Skimming the Program

I was at the American Anthropological Association meeting this weekend. I decided not to liveblog anything because a) I didn’t go to that many panels and b) the ones I did go to I went to diffidently, including being one of those jerks who skips from panel to panel.

But one thing that came to me as I looked through the program is a renewed sense of irritation with all the program-skimming critics of academia that I’ve read over the years. The MLA is the favorite target of this kind of stunt, but not the only one. I kind of forgive journalists who are stuck with a slow news day and figure that making fun of the eggheads is a reliable bit of copy to file.

I don’t forgive academics who do this, at least if it’s one of those “I read the session titles and the paper titles and I know that it’s all trendy bullshit just from doing that, o tempora o mores, what has academia come to” sorts of screeds. Because what that kind of complaint usually reveals is that the writer has zero understanding of their own professional culture.

It’s not just that you owe colleagues you’ve never met the courtesy of criticizing what they actually said. (I freely grant that there are papers which are trendy, which are nonsense, which are poorly conceptualized. But if you’re going to say so, say it about something which a presenter actually presented.)

It’s also that someone who is just skimming the session titles is ignoring why some of those titles end up as baroque or outre as they do. By and large, session titles are built around three principles. First, build a tent big enough to encompass all of the papers in a given session. Sessions at the major professional associations tend to get built in several waves: you may get two or three people agreeing to build a session together, sometimes because they’re already friends or collaborators, sometimes because they’re scholars who would like to get to know each other because of a recognized common interest in a particular topic. From there, people get added to the session because they’re connected to one of the core presenters, or maybe by happenstance. At least one of the papers is going to be topically a bit of an odd-man-out, for all sorts of reasons. So you build a session title that accomodates all of the kinds of papers in a session, and so of course it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

Second, people building session and paper titles generally try to avoid being too prosaic. Sure, you can have a session title called “U.S. Cultural History, 1860-1895”, but that makes the presenters look a bit like dullards. Session titles try to be a bit more lively and to communicate a sense that the presenters are engaged in original research, talking about new subjects. Yes, some fall very very flat in trying to do so, and end up sounding silly. But if you can’t appreciate why they do, you’re not really attuned to the culture of conferences.

Third, session and paper titles are a shout-out to the presenters’ own immediate potential audience. At the big professional meetings, the basic truth is that most panels have very small audiences. Most of the people attending the meeting are engaged in job interviews (on either side of the fence), are busy meeting up with old friends and acquaintances, or prowling around the book exhibit. A session or paper title isn’t what you’d choose if you were trying to publish in a broader context, or speak to a wider audience. It’s designed to send up a signal flare to the very small group of useful and interesting strangers who might choose to attend because the topic is very near and dear to their own professional interests. That calls for jargon of some kind.

So it’s not just that the content of papers and panels is often far more prosaic and straightforward than the theoretical or jargon-laden titles, and that even at the trendiest meetings the strong majority of papers and panels are pretty straightforwardly framed. It’s that even the conventions that lead to exotic-sounding titles serve purposes that the usual lazy critics seem to understand very poorly.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Skimming the Program

  1. withywindle says:

    1) You criticize people (especially academics) who judge conference by their papers, but you also say that A session or paper title …. [is] designed to send up a signal flare to the very small group of useful and interesting strangers who might choose to attend because the topic is very near and dear to their own professional interests. That calls for jargon of some kind. In other words, the paper titles are meant to provide the basis for judgment for these academic insiders to decide to attend. In one case this is skimming you condemn, in another an entirely appropriate academic mating/sorting display. And the difference is — it’s all right to judge by the title when you have the appropriate esoteric knowledge, but not when you don’t? I am faintly skeptical about the distinction you draw.

    2) You seem to claim that one shouldn’t take the rhetoric of the titles seriously. Why we should be presumptive ironists is unclear to me–especially when extreme rhetoric has a nontrivial relation with the beliefs and actions of the members of any rhetorical community, forming ideals toward which practice moves. Furthermore, you say the rhetoric has power as a signaling device–the which power argues that one should take the rhetoric seriously. And I submit that with the most ironic sensibility in the world, fanciful titles have significant informational content. Let us say that I read this title of a conference paper: “What I Did on my Holidays: One Hundred Uses for Zyklon B.” Should I really say this tells me nothing about the paper, the panel, and the conference?

