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.