Friday, August 18, 2006


Academic Rubbernecking

You know how, when you're passing a nasty accident on the highway, you just have to look? How even when you know the milk is sour, you have to smell it anyway? How you get an itch, and you know that scratching it will only make it itchier, but you scratch it anyway? How you put your face two inches from your toddler's butt to she if she's carrying a load, when you have every reason to believe that she is? (That great marital moment: “Eewww, she's stinky! Here honey, you smell her!”)

You know that awful, masochistic part of your brain? The part that you'd think evolution would have corrected by now, and intelligent design wouldn't have put there in the first place?

Mine acted up recently, so against every better judgment, I took a gander at the major journals in my scholarly discipline. I do this every so often.

Bad idea.

Without giving too much away, I'll just say that my field has a way of chasing down new ideas, cornering them, and beating them with shovels until all that's left is a bad smell. The kind of field where you could swap this year's conference program with one from 1994 and not notice the difference, except for a few dead people.

Back in my grad student days, I faithfully attended every conference my meager funds would allow. I worried about what to wear, until I noticed that absolutely everybody there looked like they'd worn their clothes during the spin cycle. I shared rides, slept on floors, and eschewed official 'conference hotels' for less expensive and much seedier environs. (On one memorable trip, I slept on the floor of the house belonging to my roommate's bud, who later achieved a sort of notoriety as a pioneering web pornographer. I choose not to devote too much thought to this.) Helpful traveling tip: although they're geographically close, the 'tenderloin' district in San Francisco has a very different flavor than does Market Street. Trust me on this one.

What I remember most about the conferences was being nervous all the time. The presentations were always, without exception, dreadful beyond belief. The hallway-nametag-dance, merely amusing in grad school, became grotesquely demoralizing during my days at Proprietary U. The book fair was the only refuge, but even there, I was constantly aware of both my limited funds and the grotesque mating dances of (prospective) authors and publishers going on around me. The contrast between grandiose titles and mundane content became a sort of running joke. (“Lesbians! Monkeys! Flaming Cheese!: A methodological critique of Anderson-Hysgaard's neo-Foucauldian problematic,” $29.95 in paperback from Up Against the Wall Motherfucker! Press, an imprint of Ballantine. Desk copies free with course adoption.)

The mandatory 'networking,' of course, was the worst. All the same faces every year, the junior ones angling and the senior ones conspicuously drunk. I learned that my advisor favored Scotch or Bourbon, but the Charismatic Leader preferred martinis. Grad students went with beer, trying to be cosmopolitan by getting the darkest possible brew. The ability to tolerate liquid pumpernickel was taken as a sign of sophistication. I once silenced a table by ordering a Yuengling.* You'd think I had suggested a round of dwarf-tossing.

The last time I attended the major national conference for my field was my first year at the cc. (That was before the crackdown on out-of-state travel.) The reactions to a cc nametag were so toxic that I haven't returned, and don't plan to. Life is too short to be treated like the turd in the punchbowl. Still, out of a vestigial sense of obligation (I'm big on those), I check the program each year to see what's going on. I feel the familiar spike in my blood pressure, remind myself that I don't have to do that anymore, and get back to work.

Until next year around this time...

*For my money, still the finest four-dollar six-pack on the market. Of course, if I really wanted to make a point, I should have ordered a Genny Cream. Culturally, that would have amounted to standing on the table and favoring the group with an a cappella version of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” punctuated only by the 'ting' of tobacco juice hitting the spittoon. Maybe next year...

