In this post, Dr. Veenstra describes what happens at academic conferences and notes some memorable learning experiences from conferences she’s attended. She also explores how conferences nourish vital social and intellectual communities in academia.
Every February, the University of Louisville hosts their conference on literature and culture since 1900. Almost every February, I am one of the many hundreds of academics and independent scholars that flock to the city of bourbon, basketball, and derbies. It has become a tradition for me and for many of my colleagues from graduate school, who first started attending the conference under the guidance of our advisors. In fact, it feels much like a mini-reunion each year, as we come together again, from increasingly diverse locations and jobs.
Once we were all in graduate school together at Michigan State University and we clung to each other out of excitement – who doesn’t love continuing conversations about Jean Baudrillard or Virginia Woolf over coffee? – or out of desperation – at the end of the semester, with 40 pages of seminar papers to write and even more grading to do, we needed all the friends and commiseration we could find – or out of genuine affection. Indeed, I met some truly amazing people in graduate school. Not only are they smart and committed to both the intellectual life and the service of teaching, but they are also genuinely interesting people.
I don’t use that word lightly—interesting. What I mean to say is that they helped me see the world in a different way as we talked about literature, theory, teaching, and life. And, without exception, they knew how to laugh and make others laugh. In hindsight, I am pleased to discover that, although we were engaged in a deeply serious endeavor, we somehow managed not to take ourselves too seriously. And that makes for true character. It’s easy to get beaten down by grad school and the pressures of making it in the world, especially when you’re living on the meager wages of a graduate student and pondering the increasing difficulty of landing a job as an English professor. But if you can make it through that and be able to laugh about the absurdity that is academia or even the absurdity of being an adult, then your character has been forged in just the right way—you remain open to the possibilities of the world, don’t ignore the harsh and unfair truths that come at you every day, and remember that we are all in this together, so we might as well make friends.
And that brings me back around to the conference. Sure, I ran into people I knew from “back in the day.” But every year I see more familiar faces that are part of a different community – the mobile collection of scholars, thinkers, and fans of literature and culture that are a distinct hallmark of academia. As a scholar of modernist literature, I also attend the Modernist Studies Association conference most years. I start to see overlap between attendees at the two conferences, and we are able to follow the development of eachother’s ideas from year to year. Some of the people I have met at conferences were introduced to me first through their papers and ideas, and then I got to meet them in person. Some of these people – often the keynote speakers – I met long ago through their writings, and it is a curious phenomenon indeed to see the physical person who has produced such work. They are all just people like us, people who started plugging away at some ideas decades ago and are still engaged in the process of searching for and creating new knowledge.
This year, I heard noted feminist scholar Jane Marcus speak about Adrienne Rich, her friend, fellow feminist, and poet who passed away last year. Afterwards, I joined her and a small group of others to see an exhibit displayed for us by the University of Louisville’s special collections librarian. Included in this display were some rare editions of books by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Many of those in the library, Jane Marcus included, were thrilled to see a copy of A Room of One’s Own with Woolf’s signature on the title page. My favorite book was the copy of Woolf’s novel Orlando, which had been owned by Sylvia Plath. In the first page of the book, Plath had taped a newspaper clipping, a photo of Woolf with the caption “morbidly affected” underneath. What a delightful discovery to make – how one author, clearly influenced by Woolf herself – chose to think of this past icon, through a lens that intensified her complex and ultimately disturbing emotional life.
Why go to a conference? I am struck by the generosity of all the people I meet, people who are deeply invested in their work and in the collective endeavor of intellectual discovery that goes on display at conferences. The librarian was a scholar in her own right, and she was eager to help others with their research interests. Within the conference itself, after papers are presented, audience members often ask questions and suggest ideas that help expand the thinking of the presenter. Since there is a healthy mix of graduate students and established scholars, there are always moments when the older generation reaches out to help the younger generation in their work. Many years ago at one of the conferences of the Modernist Studies Association, I added my thoughts during the Q&A portion of a panel and mentioned that I was working on Ford Madox Ford. Afterwards, Max Saunders – author of a biography of Ford and one-time Chair of the Ford Madox Ford Society – came up to me to express his gratitude that the younger generation was continuing work on this author in whom he was so deeply invested.
I always return from conferences reinvigorated to do my work as a scholar and a teacher. I am reminded of what I love about this field—namely, how one’s mind can get expanded over and over again by the thoughts of other people. I used to find this sensation somewhat intimidating and overwhelming, especially when it seemed to suggest that my research had only scratched the surface of something that had turned out to be much larger than I had initially imagined. I felt that there was so much to know that I had not accounted for in my research, and I despaired at ever mastering it all. Now I am pleased to realize that it’s true – the quest for knowledge is indeed endless – but it is much less solitary than it appears at first glance. At conferences, in the classroom, in coffee shops, and through the many publications that connect academics, there is a thriving community of people who take pleasure in the quest, and who invite the next generation to add their voices.