Friday, October 24, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 112 (satellite edition)

Live-blogging the conference. My paper's done and so I'm in a position to sit back and look at the event-as-event.

There's an ongoing quasi-serious conversation amongst academics about the actual cost - versus - benefit ratio of making attendance at and contributions to conferences significant markers of "research & creative activity": mostly because the actual benefit of a paper delivered to a dozen or two of one's colleagues, as opposed to the cost of time, absence, and environmental impact (helluva lot of academics take a helluva lot of plane trips), can seem pretty low. In an attempt to handle that, and to try to maximize the actual, tangible benefit of my attendance at conferences, I pretty much don't attend anything at which I'm not performing one or another kind of demonstrable tangible function: either chairing a panel or committee, delivering a paper or performance. There are still academics who seek or elicit funding from their universities simply to attend--to be present at--conferences, but those days are rapidly receding: as the number of people in the various professions expands, as the state-funding for universities recedes, the days when you get money to attend a conference simply for the 4 days' contact and "professional development" are also disappearing.

In part I'm OK with this: in an age of ever-reducing resources, academics should be thinking of maximizing return--in terms of both recruitment and their own professional development--and minimizing costs. And though I'm not one of those reaallllyy tiresome academics whose chief expertise seems to be jumping-upon and bruiting-about the latest political concerns and correctness--the ones who, in lieu of actually producing scholarship, harp on about how scholarship should be done differently--I do think it's legitimate for us to be thinking about ways to walk more lightly on the earth--in terms of both carbon footprint and general hot air. And there certainly are academics who seem to use the excuse of conference attendance (less often, of presentation) as a way to get out of town for a few days on somebody else's dime.

So there're pretty good arguments for avoiding those conferences in which you wind up presenting your research to a three-quarters-empty room, for an audience chiefly made up of other people presenting at the conference. It's not "public scholarship" if the general public beyond the co-attendees never sees or hears it. It's made more difficult in that, particularly if you are recruited for a panel at the meetings of a society whose profile you don't know (like the one I'm currently attending), there's no real way to read between the lines and assess in advance whether maybe this is going to be another of those light-attendance situations. And going, and only then finding out, feels like a pretty damned costly (for your funders) way of adding a couple of lines to your CV.

The other side of it, though, is that you also don't know when participating--by invitation--at one of these lightly-attended situations may have less insignificant or ephemeral long-term impacts: when you'll hear a great paper that really gets your own wheels turning and suggests new lines of research, or meet a scholar with whom you really think one of your students could do great graduate work, or meet someone else who might be able to offer you yourself additional scholarly opportunities.

This morning--for example--just prior to presenting a paper for a room of around 15 people, I got an invitation to collaborate in a much more long-term project, directly resulting from the kinds of six-degrees-of-separation connection which is one of the best aspects of conferencing. No knowing if this long-term project will pan out, but even the thinking-up of such projects is something that usually, directly, results from the person-to-person, face-to-face, blink-and-you'll-miss-it connections at conferences. You gotta show up to play.

And, of course, there's the pure-D self-discipline of having to complete a text, in order to present it at the conference, by a specific deadline. You can fudge this by selecting a topic that is very familiar to you, while unfamiliar to the audience, because then virtually anything you present is going to seem interesting or at least impregnable. This is a very easy strategy for musicians, for example, presenting at historical or literary conferences--those latter scholars are so gassed by hearing some pleasant sounds that they can be remarkably tolerant of slight content.

But, I'll also sometimes use a conference invitation to address a research/presentation topic which I've had in the back of my mind but haven't yet gotten around to. I've had the idea for this particular paper (on harmonic knowledge on a particular frontier in a particular period) in my head for at least 20 years, and it's only this year, with the impetus of this invitation, that I've finally got around to prioritizing the time to get the thing into draft.

So to this conference: it's primarily oriented toward historians and literary scholars of a particular period in Ireland. As such, they're not very knowledgeable about music--certainly not "literate" in the sense of knowing the notation or the technical terminology. On the negative side, that means one can get away with the kind of razzle-dazzle that musicians presenting for non-expert audiences learn how to exploit. On the plus side, it means that any presentation you make does have to be accessible and comprehensible to a non-specialist audience.