  2. Doug says:

    Getting With the Program: A Relentless Examination of Media and Academic Criticism (and Meta-Criticism) of Conference Session Titles, Featuring Blog Posts, Comments, Links, Complaints and at Least One Unfortunate Notion About the Pelepponesian War

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    I just want to make a brief note. Yeah, a journalist looking at paper or session titles and saying, “Man, aren’t academics ridiculous?” is pretty dumb, but there’s got to be some reason why, in general, the titles in, say, the AHA program, seem quantitatively less goofy than those in the MLA program.

  4. G. Weaire says:

    My own national conference (which I won’t be attending this year) is resolutely dull this year. ( No-one is likely to become too enraged by “New Developments in the Pedagogy of Beginning Greek.”

  5. moldbug says:

    If you don’t object to MLA titles, surely you can’t object to Gary Brecher’s musings on the Congo conflict: Nkunda is Nkool.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s true that historians tend to be more prosaic and less trendy in their titles than the MLA, for sure. Which does tell you a bit of something about the disciplinary cultures.

    Withywindle, yeah, you’re right: I’m saying that it’s ok to use a relatively superficial kind of jargon-inflected information to find a panel (or try to find an audience) and not ok to use it as an invitation to substantive critique. Because the two acts are different. Now, if you’re not happy with the contemporary state of academia, it might be completely valid to use paper titles as a negative signal, and be drawn to those panels as a critic. But if you’re going to jump from that to, “This paper was trendy garbage”, you have to listen to or read that paper.

  7. withywindle says:

    And if you’ve been to a great many similarly-titled panels, and they were all trendy garbage? I grant one should say “This sounds like so much more trendy garbage” — but I’m not sure how many people actually say, paper unheard, “This paper was trendy garbage,” as opposed to my infinitely nuanced formulation. Your use of “substantive critique” raises the question of what is being critiqued. The critique, after all, is not of the validity of, say, a paper’s contribution to the secondary literature on the homoerotics of anticolonial resistance, but of what the paper says about the state of the historical discipline–for which the titles of conference papers are themselves significant data–and, shall we say, the social signaling of the titles may be more meaningful for that field of inquiry than the contents of the papers. But I suppose what I basically want to argue is that to use titles for such critiques is not in itself illegitimate, as you argue, but rather that it is legitimate mode of critique, although individual critiques may overargue the evidence.

  8. moldbug says:

    Professors Burke and Withywindle,

    For those of us with the gumption and presumption to try and write sub specie aeternitatis, there’s an easy way to answer this question. Ask yourself: how will the critics of the 22nd century respond to this material?

    Professor Burke, if you can relate your answer to your own reaction to, say, Victorian writing (or let’s be more specific – Victorian verse), I suspect you may begin to see the magnitude of Professor Withywindle’s advantage in the debate.

    My guess is that when future critics consider our era, they will generalize. I think there must be something in the Brownings, and I know there is something in Tennyson. But is it worth digging through all the bogus archaisms and other 19th-century ornament? This is why the only poet of the period who remains readable is Emily Dickinson, who of course had nothing to do with any of them.

    Ergo: if the primary industrial product of any academic enterprise is, as you put it, “trendy garbage,” it will be seen as a trendy-garbage factory. I find it difficult to imagine that the trendy garbage of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s will be regarded with much favor in the 22nd century. Even if there are a few pearls amongst the hog-slop, their discovery will deter all but the most intrepid of literary detectives.

    This would be obvious to all without the “-ology” suffix, which deludes a very large number of very smart people into the comforting collective belief that their work has any lasting value as anything but literature. Obviously, they are aware that from a literary perspective it is unreadable. (Except, of course, for the occasional pearl – such as Professor Burke.)

  9. Pliggett Darcy says:

    Sorry, but it’s just insane and ignorant–and to be honest makes the rest of your argument lose credibility–to claim that “the only poet of the period who remains readable is Emily Dickinson.” Of course Robert Browning and Tennyson remain readable (as evidenced by the many high schoolers who fall in love with “Ulysses” every year) and Walt Whitman is hardly a poet of “bogus archaisms and other 19-century ornament.”

    And so, to continue your analogy, somebody who isn’t completely put off by the unfamiliar and has an attention span longer than a gnat’s will still find Richard Rorty, and Bernard Williams, and Jonathan Spence, etc. etc. readable 100 years from now.

Comments are closed.