>So I’m back with my long delayed Kalamazoo posts (not much else to do in a hospital room!), and this one also applies to academic conferences in general, I think, perhaps across the disciplines. (Hear that Inside Higher Ed?)
I’ve been to Kalamazoo four times now, once as a dissertating graduate student, presenting on work related to my dissertation, and three times as an assistant professor, presenting on newer projects. The first year I made the pilgrimage I knew no one, stayed by myself, and felt utterly overwhelmed and lonely. But my experience was made a little smoother by the fact that the #2 reader on my dissertation attended every year and was more than happy to introduce me to some of the VIPs in the society dedicated to the somewhat canonical (though still slightly red-headed step-child like) genre on which I worked. Knowing that I was #2’s student and that my #1 was a VIP of several orders of magnitude, these people asked me about my work, encouraged me to get involved in the society, and invited me to join them for dinner after one of the panels.
Of course that was the year I had Fancy Big Deal University on my name tag. The next time I attended the Zoo, I was glowing with the confidence of being a real scholar – all grown up with a doctorate and a full-time, tenure-track job. But something was wrong. Now I had Rust Belt University on my name tag and it changed things. Now I noticed how people looked at name tags and what they did afterwards, something I hadn’t noticed before when I wore the Cloak of Privilege with FBDU on my tag. Now people went through a weird ritual in which they looked at me, then looked at my name tag, and then made mental calculations about how much of their precious time I was worth. And some of these people were freakin’ graduate students! Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating, but some people really did speak to me only a few seconds after doing the tag-glance, and I swear that never happened when I had FBDU on my tag. And some of the very same people who’d met me two years before and invited me to be part of their gang, so to speak, were now among the people who committed the most egregious tag-glance sins.
I might have dismissed all this as my own insecurities – for it is true that that particular year I was starting to feel like I hadn’t been quite the success that other students of #1 had been (and that’s another post in and of itself). But then again, those insecurities were being stoked by the tag-glance experience itself, and for all I know the tag-glance was the instigation for them. At any rate, the next year at K’zoo confirmed what were then only suspicions that “you are where you work” in some people’s minds. That year, a glitch caused all the conference name tags to be printed without university affiliations. I had the best time ever. (Of course, part of this was also because I knew a lot more people from having participated in an NEH Institute, but that’s another post as well. Short version: I recommend such Institutes – and the Seminars as well – highly, especially for assistant professors.) Suddenly I had long conversations with strangers of all positions on the academic ladder about our work (both scholarly and pedagogical) and only somewhere in the midst of those conversations did people ask where I taught. By then they were already invested in the conversation, however, so there was no rude excuse-making to get out of the conversation. And sometimes they seemed a little surprised, as if they were just realizing that someone worth talking to could be at a university they’d never heard of. Maybe I’m being ungenerous, but it sure seemed that’s what was happening. And I couldn’t help noticing that the people who’d bothered to write their affiliations on their name tags were people at the major, name-brand Research I institutions. Apparently there was at least one exception to this rule – John Marlin of the tiny College of St. Elizabeth wrote an Inside Higher Ed article about this, in which he says he proudly and perhaps rebelliously wrote his institution on his tag after seeing others do so. But of course the others he mentions were all at top-flight institutions.
In contrast, I wrote to the powers that be encouraging them to make the same “mistake” this year. I had high hopes. Alas, they were dashed, for not only were our institutions back on the tags, they were bigger than our names. Yikes! Talk about “you are where you work”! But this year, like Michael Drout, I only hung out with people I already knew and liked (either from real life or from the blogosphere). Unlike Prof. Drout’s choice to do this, my circumstances were a little more accidental – I had so many meetings and social arrangements lined up there was precious little time for incidental encounters. I didn’t even stay long at the dance because I was presenting on Sunday and had to pack before bed. So I didn’t really have an opportunity to test the whole tag-glance thing. But perhaps others have stories to share?
I know there are practical reasons for needing one’s institutional affiliation on the name tags – if someone wants to track you down later, for instance, they need to know where you work – so I don’t think we’ll ever be able to eliminate the tag-glance (except in the case of future glitches). And yet, I can’t help but be nostalgic for that year in which the status and hierarchy of institutional affiliation didn’t seem to matter, when were just a collection of 3000 people equally interested in the Middle Ages. (Funny – I’m not nostalgic for having FBDU on my name tag again.) And I can tell you this much: although it was never my inclination to start, I will now definitely never, ever be dismissive of an “Independent Scholar” or someone at an institution I’ve never heard of.
Other K’zoo posts in the works: the blogger meet-up and why blogs and bloggers rock; learning that the grass is always greener over the septic tank (or why I shouldn’t envy my peers who got “better” jobs); and, finally, a minor K’zoo-inspired identity crisis.