I hear you on the CC nametag issue -- although it was fun one year when I was at a conference in my hubby's field. I happened into the end of a discussion about implementation of service learning. Profs from four-years were complaining that it would be impossible to require because their students were too busy. I got to tell them about the amazing number of hours our CC students put in the previous year and how the elementary school they volunteered at had seen a huge increase in their test scores, pulling them out of trouble with No Child Left Behind. That was the only place the CC nametag gave me ANY credibility.
I am convinved you majored in English. But, there it is ususally coffee that is the point of contention (Frappe Latte Grande, please). Try going to a coffee house open mic poetry night and asking for "regular" coffee. If it were Survivor, I'da been voted way off the island long ago!!!
Sadly (and geekily) for me, I am still in the Gee-Whiz-I-Like-Going-To-Conferences stage, even though you're spot-on with the nametag dance and the book madness. I found conferences got much less stressful once I had a job. In part because I no longer have to sleep on floors :)
Excellent Friday post. I don't know how you are able to keep up such a nice stream of consistently thoughtful postings, but I thank you for it.
Many years ago, DD talked me out of pursuing a career in academia. My field was history, where a similar Dance of Awfulness would have been my fate.

Thanks again, bro. I know I would have been a good prof, but there's no way I could have survived graduate school, conferences, and the academic job market without murdering at least three people along the way in a frustrated rage. Tales from academic conferences reinforce this belief.

I would have had fun with paper titles, though. Hey, Hugh, Get off of McCloud! Trevor-Roper, Borkenau, East Versus West, and the Significance of Dennis Weaver
I just have to add my 2 ounces regarding Yuengling, long a favorite and staple of me and my college and grad school friends. Many years ago over beers at a local watering hole, the new girlfriend of a buddy of mine asking me if I liked Yuengling.

Paraphrasing the old joke about Kipling, I replied, "I don't know, you naughty girl, I never Yuengled."

Riotous laughter everywhere, except from the new girlfriend. Not surprisingly, that relationship didn't work out.
Brother of Dean Dad, judging by your prospective titles, your decision not to go into academe was a sad day for all of us.

Titling papers and books has got to be the most amusing part of academe: the art of juxtaposition, the pop culture call-outs -- does anyone title these things without tongue in cheek?
You must be a upstate New Yorker, because I've never seen Genny cream ale anywhere else. :-)

I've definitely seen the dark beer competition in action, though I never quite realized what was going on.

Sometimes Lee asks me if I want to go all out and get a Ph.D and I tell him "hell no!"
I feel compelled to share a recent conference nametag story from which I am still angry. At a recent conference I attended only RI faculty and graduate students had nametags which displayed their institutional affiliation. All other nametags simply listed names. It was impossible to tell where everyone else that was in attendance (whether they were CC faculty, non RI 4 year university or college faculty, or graduate students) was from. I've never seen such counterproductive, instituionalized snobbery and it made me incredibly ashamed of my profession. Worst of all, the nametag situation made it really hard to network and/or befriend a diverse, funny, interesting, and incredibly intelligent group of folks who were unnecessarily gracious about being marginalized.
Wow! That's bad, even by academic standards. Congrats on getting through it gracefully.

No, I didn't major in English.

On the balance sheet of my life, steering my brother away from grad school shows up on the 'credits' side. He's ridiculously bright, with his own way of doing things, so he would have chafed under the rules of the academic game. But yes, he's great at titles.
The amber is good but the Porter is wonderful...and anyhow, if you really want to go downmarket there is always National Bo.

OTOH, I've pretty much given up on conferences. There is little point to picking up the conference fees for the high and invited.
Genny cream ale! My college beer! (in Ohio)

Ooh -- I haven't had a Genny Cream in ages -- so long I can't remember where I had it! But Dean Dad, I'm sad to say that Yuengling is about $5 a six-pack here!
For ultimate Upstate New York cred, order yourself a Utica Club, which is 1) cheap and 2) might get you hip-irony points.

Yuengling is a perfectly respectable beer, of course, although I'd be more inclined to get something by Victory or Stoudt's, since I'm a beer geek. (Anyone else here ever try Scarlet Lady?)Can't fathom why anyone drinks that Corona swill, though.

Meeting blues: I'm at the point where I'm picking and choosing the conferences I go to. If it's going to be status games and nothing else, screw it. Even before you pay for your lodging and food, we're talking a minimum of $500 between travel expenses and registration--if I'm not going to have any useful interactions with people, I'll stay home and read papers.

