I love the idea of an academic conference: like-minded folks gathered to feed off one another’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Great!
But the reality of it? Not so much.
In my first experience, I presented with a panel of fellow-students from a rhetoric class. Our session occurred on Friday afternoon, before the keynote. Three people attended. Had I really paid all that money for registration fees, lodging, and travel so that I could stand at a lonely podium and listen to the sound of my voice travel unfettered over the cheap and dirty carpet of an unpopulated hotel meeting-room?
I marveled at how nervous I’d been for what turned out to be an exercise in the ridiculous. To rub salt in the wound, a professor of mine presented my ideas as her own in a different session the next day. I listened in stunned silence as her lying cheating voice rang out over the thrumming of my heart.
She didn’t look at me once.
I made three additional conference presentations in my esteemed career. The others were better attended, but still, I’d say I never had more than 30-40 people in a session. Regardless, I’m not sure that it matters. Academic presentations, with their poor delivery and dense verbiage, don’t really aim to inform. Where are the visual aids and the eye contact? Where are the PowerPoints people?
The academy cheapens conferences by emphasizing quantity over quality. Like the imperative to publish, the imperative to present funnels scholars into the conference circuit like Sneetches lined up for a turn in the star-on machine. They come, in large part, to get their bellies stamped.
I actually have no complaint about the jargon, or the theory, or the nit-picky citations of the scholarly work I did. I loved all that stuff. The problem isn’t the work itself, it’s the perpetual isolation of the scholar–the fact that this work so rarely gets translated to the mainstream. The imperative to publish and present keeps scholars from participating in less formal venues. It also creates a glut of scholarly work–more than the scholars themselves could ever consume.
So who’s it all for?
Certainly not the public. Ironically, unfair university hiring practices could help to blur these hard-drawn lines between academics and the mainstream. As universities shed new Ph.Ds. like so many flakes of old skin, they force intellectuals out into the real world where they have no choice but to mingle and work–in numbers. That is interesting!
Of course, I’m one of those folks.
I’m happy to say I haven’t given a conference presentation in something close to ten years, but I did get up in front of an audience to make a very different kind of presentation this past weekend. I read a four-minute piece called the boys next door in the DC production of a show called, Listen to Your Mother. It recounts a conversation I had with my teen son about rape culture, college parties, and friendship.
I didn’t need a bibliography or the Chicago Manual of Style to pull it off. I didn’t use any jargon. I didn’t cite Foucault, Derrida or even Freud in the telling. But I’ll say that even with years of scholarly untraining in the art of public speaking, I did make eye-contact, and I did invoke my audience (no PowerPoint, however!). I wish I could say I was spectacular, but before long, a video will emerge. I’m afraid it will tell its own story, whatever that may be.
Despite having rejected so much else about academia, however, you can bet that when formulating my ideas about this piece, I drew on the things I learned in graduate school. Theories about discipline, the gaze, the unconscious, and a healthy understanding of oppressive binaries such as good/bad, male/female, virgin/whore and agent/object.
I hope that doesn’t surprise you. Although university life serves up its fair share of humiliations, the departure doesn’t happen like a layoff. The provost doesn’t force you to leave your files locked in cabinets while he/she escorts you out of the building like a criminal. You get to take the knowledge with you! In fact, you can’t help but do so, right?
Nearly 300 people attended this year’s Listen to Your Mother Show. That means I addressed more people in those few minutes than I did in all four of my conference presentations combined (and I’m pretty sure we could throw in my scholarly readership as well). Not only did I get to share my ideas with this much broader audience, but I also had the chance to learn from them and my fellow cast members.
Motherhood has long been the thorn in the side of feminism–the thing we have forever struggled to reconcile with our ideals of equality and independence. We can theorize, expound, and pontificate about this dilemma at feminist theory conferences and in feminist journals, but that won’t be enough. We’d also be wise to round out our research and “listen to [our] mother[s].”
I felt so privileged to share the stage with a group of people brought together, not by our varying degrees or professional credentials, but by our desire to share our thoughts about motherhood (thoughts that are surely also informed by our varying degrees and professional credentials). From stories of what happens to the body of a childbearing or breastfeeding woman, to what happens to the heart and soul of a parent who loses a child, to struggles with the race and gender stereotypes our kids face, to the recognition of the humanity, vulnerability and power of our own mothers, to struggles with anxiety, the “empty nest,” the shape of the family, and the gender of the “mom,” to the downright hilarity of the mundane, this show brought not just the joy and pain of motherhood to life, but the very philosophical and intellectual aspects of parenting fully into light.
If we want mothers to enjoy equity, respect and independence in our society, then our first step should be to truly understand what motherhood means. “Giving Mother’s Day a microphone,” as Listen to Your Mother aims to do, takes a big step in that direction, and I was so honored to be part of it (and not cloistered in a conference room somewhere reading monotonously for 25 whole pages to nobody but a blank wall!).
Listen to Your Mother shows occur in cities across the country every spring. Check out their main page for a show near you!