spam of the week (2): commentary

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If you thought academia was bad for over-conferring: people, welcome to the outside world.

I’ve often wondered if there were too many conferences in academia, and that constant conference-trotting might be a bad thing. Politically and socially, over-conferring segregates those who can afford the time and money to go from those who can’t. Conferences are a whole money-making commercialised field, charging prices that are whatever the market will bear. I have been on conference-organising committees where good nice people whom I otherwise like and respect seriously discussed what the lowest and highest acceptable and expected prices for various things might be. What the market would bear. I thought of poor graduate students and old people in our local community. It would be nice if they could be there too. I felt sick. Physically sick. Episodes like these have fed into my increasing disgust with free-market capitalism. Conferences risk losing all kudos and quality and respect when they become an excuse for a scam.

Then there’s the satellite scams: per diems, charging research-fund accounts, using conferences like anything else to quantify and commodify your work, your whole existence, yourself. When you tick boxes on forms and ask for pernickety reimbursement, ask yourself: are you selling out to Mammon? Could you defend that expense to a tax-paying fellow-citizen outside academia? Worse: are you doing yourself, your colleagues, and the whole universitas a disservice and risking their lives? Well, let’s not exaggerate: risking their continuing existence as intellectual entities, though the two things are sadly as one in too many countries around the world.

Beware the temptations of short-term gain. Box-ticking bean-counting administrators, the class who have somehow always risen to power (French Revolution, etc.), would like academics to be just another cog like any other in the machine. Human Resources, Statistics, and Business Project Management types have “done” just enough courses on human psychology to imagine think conclude that they know about human beings and what makes them tick. They consider us all to be the same, and all to be fuelled by a desire to acquire and to spend money. This is of course untrue and foolish. But every time we accept a pay-rise but no change in working conditions, every time we list output produced over the year, every time we tick boxes for reimbursement: we’re falling into the trap of quantifying and commodifying what we do. A further untruth and folly.

What we do is produce ideas. Invisible, intangible, unquantifiable, in themselves immaterial. We make magic. Our magic is between the lines, in the cracks, in weird spaces underneath and betwixt and between other things. Our ideas may eventually be translated into materiality–often in an unexpected direction, with another magical idea-process along the way–and might make money; the ifs and whens are unknown and unpredictable. It might be years or centuries. It’s like the infamous “learning outcomes” being inflicted (completely undemocratically) From Here and From Above, student course evaluations (happening right now), and other ways of proving the value of what education does.

In reference to a recent article in Forbes, the good wise Valerie W. says what we’ve all been saying and thinking for years, in response to the many writings and comments on threats to the liberal arts / humanities / arts:

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A first problem is the sad post-Medieval confusion of “worth” and “value” (and other positive qualities) with filthy lucre. I will not harp on about this. See Raimon Vidal de Besalú, Jean de Meun, Guilhem d’Aurenga, and vasty swathes of sarcy sardonic Troubadour satirical poetry.

A second, more worrying, problem here is standardisation: commodifying learning makes life easier for statisticians and provides quick cheap easy sound-bites, to be used for short-term gain by politicians. But what we do is long-term, very long-term: repercussions may be felt over millennia (Plato, Homer), end results will only be known at the end of time. Learning outcomes for students are important: but not so much those at the end of a course, before they sit their final exam. The outcomes that are important are later:

  • How well did that course prepare you for what you did next in that same area?
  • How did it intersect with all you learning at that time, in other courses?
  • How did it contribute to all of your learning over your whole time at university?
  • How much do you remember of that course’s material a year later, five years, ten years?
  • Which courses were most memorable?
  • Which ones were most useful for work, later?
  • And had most impact on your later life?
  • Which ones would you revisit and continue for pleasure (and mental health and well-being) when you are retired?

A third problem: feeding The Administration’s misperception of what we do, adding insult to the injury of confirming their misunderstanding of academic-human nature. You tick a box or add a line to your C.V. when you have presented a paper and/or published it. This is of course satisfying. What is worrying is that you are obliged to do this, to satisfy an alien value-system. Forced to use the coloniser’s language.

