Yes, it’s like speed dating, only a conference. The American Sociological Association is having its annual meeting in Montreal. I’ve never been to ASA before but it appears to follow the rules of other large association conferences. Those rules, as far as I can follow, go something like this:
–>the least important thing that happens is the panels themselves
–>the major gossip comes out of misbehavior in panels or better yet, annual meetings of divisions or interest groups
–>the real action is talking to people (aka what the kids call “networking” these days)
If this is true, then I have distilled the association conference to its essence, though to be fair it wasn’t my conference.
In just under three hours I:
–>met with two editors from university presses and made one new friend in the field over a sequence of “coffees” (though no coffee was actually consumed)
–>ran into three people I knew but hadn’t seen in a long time, one of whom had switched universities
–>ran into a friend with whom I’d made plans for Monday night. We firmed them up
–>overheard many anxious conversions about the job market (I was 15 minutes early and just sat in the lobby area for a little while and read)
–>wound up in weird places for “coffee” because it wasn’t apparent where else to go
–>miscommunicated about where I was going to meet up with someone, thereby being half an hour late (it was my fault)
–>got lost inside the conference venue looking for the book exhibit
There are, of course, other dimensions to the conference experience, but these are important ones. Even though I didn’t register, go for the obligatory conference meal (1), attend a single panel, or even spend half a day there, I feel like I “did” ASA in the same way I might “do” one of my own associations’ conferences over the period of a few days.
One last thought on the venue. Normally, I love Montreal modernism but there’s something truly, spectacularly awful and the interior of the Palais de Congrés. It looks cool and futuristic from the outside. Inside, it’s big, easy to get lost in (no, Fred Jameson, it’s modernist architecture) and very, well, hard, cold, noisy and full of concrete. Kind of like an airport, but with fewer soft places to sit in the public areas. I’d always assumed that if hell existed it would be lukewarm, moist and humid, but I am now willing to consider the interior of the Palais as a possible alternative venue, should the original hell be booked some evening.
1. There are four “ideal types” of the conference meal. First is the wonderful free meal courtesy of an editor at a university press. Second is the wonderful meal with old friends at a good restaurant somebody knows about. Third is a variation on that where you try to do the same thing but with twelve people, which usually means you wind up talking with three or four, as if you’d gone out in a smaller group. But at least nobody feels excluded. Fourth is the conference catastrophe: a surprisingly mediocre meal at the fancy restaurant that someone in your oversized group “just found out about” that costs an obscene amount of money because the other end of the table was drinking themselves into a stupor while you had a glass of wine with your meal and everyone’s splitting the bill evenly. Extra points if the “gourmet” chef decides that steamed vegetables over pasta with no sauce is a good idea for a $25(US) “vegetarian” option because there’s nothing else vegetarian on the menu, not even a salad. Not that this has ever happened to me or several dining companions. . . .
I’d add another “ideal type” to your taxonomy of meals — the free food one is forced to seek out when one’s university travel budget covers only enough (and even then probably not) for airfare to the conference (which you are attending in the desperate hope that some other college or university will hire you).
This would include trans-fat-saturated muffins and cookies available at the book exhibit (usually provided by large publishers who watch freeloaders like me consume the entire pile in 15 minutes); after-hours, off-site receptions sponsored by academic societies to which you do not actually belong; happy hours sponsored by the alumni of universities you did not actually attend; and the appetizer buffets usually available to the few dozen people who actually attend the president’s keynote address.
Oh yeah, I totally forgot the “make a free meal at all the departmental receptions” meal. Since I’m vegetarian, this always involves a lot of cheese and dip, but it can work. And I think they implant some kind of “free stuff” chip in your brain in grad school that never gets removed. Maybe it’s some kind of homing device.
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