I’m two days home from the PCAC conference, and I basically can’t get over how amazing my experience was. My previous conference experience went like this: I took a 15 hour flight, gave a paper on the role of author interviews as part of a larger capitalist project that sells access to “authentic” celebrity selves as a gateway to products, and was told I was “making a mockery of literature.”
(You guys. There were four presenters, we had ten minutes for questions, and this was the first “question.” I wanted to die.) My other conference experiences include: going to Congress & participating in talks in fields other than my own (amazing but also alienating in a way- the only people I saw more than once were from my home department), and going to a grad student conference (3 other amazing lady comics scholars, but also too many questions that were basically “but… superman???”). I was skeptical.
Y’all! The PCAC conference was, to borrow a phrase from a young scholar from my hometown, thebombdotcom. Here’s a brief breakdown of the elements of this conference that made it so darned wonderful.
I skipped out on the last two papers of the conference because I was exhausted, but doing so was really hard. I couldn’t bring myself to miss a whole panel, even when I had trouble keeping my eyes open from pure fatigue. The breadth of material and the sheer number of smart and interesting paper topics by scholars at all levels made it hard to choose which of the concurrent panels to attend. I didn’t watch the paper given by a fellow McMaster student because there were too many other interesting options (sorry, Ben. I heard you did well!). Briefly, some of the papers I best remember were on: Lady Gaga; Rihanna; David Bowie; the Shahs of Sunset; performance art; Drop Dead Diva; Salome, where she danced; Wonderwoman; Superman; Real Dolls (sex dolls, NSFW); V for Vendetta; Movember (!); and Orange is the New Black. Scholars approached their topics from a variety of lenses, including (but not limited to) fat studies, queer studies, sociology, media & communications, biopolitics, and literary theory. Basically: if you’re any sort of nerd, and you’ve ever participated in popular culture, you’d likely find the conference schedule almost overwhelming with choice.
- (Un)Manning the Gates
- Both academia and fan culture are sites that are subject to rigid policing by community members (eg: the “but superman” type of question, but also standardised testing, grades, and requirements for admission). Getting in to a graduate program is a difficult thing, and both current and former graduate students (faculty & indy scholars) can be protective of their work. My talk on Margaret Atwood challenged the authenticity of author/fan engagements and, by extension, the academic work of some scholars. Those people were quick to let me know I was wrong. I witnessed none of this kind of policing at PCAC. Zero. I saw audiences ask thoughtful questions, some of which challenged pieces of the presentations, certainly. But in every.single.instance audience members used a positive tone, and behaved as if genuinely curious, rather than defensive. Scholars invited each other into discussions, rather than shaming or silencing one another.
- Word Nerds Share Stories, Make Community
I met people working with the same scholar my presentation was built around. I talked to those people. We went to each other’s talks. We gave advice, asked good questions, and exchanged contact information. I’m connected to some of those people through social media now, and a few might even be reading this (hello!). In short, I felt for the first time that I had found a scholarly community, and I’m excited about that!
- Networking: Not a Dirty Word Anymore
The way that networking is talked about (and not talked about) is as follows: you do networking so that when you graduate you will have contacts that will give you jobs. It is framed as an obligation, one that goes hand in hand with conferencing. I’m a pretty awkward person, and horrible at feigning interest. Networking used to terrify me. This conference experience has changed that. Here’s how I lost my networking virginity and eased my fears all at once:
*colleague and I decided to do networking.
*we strategized. Alone. In a corner. Fail.
*I overheard someone say “Winnipeg” (the city I am from) and “Cultural Studies.” We went over to that person and asked “did you just say “Winnipeg” and “Cultural Studies”?
*BOOM. Done. A conversation that started out very peripherally related to academia turned into an avenue for meeting others. I got to have great food, beers, and conversation with indy scholars, heads of departments, MA students, professors, and other PhD students. The pressure was low, and the people were wonderful! Networking for the win! Everybody do networking!
So, how about you? Had a great conference experience? A terrible one? Is there something you feel is lacking from the general conference culture?