Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Congressional whining

Hello, I'm at the Congress. You non-Canadians, this is an annual congress of the conferences of 70+ Canadian scholarly Associations. At a different university each time. So, like, imagine the meetings of MLA and AHA and APA all happening at once, plus assorted smaller associations. Apparently it is the largest scholarly gathering in North America. This time, it is taking place at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon. It is, as you can well imagine, a ridiculous academic circus. (Where, today, it poured buckets of rain and there was a high of nine degrees. Nice.)

Our panel yesterday went beautifully, M and C and I. I'm really pleased to have brought those two together. They adored each other. And the panel worked so well - even the arc of the three papers was perfect. And I even heard some positive feedback on my work, even thought it officially sucked, so that was nice. M and C's papers were tight, stellar pieces of work - I was proud of them. At night, the three of us went for dinner at some ridiculous tavern because all of the "good" restaurants in town were all full to the brim with visiting academics. We ate Tex-Mex food and drank neon green margaritas. It was a treat. We are already talking about a "sequel" at next year's Congress in Vancouver, so successful was the whole thing. I am especially happy to be seeing M. We're so close, and it's so amazing - we've only really been friends for about a year. But I talk to him more than almost anyone else in my life.

But my scholarly association is shite, people. Reading through the abstracts in the schedule, I was truly embarrassed by some of them. How can academics submit abstracts so riddled with grammatical errors that they are almost nonsensical? How are they academics? More pressingly, how is the association accepting these abstracts? It bugs me.

The other thing that really pissed me right off was the fact that they were supposed to award an undergraduate essay prize. And they just didn't. And I had one of my students apply for this prize, and wrote a letter in support of her. It's funny - when I saw the call for submissions for this prize, I remember thinking that it felt hastily put together and just a bit dubious. It was being released really late, considering the deadline - meaning professors would have to adjudicate the prize in the middle of every uinversity's exam period and marking stress - and there was important information missing from it, so that I had to write to the person and ask clarifying questions. But of course, I followed through because I took it on good faith that they would adjudicate the prize. You know what? They didn't, it seems. A prize presentation was on the schedule - and it just didn't happen. They just didn't do it. That really pisses me off - my student took the time to revise that essay and submit it, and I took the time to talk with her about it and to write and send off a letter in support of her. And these folks just couldn't get their shit together. That seems really grossly unprofessional, to me, and all the things that have happened with the association these couple of days have made me rethink my membership in it. I want a new association!!

Anyway. Partly because of the suckitude of my association, and partly because of the terrible weather, this was a somewhat depressing day (until the end, when M and I went to a reception and had wine and Deep Conversations). It wasn't just that, though - it was that there is just something freaking depressing about Congress. It's actually really alienating, really isolating. Even though there are 6000 people there, you feel alone, somehow...wandering around the vast spaces of the campus, running into almost nobody except other lonely, straggling souls. Where are all the people? you think. It just feels so fragmented. And even with all the talk about interdisciplinarity - and I'm nothing if not an interdisciplinary scholar, so that "talk" means much to me - you have no way of knowing what is going on in other scholarly associations, or even which building their meetings are in. So, for example, at the tavern last night I ran into a friend from last year's Uni City - someone I haven't seen for a year, whom I like very much - and we knew we wouldn't get a chance to see each other again because we are inhabiting these different spaces here. It feels so incredibly lonely and wrong as a way of organizing an academic life.

And on the other, completely opposite hand, today was depressing because I realized just how claustrophobically close we academics can be, here in Canada. Where the communities just are small, by virtue of our small populations. Where there's no anonymity. I was thinking about this because I saw someone who full-on loathes me, at my association's meeting. I had seen her on the schedule, and was nervous about running into her. The story there is that we used to be great friends, early in grad school. Great friends. Very close. Then, sometime about six years ago, very suddenly, she apparently decided I was the devil, for reasons completely unbeknownst to me. I kid you not - I have no idea what the problem is. Really, truly none. I do know that even when we were friends, I was put off by the intensity of her dislike for some people - she appeared to get really wrapped up in rage at people for no reason. So I guess I am one of those people. And it hurts my feelings, because I actually think I'm a pretty kind and ethical person who doesn't deserve that. Anyway, today I passed her in the tiny lounge on a break between sessions. I walked about 14 inches from her, sort of squeezing between her and another person to get by. Because I want to make this okay, and because I don't have anything against her, I looked directly at her and smiled - as I have done before, a few times when I've seen her over the last few years. As always, she ostentatiously sneered at and then ignored me - it was like "I despise you, you are dead to me."

And I just felt sick because of the smallness of this community. Who knows what she says about me, how far her noxious hatred of me has travelled? It's sickening to know that she could well be spreading quite nasty shit about me to who knows how many acadmics in this country, and that I don't even know what the source of the loathing is. And that I could conceivably spend the rest of my career dealing with this.

So yeah, that was today - simultaneously saddened by and longing for academic anonymity in a very small community in this country. But I bought fun books at the book fair - that always cheers one up, right?


psychgrad said...

I had a similar experience with a colleague and it has really made me feel reluctant to enter into friendships with other in my area of research.

squadratomagico said...

Oh God! What an awful situation with this ex-friend! I hope she stops being so hateful soon!

Earnest English said...

There seems to be so much in friendships with other academics -- I wonder if it's a matter of some kind of academic jealousy, which, yes, I am totally prone to from time to time. But of course this is this other person's problem and not yours.

I was struck by what you said about the Congress being big and intimidating and lonely. That's the way MLA feels to me, and that's just English and languages. Also interdisciplinarity: I also work across disciplines -- and it occurred to me that what you're talking about at that conference is the difference between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. It is hard work to put the work of various fields together to create something new. And if people don't try to listen to each other across disciplinary divides, then they just won't. Oh god, I'm hijacking your comments. I should write something about this. Anyway, if the scholars have a hard time listening to each other, imagine how hard it is for undergrads to make a synthetic whole out of all the disparate classes they take. I worry about that.

Hilaire said...

Hi Earnest - You're not hijacking, I love your comments! I think you're so right on about the difficulty of undergrads making a whole out of all the classes they're taking. This is why I actually think interdisciplinary programs - I did each of my three degrees in an interdis program, I confess - are great. People teaching in them have had to adapt to that circumstance, and so can sort of instill that in students. Hopefully. I know it worked for me - possibly too well?

As for my ex-friend and her problem, yeah, it could be jealousy...though when it started, she was much ahead of me in terms of publications and status. That has equalized now. Who knows? I'll never know. My friend C thinks I should just go and ask her. I don't know if I can do that - her hatred is so strong it's terrifying.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts...Comment away!