I was invited to write this post in response to Patrik Svensson’s critical summary of the December 2014 “Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production” conference at HUMlab, Umeå University, which I had the pleasure of co-moderating. Sort-of.
If you think about it, it’s pretty weird. We pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to fly to some frigid city — Chicago, Montreal, New York — in the dead of winter. We spend three or four days rifling through a dog-eared program, choosing from among a schedule of 20 or 30 concurrent events, most hosted in windowless, characterless conference rooms on the mezzanine level of the local Marriott or Hilton. For two-hour shifts, we plant ourselves in gaudily upholstered chairs, packed in a bit too close for comfort; listen to three or four people read papers at us while they cycle through PowerPoint presentations plagued with unfortunate typographic choices; and then, for the final ten minutes, before our release into the slightly-less-stale air of the hallways and our rush to the bathrooms, some of us pose primarily pro forma questions to one another — questions that are often just as much about making sure our own work is inserted into the dialogue as they are about actually engaging with the presentations we’d just heard.
I’m not a huge fan of academic conferences. They’re typically too big and impersonal and formal. By the end of the day, I feel antsy and mentally mushy — and about 15 pound heavier than I was that morning. And even the good ones — the small, thematically organized, interdisciplinary ones that are built with mostly plenary sessions, where there aren’t competing series of panels — tend to happen, for whatever reason, right at the beginning or end of the semester; so while I’m trying to enjoy those rare moments of solidarity and stimulation, the emails from back home are pouring in, posing a nagging distraction.
This is not to say that conferences are worthless. The conference, as a “modality” of scholarly communication and communion, has its distinctive values. In a guide I created for my graduate students to help them engage with scholarly presentations, I write:
Academia of course involves a lot of reading and writing of texts — and, in praxis-based or creative fields, the making of mediated and/or physical objects or structures. These are the myriad forms in which we “create knowledge” and communicate with one another. We also produce events — opportunities for a few, or a lot, of interesting, potentially like-minded people to get together in a (physical or virtual) space to share ideas, get feedback, tell lame inside jokes, and discuss the evolution of the field. These practices certainly aren’t specific to the academy; they’re common in various professional fields, in the art and media worlds, etc. So, learning how to navigate this terrain in one realm — in the academic public lecture, or the professional networking event, or the political conference — can prove useful in the others.
Let’s think about the live presentation — the guest lecture, the conference presentation, the screening-and-discussion of one’s work — as a medium in its own right, and consider how to best exploit this particular modality of communication. How do we get the most out of this experience?
While graduate students, who are acclimating themselves to the field, might take the conference’s conventions as a given, and focus on how to conform to those conventions and extract the most value from them, I’d rather we all — both those of us who know the game well, and those who are just learning it — denaturalize those codes and customs.
We should be asking ourselves why things are the way they are — and if they have to be that way. Like, who ever said the 105-minute, four-personal panel discussion is the basic epistemological building-block? Why allow the rigidly-monitored conference clock to dictate how we “chunk” our thoughts into digestible bites? Who decided that reading a paper to a room full of people who are, most likely, perfectly capable of reading that paper for themselves, on their own time, is the best way to communicate the latest activity in a field, or to generate discussion about those developments? Why allow PowerPoint and Prezi (with all its nauseating, gratuitous acrobatics) to prescribe how we visually communicate our ideas to one another? Why allow the architectural and instrumental limitations of the room — the fact of tightly-packed linear rows of chairs facing toward a flimsy screen — determine how we engage with one another?
“Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production” was about denaturalizing these conventions, on myriad scales. We experimented with the temporal and spatial and intellectual structures of the individual “talk.” We even played with gesture and embodiment, asking what we can learn from experiencing performance — or what can be gained when the entire enterprise is put in motion, when we shift venues and move around and reclaim the tradition of peripatetic pedagogy. We considered how the mobile, sensing body is so often ignored in our scholarly communication — and how it can be reintegrated into the educational enterprise.
I have suggested before that we need to attend to our “cultural techniques” of scholarly communication and knowledge production. As Bernhard Siegert explains, focusing on cultural techniques shifts our attention from the representation of meaning, to the “the exterior and material conditions” for meaning, which might include “inconspicuous technologies of knowledge (e.g., index cards, writing tools and typewriters), discourse operators (e.g., quotation marks), pedagogical media (e.g., blackboards), unclassifiable media such as phonographs or stamps, instruments like the piano, and disciplining techniques (e.g., language acquisition and alphabetization).” (Theory, Culture & Society 2013: 3). Let’s consider the codes, conventions, apparatae, furnishings, architectures, etc., that structure — and often limit — how we “conference.” That structure how we learn and communicate.
And if the existing techniques aren’t working — if the space is too rigidly structured, or the schedule’s too packed, or there’s too little room for debate or informal conversation — we need to consider how things could be different, and what new spaces and structures we’d need to put in place in order to cultivate, as Vitruvius might say, more commodious, structurally sound and supportive, and delightful spaces in which to germinate and circulate new knowledge.
Ultimately, these cultural techniques scaffold our thinking and embody our values. They express not only via their content — the talks and slides on the program — but also in their very form, what we hold up as important. Consider the tradition of the “keynote” (other presenters’ notes aren’t “key”?) or the “master class” or the “think tank” — or the lecture series composed primarily of white male “luminaries” (still a far-too-common occurrence). Again, as I’ve written elsewhere (and I’m fully aware that I’m quoting myself obnoxiously frequently — apologies):
We’re so frequently advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive, ethical models of making and thinking in the world — yet the theories and practices we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still often built via ‘Great Man’ — and I stress man — modes of production [and rigid structures of communication]…
Recognizing the entwined infrastructures that constitute this substrate for practice will ideally cultivate a sensitivity to issues of access, diversity and inclusivity, authorship and attribution, epistemology, and other social values and ethical concerns. Recognizing what’s missing in [our] field’s current infrastructural ecology might inspire [us] to contribute to the design of a discursive space or a landscape of practice that embodies a political economy more in line with those liberal values that our theories espouse. [We], as critical-creative practitioners, have the opportunity to transform criticality into generativity — to imagine and then construct the hard and soft scaffoldings for tomorrow’s fields of practice.
Our cultural techniques, like Foucault’s archive, have the power to shape what and how we can think. For all these reasons, we need to know how they’re engineered, and re-engineer them if necessary.