The Humiliating Nightmare of Academic-Conference Season

This is why every academic you know is so depressed over the holidays. 

Conference season invokes the stuff of Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic paintings.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Mike Watson Images/Thinkstock, painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

One of the advantages of an academic career is that most universities take a two- or three-week winter break. While students clog the overhead compartments of America with fetid laundry and then gorge on home-cooked meals, their professors presumably get to spend those weeks doing whatever the hell they want. No fair! Bah! Humbug!

Take heart in the anguish of your fellow man, Scrooges of the corporate world: Some of that winter break is ruined, thanks to the big annual conventions that academics must attend in early January. Whether it’s the Modern Language Association (MLA), or the countless others with countless other acronyms (AHA, SCS, APA), conferences loom just after the new year, turning the academics in your family-and-friends circle into shriveled husks of their former selves, darkening every festivity with stress about their upcoming trips. (I guess we should give the conferences a cookie for not clustering in the week between Christmas and New Year’s like they used to.)

But why the stress? It’s just a conference. Almost everyone in the professional world has attended one of those. You don’t see your cousin Brad who works in human resources leaving the Christmas table to cry over his laptop for 10 hours in desperate preparation for a breakout session on dynamic synergy. But the academic version of what is otherwise just a banal excuse to rack up frequent flyer miles and drink is, well, different.

This should not be surprising, because the academic version of everything is different. Most employers advertise year-round and follow up with applicants in a matter of days or weeks; in academia, the hiring cycle takes nine months. At most jobs, years of successful experience often guarantee a raise and a promotion; in academia, the longer you’ve spent in an adjunct teaching position, the more likely you will remain in that august position until you die, even if your reviews are stellar. It’s only fitting, then, that while most jobs pay their employees’ way to the dynamic synergy conference, many academics attend their big annual meetings on their own dime—or, rather, their own 10,000 dimes. (No joke. $1,000. I did a study.)

The differences between the academic world and the normal world begin as soon as you affix your dread name badge. Sure, there’s nothing inherently odious about wearing a name badge. Obviously. That’s standard practice. However, Brad and co. likely use those badges for their intended purpose. (“Hi there … Jessica! I see you work at … Alias Investigations! Drink?”) But at conferences such as the MLA, name badges are the central showpiece of a five-day game of scope and sneer. Instead of exchanging a smile and greeting with the other humans in your midst, other attendees look not at your face but at the badge; they mull over your institutional affiliation—whether it’s good enough, whether you might be able to do something for them someday, whether you are deserving of top-level sucking up, regular-level acknowledgement, or cursory scorn. Then, and only then, do they deign to acknowledge your existence (or not).

Think I’m exaggerating? The elevators at MLA hotels are so infamous for facilitating the name badge scope and sneer that they have their own Twitter account—and that Twitter account has its own parody Twitter account.

But what actually goes on at an academic conference? Interviewing for jobs, for one. These are probably unlike any you have ever seen: Interviewees (usually members of a 20-person “long list”) perch on hotel-room beds like sad, scared prostitutes in ill-fitting suits while a tribunal of their potential future colleagues lobs brutal questions at them. The following are all real questions I have really been asked:

“I see you’re working on your first book now. What’s your third book going to be about?” (Answer: “How I bought this suit on an adjunct’s salary.”)

“Why does the world need another book on your specialty?” (Answer: “Do you seriously think the world needs another academic book on anything?”)

 “What’s more important to you, teaching or research?” (Answer: I’m not exactly sure, but the correct approach is to pretend to hate teaching because it shows you’re “not serious” about research; but then also to pretend that you don’t hate it, because great professors are great teachers; but then to make sure the committee knows you’re pretending, but not pretending too much. Got it?)

If this sounds dire, consider the fates of the interviewers: spending 14 hours cooped up in a hotel room, lobbing predictable softball questions at a nearly identical series of 20 palpably terrified schmos in a row.

For those scholars lucky enough not to be on the job market or interviewing candidates, the primary purpose of the big academic meeting is presenting papers at (and attending) the hundreds upon hundreds of panels, during which there seems to be an inverse relationship between the time taken to prepare a conference paper and the prestige level of its author: Earnest grad students speaking to empty rooms have spent three months or more on their presentations, while superstars mirthfully inform packed houses, “I wrote this on the plane.” Then, during Q and A, everyone wants to seem smarter than the panelists, but since they either haven’t been able to follow the paper or aren’t intimately familiar with the sub-sub-subfield, every question essentially boils down to: Why is the thing you research not exactly the thing I research? Here’s a 5-minute soliloquy about that. What do you think?

Gee, you might be saying, does anyone actually enjoy these things? Yes! The primary reason scholars have fun at their annual meetings—if they’re not on the job market and if they can afford to—is because of the chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues and network with possible new friends and colleagues. (For some, it’s also the convention sex.) This is fine—but does it have to be in the dead of winter? Does it have to be in an expensive city, nowhere near nonluxury accommodation or affordable food that isn’t limited to stale vending-machine Twix? Far be it from me to begrudge my colleagues the desire to spend 10 Benjamins to have a hurried glass of $14 conference-center swill wine over chatter about how dire the job market is, but aren’t there better ways to see friends? Google Hangouts are free.

Academic conferences might have some of the trappings of their corporate equivalents—and by trappings I mean drinking—but that’s largely where the similarities end. Sure, here’s networking, but half the people the poor bastards attempt to network with stare right through them. And of course, the most infuriating distinction of the oeuvre is that academic conferences demand hundreds of dollars from people who often don’t have two quarters to rub together. My guess is that many academics would gladly trade that long winter vacation for a shorter one, where they could go somewhere warm and ride the elevator in peace.