Resist. Resist being an oppressed subaltern non-subject resource for an alien aggressor’s profit. Resistance is not just your right but your responsibility and duty, as a sentient cogitating being.

[Feminist killjoy bracket: Don’t adjust to injustices. Stay maladjusted!]

(nice short summary from feministkilljoys: the problem of perception)

Sadly, Product is the only language They understand to prove that you have done some intellectual work. Yet the stage of real hard graft, of researching and reading and thinking and talking with people and writing and rereading, rewriting, rethinking, continuing the research sometimes for years… that receives no Official Rubber-Stamped Credit. Nor does the background and side-work of learning languages and learning about whole fields outside your own immediate one; this is a particular problem for people in academic fields like Medieval Studies. Any single paper has at least a decade of work behind it.

Add that ideas happen in different ways, at different rates; whether and how they work is unexpected and completely unpredictable. A good idea can occur on the spur of the moment, or it can germinate from many scattered seeds over years or decades. Speed does not determine the quality of an idea. Nor does the length of time and work behind it (not counting the background work outlined in the previous paragraph). More than anything else–i.e. money–ideas-people need time, space, and freedom to think. See Einstein, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and defences of academic freedom in the 20th century for further details.

Resist. Defend ideas, the world of ideas, and idea-workers.

Resist. Subvert forms. Give students your own surveys near the middle of a term (actually, our nicer smarter more humane university people, like at CTLT, suggest this anyway), and ask them about their previous courses then. Get the Alumni Office people to do something useful and productive for a change, by having them send out questionnaires about life-long learning. Use Administrative Non-Speak and Imposed Political NewSpeak against itself, by using only terms that exist in those languages and in common usage, using them in the Common Sense Crystal Clear Plain English way. The same goes for other languages. In Medieval Occitan poetic terms, this is trobar leu.

Here is an alternative way of putting it, visually. Incongruity is always a fun-filled creative opportunity and sure, it’s always an uncomfortable laugh, the borderline knife-edge teetering one; here, the proximity of utopia to dystopia. What’s nice here is the moral lesson on point of view. With apologies for my being a sucker for didactic satire… From Vintage Books & Anchor Books:

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All those things having been said, though, conferences remain useful. Good conferences are like any good hang-outs with other people and involving factors of randomness: that’s how new ideas are sparked off, from interactions and cross-fertilisations and improvisational unpredictable BEING (A)LIVE. This is why we need to go to conferences. Not to network, name-drop, hero-worship, schmooze: for the real business of live-action intellectualising. But over-conferring is not just unconscionable (commercialisation, Viagra Paradigm growth) and unmanageable–it is impossible to go to everything that might possibly be relevant or directly useful, let alone indirectly or plain interesting–the travel involved makes it ecologically unsustainable.

This being 2014, we have other options that are economically, humanly, and environmentally better.

Chat, hang-outs, social networking, etc. And virtual conferences of one sort or another have been around for a long time, but are underused. Often smaller or more marginal/ised groups. While big conferences (thinking MLA this coming January) may often live-cast major keynotes, and put them online for others to watch in their own time for free, when will online conferring become the norm–for all contributions–rather than the exception? An immersive virtual reality MLA or Kalamazoo, now that would be a joy. Combined with local/regional live collective groups. In the pub, say; if you can set up pubs to watch special major live sports events, and to do pub quizzes, and for live music: why not live interactive conferring?

Online activities are brilliant. For my own selfish purposes, the two most important innovations of the last two decades or so have been digital humanities projects and the blogosphere. These sometimes flow into live-action medievalising. The BABEL group is one to watch. And anyone good and public-spirited (like the splendid Carla N.) who tweets while conferring.

I for one can vouch for internettery having helped me to have some sense of belonging to a community: when a graduate student, the only Occitanist student in my institution and always one of under five Medieval literature students working in French, it was awesome to be able to commune with other Medievalist peers elsewhere. It was vital when I was a very isolated Medievalist in Ireland, where “Medieval/ist” tends to mean (1) “Medieval Ireland”, (2) “Medieval history”, or (3) “Medieval English literature”; which was how the FMRSI started up.