I must say, however, that the best conference I've been to in five years was also a pretty high-powered one. (It was a Gordon conference, for the science geeks here.) Nice mix of heavy hitters, up-and-comers, and students, and a totally friendly and productive vibe. I don't think I got to bed before midnight any night, wrote outlines for three papers while listening to various talks, and set up four collaborations. I didn't think that much fun was legal.
Oh, the conference blues. I can't be bothered with them anymore, since my level of amusement with drunks and perverts ain't what it used to be, but here are my two favorite stories from my grad school days:

1) I read that THE hot scholar in my field was going to be included in a panel, and spent a month's TA salary to go. This guy was doing amazing cutting edge stuff, and I just wanted to breath in his aura. So much for that. While one person spoke the other panelists were sitting at a table facing the audience. Professor Genius spent his downtime with his finger up his nose, finding a meaningful booger now and then, examining it, and then flicking it away before looking for another.

2) The nametag game. I learned very early on to put my nametag on the shoulder seam of my jacket in order to deny license to the nasty old perverts who would use its location to oogle my breasts rather than to actually learn who I was.

DD, you are my hero! I can almost face the coming semester, almost, thanks to your humor.
While I can appreciate the bit about the CC Nametag, I still believe that publishing quality research will make your name on the tag more noticeable than the school.

I know the names of the people in my field that are doing the top quality work, and while their school affiliations have changed, their work-ethic, and quality, have not.

Oh, and I applaud the anonymous woman who wears her nametag higher up. I personally dislike the fact that the placement more often than not necessitates looking "lower" that I feel comfortable doing. Now--if we could just get nametags somehow plastered around the EYES...
ROTFLMAO, and the comments here are pretty fabique too. I LOVE your ersatz Cultural Studies Blah Blah title! In fact, I love it SO much I may have to steal it for my own (forever) forthcoming tome on niche specialty. OMG, such a brilliant and elegantly succinct snap shot of what passes for discourse nowadays in The Shop, SA (or PLC, or Inc.).

Conferences are always pretty miserable, although I am headed to a national one in November, and my own institution is no great shakes, I never really wonder so much about where people are at, but rather are they interesting (and interested, in me, or anything else besides their own mini-super novae). But I guess that's why I'm where I'm at, and the barracudas and where they are. Oh well...
On Yuengling, &c

"Of course, if I really wanted to make a point, I should have ordered a Genny Cream. Culturally, that would have amounted to standing on the table and favoring the group with an a cappella version of 'Cotton-Eyed Joe'..."

OK. So file under You Know You're An Old Fart When:

In one of my fields [I am so (bleeped) by having too many fields], an esoteric branch of computer science, there's a weird mix of OLD geeks and NEW geeks. At the last big conference I attended, a bunch of us were in the bar at the Fancy Venue together, and we went around the table and ordered drinks. Chivas. Martini. A nice anejo for me. And then our younger colleague: Red Bull-N-Stoli.

Agh. I am not so old that I miss the fact that he is the one who will eat our lunch. He summed it up all his intimidating Newness, right there. The opposite of "Cotton Eyed Joe": He made us feel so provincial and Old School in that one little moment. If he'd offered to sign our cocktail napkins, I'd've taken him up on it as a good investment.

Anyway, he was the only one of the men & women at the table who had founded and sold two companies before starting his Ph.D., and I'm the only one who really got the sociocultural implications. Everybody else was old-school enough to just go "eeewwwwww". Me, I hear the distant whistling of the Schumpeterian gale....
Don't be turning down any noses at Yuengling Beer. It was the beer of choice for thousands of Ph.D. students (regardless of discipline) at Penn State. Since it was PA brewed, it had the virtue of being GOOD & CHEAP.

And yes, I do remember Genny Cream Ale, but that was a bad undergrad dream......
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