Let’s Conference—or Not

Another conference down, another paper given. Another mad scramble to research and write a tight 10-page paper, deliver it to an audience of colleagues, and wait for their response. As usual, this past conference ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

That’s not a knock on the audience (heroes all, truly, for showing up at 8 a.m.). That is just typical of my experience at academic conferences. I think it’s a structural flaw of the oral presentation—especially when the paper is somewhat esoteric.

You write a narrowly conceived, tightly argued paper that makes a specific historiographic contribution, but the audience picks up on maybe a tenth of what you say. (Actually, let us back up. Did anyone even show up? At one conference a few years ago, we had four on the dais and one in the seats, in the front row, mercifully.) But let’s grant that, say, ten people are in the audience. Maybe two are experts. Three are familiar with the field. The rest are simply curious—and god bless them.

The rare exception is the workshop, where everyone presents to each other. I’ve had the pleasure of doing this once. The total number of attendees was small, no more than 50-60. Only one panel took place at a time. So, each speaker addressed the entire conference. I have to say, it was sort of magical. By the final panel, audience-members and speakers had a rich store of shared referents. We all could (and did) refer back to previous papers to identify common patterns in our research and arguments. It started to feel like we were getting somewhere, together. It was rigorous.

But that’s rare.

More commonly, you labor over a paper, present your arguments, and receive a response that is almost impossible to discern with certitude. Did they like it? Hate it? Did they understand a word I said? Did they even notice that interpretive move I made? Did they catch how I was challenging that scholar’s argument? You never really find out.

After the adrenaline rush comes the let-down. Was it worth it?

I’m less sure with each time I present.

I may take a break from conferencing for a while. Or I’ll go for the same reason that I imagine most people go—to see friends.

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