And then there’s the funny-peculiar case of my current occupation. While my doctoral work was as a Medievalist, my general training then was also as a generalist, in French literature (to final-year undergraduate-level teaching) and language. That was one reason why I did my doctorate where I did. Even that doctoral work, while centred on one single literary work (Flamenca), was always looking outside and around, for a bigger whole picture and networks of relations within it: comparativist, cross-language, diachronic and synchronic. I never wanted to be “just” a Medievalist–I am not good enough in the appropriate ways, that intense narrowness, I lack focus–and always wanted to work more widely. I have always been happiest when I am teaching at least one broader course on literature. You see, Medievalism has moved from being part of what I Officially did; to a leisure activity in “free” time (during which time I thought, read, and write more about medieval stuff than when I had any obligation to do so); to something I’m integrating increasingly into work. On the one hand, Medievalising the teaching of introductory language and culture. On the other, reading more about Medieval language teaching, mostly of Latin and continuing previous work on Occitan as a second or third language, learned for cultural reasons: how to read and write poetry, how to understand it better in so doing, and how thereby to become a better person.

None of that would have happened and I wouldn’t be trying to think creatively, imaginatively, and above all Medievally about these non-immediately-Medieval things without the serendipity of fortune. Good Lady Fortune, always ready to counteract Lady Folly’s nefarious influence in our lives. Long live unpredictability and improvisation. I had no plans to end up in my current job. Ten years ago, I would have thought of it as a living hell, that my main work and responsibility would be teaching beginners’ French and organising and coordinating it.

There are still moments when the dark thoughts go that way. Most of my reading is escapism. Most of my thinking is about reading, and thinking about the question “what is literature?” in terms of escapism, of free imagination. Most of my writing is putting off marking. But then I’ll pick up the marking again, and be delighted, and remember that even for beginners, this is still writing and reading and, for all of us, literary activity. And that is good.

L’imagination au pouvoir: that is how to resist, to preserve threatened knowledge and real values, to empower others in the great adventure of learning (students, colleagues), and to “produce innovation” of a sort that satisfies all sides.

Provided that a “positive outcome” is not one that is “positive” merely in balance-sheet terms. It must be balanced in real terms, and the outcome cannot be about “growing” making money. It must be about saving money, spending it more wisely for greater real benefit (i.e. not about money making more money), preserving it, conserving resources. The only thing that should be “growing” here is wisdom: appropriately, for a university. The only “benefit” should be for the true “ben,” the greater good of scholars, scholarly community, wider community, interconnected ecosystem as a whole. And the only “development” should be a “sustainable” one.

Provided that we continue to preserve genuine academic freedom–above all, time and space to think–and provided that Powers understand and accept that ideas are free; they cannot be quantified and standardised and tamed; nor can they be encouraged and fed, if that is on a Project Outcomes model.

Under these terms and in acceptable working conditions, innovation is possible, imaginable, of a sort that is good for us academics, for The Powers That Be (via the main language we have in common, Mammon), for a continuing balanced sustainable world: bref, that is ethically “good” and that has true “value.” But is has to start with ideas, freedom, and respect for ideas and idea-workers.

How can understanding, acceptance, and respect be developed if they don’t occur naturally in a person? Simple. Learn a language. Properly, that is, including its culture, including in turn its literature.

I propose that all University Administrators, that is, anyone in a position of power or authority over idea-workers, have their employment subject to satisfaction of a language requirement. That the language requirement include cultural appreciation and sensitivity, and that it be subject to renewal. This seems to me to be a fair and acceptable sort of amnesty and an attempt to address injustices: that is, the opaque, mysterious, downright dubious, and most certainly undemocratic ways in which these persons and bodies corporate gained authority over us idea-workers.

Fair’s fair, if we have to taint ourselves and risk seriously damaging ourselves and worse (loss of identity and culture via loss of language) when we are forced to use Their NewSpeak.

Open question, going back to the beginning of this post: what ideas can we have for making conferences themselves better? That is, “better” in the senses of ethical, socially-supportive, and ecologically-sustainable “good”?

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