting concurrently, it’s difficult to commit to any in a meaningful way.

      I really do think that simply having more in-between and down time would go a long way towards fixing the problem. If I know I have plenty of opportunity later to chat with friend X or grab a coffee with my old professor Y, I’ll be more likely to excuse myself from them to go chat with someone whose talk I enjoyed (or had some critiques of). I also usually skip a session or two to explore the conference location with friends; I would be more likely to invite other people if I didn’t feel guilty for asking them to miss papers. I’ll also be more willing to start up a conversation if I’m not pressed for time in between sessions when more mundane issues (getting to the restroom, finding a snack, finding the next room, etc.) need attention. The free beer comment was also only kind of a joke; more broadly, anything that encourages a less restrained atmosphere seems productive. (Along these lines, I’m all for a loosening of the implicit dress code. I encounter a cognitive dissonance when I see graduate students wearing nice new suits…but that’s a topic for another conversation.)

      There could also be more chances for inclusive musical activities. MTSE, for example, has a conference concert. https://musictheorysoutheast.wordpress.com/conferences/2017-conference-program/. If the AMS/SMT dance were more inclusive/open, that might be another opportunity. To be honest, I think many senior scholars could do a better job of facilitating this sort of thing too. They tend to know more people and can connect folks easily, but they’re often bogged down with the kinds of networking challenges you mention.

      The “community” aspect also doesn’t necessarily mean broadening our social circles. It might just be an act or an awareness of solidarity and cooperation. I’ll have to think more on this! Thanks again for your thoughts and for reading.

  2. Ellen Bakulina says:

    Thank you for all your thoughts, Tom, and for expressing them so clearly! I agree on the third point, that having more time to chat and strengthen community would be wonderful, but I have reservations about the first and second points.

    Regarding speaking rather than reading a script, I fully agree with Paula that some people are simply not so good at doing it, whereas they are much better at reading. To this, I will add two other points. First is that some of us a working in a foreign language, which, of course, puts the task of speaking (not reading) publicly on a wholly different level of difficulty. Not all ESL people would have an equal amount of problem with extemporaneous speaking, maybe, but this aspect does make a difference. And second, some people actually reading a paper an art form!

    Regarding the length of the paper, I agree that a short paper can often be a good teaching opportunity, but it depends on what you are presenting about, particularly the repertoire. My main concern is the music. It’s hard enough to find the time to play musical examples in 20- and 30-minute papers, but the 10-minute paper makes it almost impossible. This is especially a problem for those who deal with large-scale musical works and long, complex structures that need time to be explained (and ideally, at least some time to sound). For me, giving my audience a chance to listen–and listen in light of the analysis that I offer–is an integral part of the paper. The short paper makes this almost impossible.

    • Tom Johnson says:

      Ellen, thanks for your critical feedback! I understand and appreciate that reading can provide a useful foundation for the presentation, especially, as you mention, for ESL scholars. It can be an extremely valuable aid, and I’m sensitive to this–I can’t imagine presenting in French or German or Spanish, even with a paper! And as you said, some people are really talented writers/readers, and I don’t mean to take away from them. As for length, I completely agree that it depends on topic, repertoire, and scope; and musical examples are doubly important for certain analytical endeavors. There’s room for different kinds of talks at conferences, and ultimately I think it’d be best to move towards more discussion-based modes of presentation.

      For me, both length and reading often result in an speaker trying to do too much, a consequence of the pressure to present a fully formed, comprehensive analysis (that might be better articulated in a written form.) My background in science biases me against the reading format. Just this morning I got a message from a friend in geology (who will remain anonymous): “people just read papers on stage? really? that’s so crazy for me – in geology you give some sort of presentation. just reading a paper would get you boo-ed off stage…” Of course, fields rightly have different traditions, models, and modes of discourse, but I really think we could benefit from attempting (and accommodating) different styles of presentation. Or, better yet, allot the 30 or 45 minutes for a presentation, but be open to questions in the middle. Don’t just have it be “I talk, now you ask questions.” So often the Q&A session refers to a single example from the middle of the talk that might have been addressed better in the moment.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

      • Ellen Bakulina says:

        Yes, more flexibility with paper formats, and with the ways they are presented, would definitely be better. It agree that the present expectations are a little too rigid.

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