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...