[Cross-posted from Dictatorship of the Air]
Like most institutions associated with academia, the academic conference is a curious thing. It’s a combination of educational seminar, professional retreat, class reunion, and subsidized junket. It’s also an integral (and unavoidable) part of being professional scholar.
I attended my first conference as an undergraduate in the spring of 1988. It was a meeting held by a regional affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). Since the early 1990s I’ve averaged at least one a year. Typically I present at the AAASS national gathering, but I’ve been to others, too: AATSEEL, SAH, AHA — as well as the occasional thematic conference dedicated to aviation or some aspect of Russian culture or history.
Regardless of the specific association or venue, scholarly conferences typically share a common structure and rituals: dozens of individual panels spread out over three or four days interspersed with official side trips to sites of (professional) interest; informal evening gatherings; the requisite banquet/keynote/awards ceremony and, of course, a book display. They also come with a common cast of characters: earnest young graduate students learning the ropes; arrogant Young Turks trying to “change the dominant paradigm,” jaded senior scholars looking forward to retirement; and workaday faculty enjoying their lone opportunity to escape from their teaching (only!) institutions — plus a slew of recent (and soon-to-be) Ph.D.s willing to sell their souls for their first tenure-track jobs.
After you’ve been around for a while and attended a handful or so, it becomes pretty obvious that if you’ve been to one academic conference, you’ve been to them all. You always know what to expect, until you encounter the unexpected.
I did just that this past weekend.