And this is a good thing--one of my pet peeves about academia is the degree to which we prioritize and reward very finely-argued and subtle arguments presented to one's peers, while de-emphasizing or failing to reward effective and accessible presentation to general audiences. This beefs me because I think the latter--speaking "outward" to a wider audience--is a lot more important than we give it credit for, while the former--speaking "inward" to our very small circle of co-expert peers--is less significant, in terms of overall positive impact, than we pretend it is. Moreover, speaking "outward" is a much closer parallel to the actual day job that we do,which is teaching. It's good to be a scholar, because it drives our own individual inspiration and continuing curiosity, but it's equally important to be an advocate for scholarship--to be able to frame, present, and argue the value of our insights to wider communities.

It's easy to respond with the accusation that such outreach runs the risk of dumbing-down the content of the scholarship, but I think that's an excuse, employed by scholars who don't really believe in the value of teaching and of being a public intellectual. We need to be scholars and teachers, researchers and advocates. Learning to succeed at both sides of these dyads--just like learning to teach undergraduates and graduates and continuing-education students--is an essential part of what the role of a public intellectual can be.

My revered dissertation adviser Peter Burkholder taught that "you should be able to articulate the point of your research in the scope of an article, a lecture, or a dissertation--or of a public talk, a note-card, or a single sentence." I've extended that aphorism, with my own students, in a parallel fashion: "you should be able to articulate the point and the relevance of your research to any audience: expert or non-expert, student or colleagues, undergrad or graduate, specialist or generalist, in any medium: scholarly or popular print, radio, television, lecture, conversation, or conference question-and-answer period." This is how you be a public intellectual; this is how you renew and revitalize the argument that historical, sociological, musicological, intellectual expertise and insight have something to say in a changing public world.

Yet, it is also true that the best critic of one's work is not oneself. I may think that this paper, which--though I've been thinking about how I would write such an item for at least 20 years, as I say--was written within the last 2 weeks, is a relatively straightforward, relatively small-scale idea presented with some razzle-dazzle so as to provide a nice bit of relief for the history/literary people.

But what I think about the paper is unlikely to provide an accurate assessment of either the depth of content or of its potential value or reward for others. One of the ways we can psych ourselves out regarding the quality of our own scholarship is to lose track of the degree of familiarity versus unfamiliarity, "the obvious" versus "the insightful" in a topic we've thought about for a long time. As I tell my writing students, there is no way that we as individual scholars, thinking sometimes for years about a topic, can assess the "newness" or new insights in our treatment. If you've researched and thought about a topic for months, or years, or decades, you are by definition uniquely equipped to think about and present that information--but by the same token you can't assess its impact upon or novelty for someone else.

So we, once again, separate out the roles of author versus editor, presenter versus recipient. We have to do this when we're writing--the quickest recipe for writer's block is to conflate the activities of writing and editing together: to start editing and re-writing a text, paragraph, or line before we've even finished creating it in the first place. This is also why every writer, no matter how skilled, needs external editors. The very expertise we develop in analyzing a problem and conveying our insights by definition un-equips us to assess the suitability, tone, accessibility, and so on of that presentation for an audience or reader.

This is also why giving a paper at a conference--even something that seems relatively "slight", for a sparse and/or easily-dazzled audience--is almost always a valuable exercise for a writer. It may be sort-of pointless in terms of career development, but it's almost always useful in terms of intellectual development. Because it lets the entire audience respond as both auditor and test-case, it's an incredibly constructive exercise for an author. Things you think are obvious are heard as abstruse or challenging; things you think are slight or prone to razzle-dazzle are heard as brilliant and exciting. It's like a test-screening for an audience who actually care about and have some insight into your treatment.

It's a drag, and costly, and boring, and time-consuming, and it ain't that good for the planet--but more often than not, it's also worth doing.

Below the jump: the view at the end of the day:

No comments: