(Guest Blogger: Professor Heather Smyth)
When it comes to real estate, the mantra may be “location, location, location.” Surprisingly, perhaps, location isn’t always the biggest factor in whether an academic conference will be successful and memorable.
I had the opportunity to travel to two conferences this year (not counting the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences that was held in Waterloo in May-June). The first, in San Jose, California, was the annual joint meeting of MELUS and USACLALS: Multi Ethnic Literatures of the US, and the US Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. The second, a smaller conference in Wake Forest University, North Carolina, focused on “Diaspora and ‘Race’ Studies” and was part of a four-conference series initiated by the Etudes Montpelliéraines des Mondes Anglophones in Montpellier, France.
I had very high hopes for the San Jose conference. Naively, I flew down there without doing any research on San Jose, relying intuitively on the Dionne Warwick song as evidence that the city would take my breath away. Of course, I didn’t actually listen to the song either before going: sounds like a pretty sleepy place in hindsight.
And it was beautiful, but so much smaller and more restricted than I expected. I trolled the 4 square block radius around the hotel in its entirety, every day, and squeezed all I could out of it. At first I couldn’t find any evidence of the history of the area, beyond two very modest buildings called “Fallon House” and “Peralta Adobe.” I later found plaques detailing the work of Chesar Chavez and a walking path outside the hotel that wound through the area, with quotations and historical anecdotes embedded in ribbon patterns in the pavement and art objects that detailed the career of Ernesto Galarza, Mexican-American labour organizer and educational activist. My initial disappointment was somewhat alleviated.
The conference itself was fairly large, with about eight different simultaneous panels going on throughout four days. This meant, however, the occasional panel with as many presenters as audience members. Intimate, but not always conversational as a result. The rooms were formal, even baroque, with thick carpets, gilded chairs, and silver water tumblers, and perhaps as a consequence the participants were also fairly formal, sometimes changing into suits for their presentation and then changing back into “dress casual” immediately afterwards. The hotel was attached to the conference centre, which meant people drifted in and out during the day. The conference was very well-organized and featured lovely lunch and dinner events. I saw some really excellent panels (including a great paper by St. Jerome’s colleague Veronica Austen!) and joined some very rewarding discussions, but I didn’t sense an overall effect of intellectual excitement or community-building.
Then, in October, I went to the “Diasporas and ‘Race’” conference in Winston-Salem North Carolina. In contrast to the plane ride into San Jose—mountains, and lots of dense Silicon Valley city space underneath the plane and on the horizon—I was struck by the broad North Carolina forests that continued right up to the airport runways on my descent. The hotel was isolated, and the conference venue even more so: forests, trails, and ponds all around. And yet the conference was engaging, dynamic, and cosmopolitan right from the first: conversations started on the shuttle ride to the first day of panels, and continued through the registration process. By the time the first panel began I already felt like I was in the middle of something fun and interesting.
The four-conference structure (of which this was number two) lent the event the feeling of a group problem-solving exercise. Perhaps this is the ideal kind of conference: one that develops from an idea or a specific shift within a discipline, instead of an annual event that brings together a wide range of research fields. Everyone there was committed to exploring issues of race, diaspora, and migration from both humanities and social sciences fields and from all over North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. The venue was perfect for the event: an art gallery in the woods that featured an exhibition of the work of African American collage artist Romare Beardon, specifically his Odyssey collection: a perfect context for a conference on diaspora. We ate all our lunches and dinners together as a group and developed ongoing conversations about our research. And I came away with all kinds of new ideas for my research, which is ideally what conferences are supposed to do.
So I learned something this year, which I probably already knew: smaller can be better, with the right people; collegiality can be created by environment, and is a catalyst for intellectual engagement; and surprises that lead to discoveries are one of the best things about being an academic.