I have been in conference recovery mode for the last several days. You know what I am talking about. It’s an exhaustion so deep that it feels like one’s brain is covered in layers of flannel.
I can only imagine how the crew up at the University of Toronto and York University, led by Berkshire Conference President Franca Iacovetta, are feeling. In short? The Sixteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women was, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a really big show (actually, he would have said it was “A really big shoe.”) It was a crashing success, by any measure to which you might hold a conference. I wasn’t at a single panel that was not full, and I didn’t hear about any panels that were not full and did not surpass the expectations of presenters and listeners alike.
This leads me to several hypotheses about what makes a conference a success:
- Persistent outreach to local scholars. In the case of #Berks2014, it meant outreach to all of Canada and the world. However, the excellent turnout on Day I, Session I, of the conference had a great deal to do with an unexpectedly large number of attendees from the immediate vicinity registering onsite. The local arrangements committee planned numerous events in advance of the conference to get local scholars, writers and artists excited about main event. It worked.
- Smaller rooms make crowds bigger. Day I mostly consisted of a reduced afternoon program of ”workshop sessions,” many of which were based on pre-circulated papers. They were also mostly located in seminar or conference rooms. This led to a feeling of high excitement and, I have it on good authority, the Toronto Fire Department showing up to one panel and unsuccessfully attempting to persuade a room overflowing with feminist scholars that they were in violation of the law. Although using major urban hotels seems to be a necessity for the big humanities conferences, too many of us have given and listened to papers where 10-25 people are scattered around a soulless room built for 100 – 500 people. At my own panel on Saturday, we had a lovely large room, but chairs had only been arranged in the front half of it and were then added as needed. Number of attendees thus equaled number of chairs.
- Fewer panels. The #Berks2014 program might not have been smaller than it has been in the past, but it was a heck of a lot smaller than your average AHA, OAH or ASA, where getting lots of graduate students on the program is (I think wrongly) seen as essential to their future job prospects and their (hyper) professionalization. A finite number of attendees + too many panels + yawningly large rooms = a sense of futility and dread that is often not related to the quality of the scholarship.
- Vigorous disagreement. Damn, but I like to see women argue with spirit and commitment. On my own panel, there were numerous strong disagreements. The outcome was spicy and often electric: the audience followed our lead, and time flew!
- Diversity. Diversity is a moral principle, but too often that is where the discussion ends. Diverse panels — where you have people from different nations, racial/ethnic/class/religious backgrounds, and different institutional locations — are more interesting, intellectually up to date and smarter. They just are.
- A lack of posturing, professionalization exercises, and BS that makes status differences between scholars a constant, unspoken dynamic. I doubt that this has anything to do with the Berks being a predominantly women’s event, although it might. A better guess is that the Berks happens at a time of year that is not attached to the traditional job market cycle (although plenty of people are being hired and renewed in May and June, and some people may be in recovery from disappointing personnel reviews.) But we have no sanctioned job market activity, and there is very little emphasis on formal mentoring. This, combined with the informality of the conference (on nice days, shorts and tee shirts are the norm) means that there is a lot more informal cross-generational contact. This leads me to wonder whether some of the effort put into formal mentoring and professionalization at other conferences may exacerbate differences in status. If you think this is just me being a clueless senior person, then riddle me this: how is it that nearly all of the women friends, who are senior to me, are scholars I have met through the Berks?
Highlights of the conference you may read about nowhere else:
- The Twitterstorian Meetup. It was three-four times as big as it was at the last Berks. This is probably because there are more of us; and is also probably because Vanessa Varin at the American Historical Association has been paying a lot of attention to the Twitter phenomenon. More of us are tweeting, and as a group we have become part of the conference dynamic.
- The Wikipedia Hack-a-thon. We had some experienced Wikipedians and some who had never tried before. It was a delightful way to be in community and simultaneously step out of the conference vibe for a few hours of quiet, communal work. After some talk, we all settled in to write or edit an entry, while people moved around the room asking and answering questions. It was very restful. Thanks to Shane Landrum, who provided resources ahead of time and joined us remotely, even though he was not able to attend the conference. I’m still working on my entry for my grad school mentor Susan Ware (which Wikipedia says has “multiple issues.” Feel free to help me address them.) Is your mentor on Wikipedia? If not, why not? Another question that arose was whether future events should be called “Edit-a-thons,” avoiding the rakishness and illegality of the word “hack.” Opinions?
- The Dance. Yours truly, having had a Knee in a Box installed around this time last year wiggled around a bit and then retired from the floor. Age will do that. But the music was good, people appeared to be having a fun time, and it is a terrific remnant from the second wave 1970s for women’s conferences to always end with a dance.
- Porter Airlines. They always provide a free glass of wine, in a real glass; and at mealtimes, they give you a free snack box with a sandwich, a little salad and a square of chocolate. Do you need to hear more?
- Membership. During the course of the conference, we doubled the membership; new members and renewals are still coming in. Membership in the organization was not included with the conference registration fee. If you had a good time at #Berks2014, go here to join. Membership through the new website, now in beta, will be available beginning August 1 2014.
- Countdown to #2017 Has Begun! Under the direction of President-elect Susan Yohn, the Big Berks will be at Hofstra University in 2017.
And you? How was your #Berks2014?
(Article originally appeared May 28, 2014 at http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2014/05/goodbye-toronto-berks2014-roundup