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Un-conventionalizing Convention

Shannon Mattern
Jan 11, 2015 · 6 min read

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 questions to one another — questions that are often just as much about making sure our work is inserted into the dialogue as they are about actually engaging with the presentations we’d just heard.

New Yorker, October 14, 2010

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:

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 the way they 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 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 — 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 is so often ignored in our scholarly communication — and how it can be reintegrated into the educational enterprise.

Raphael’s The School of Athens: Walkin’ and Talkin’

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 of meaning, to the “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).” (: 3). Let’s consider the codes, conventions, apparatae, furnishings, architectures, etc., that structure — and often — how we “conference.” That structure how we learn and communicate.

Tea Ceremony, via Kitka: — Zen Paraphernalia

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 the talks and slides on the program but also in their very , 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):

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.

Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production

Post-conference dialogue after the Dec 10–12, 2014 event at HUMlab

    Shannon Mattern

    Written by

    Faculty, School of Media Studies, The New School. I do stuff with media and space.

    Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production

    Post-conference dialogue after the Dec 10–12, 2014 event at HUMlab