Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Kalamazoo Post #2 - Name Tag Anxiety

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.


La Lecturess said...

Great post. I myself, when I still had INRU on my nametag, felt a compulsive need to say, "But I'm a grad student!" every time someone scrutinized my tag and struck up a conversation with, "So you're at INRU..." Oddly enough, this never cut short those conversations, or maybe they'd already committed themselves by that point.

However, George Washington Boyfriend has observed a strange reversal of this phenomenon at a number of conferences he's attended in recent years. We attended the same grad program, but he now works at a very, er, unusual institution, and so usually the strangers who strike up conversations with him are either actually interested in the paper he just gave; curious about the institution; or they just happen to be next to him at the cocktail table, or whatever. But when they ask where he did his graduate training, he reports that his reply is often a complete conversation-stopper and that he has to work hard to keep them from fading, with an, "oh, wow," into the woodwork.

This to me is what's so pernicious about the prestige hierarchy--it's not just that the snobs won't talk to you because you're not associated with an "important" school, but that even cool, interesting people are sometimes intimidated when you are! Don't we all know by now that affiliation has little to nothing to do with the quality of the work that a given scholar is producing--much less with how much fun he or she is to hang out with at a conference bar?

Tiruncula said...

Hey, I didn't realize the no-affiliations thing was a glitch! I thought it was a principled, if sudden, policy change in favor of egalitarianism. That said, I have to admit I found the no-affiliations thing really annoying last year, because I was repeatedly accosted by groups of grad students and felt incredibly stupid that I couldn't remember which institution they were from. I have enough trouble remembering which phase of my life people date from!

Then too, I've never experienced the nametag snobbism of which you write - not that I doubt you! - but I wonder whether perhaps it's different in some of the Zoo's tinier subcultures. The professional circle I hang with most at the Zoo (that is, besides my grad school buddies) has about six people in it, and the most prominent and senior people in our microworld are at pretty obscure institutions.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I'm not really very social; I always feel awkward with "these sorts of crowds" because I don't really care about a lot of the issues that they care about, like pecking orders and tenure -- I'm in geekdom to stay, as far as I can tell.

So yeah, I noticed the glances, and the "who do you know" questions, but what struck me as interesting, and what I did not expect, was how many people knew me from non academic contexts, or non formal ones, anyway.

A lot of people said "you're the Digital Medievalist," not so much from my blog, as from my Web site. I'd say probably twenty or thirty people identified me primarily in terms of my Web site. Terry Jones recognized my name, and stopped to say he knew my site! But a lot more knew me from Mac publications--which I had absolutely not expected.

These are the things--Web sites, blogs, software, and geek publications--that I've been told by my department to leave off my c.v.

And I think either leaving off the institution on the badge or at least making it optional would be better.

I'm contemplating writing in Hogwarts, or Miskatonic U. next year.

Karl Steel said...

I haven't noticed the nametag thing quite yet, because I'm still at a FBDU and therefore in such a position of privilege that I don't notice it unless I concentrate: but I expect next time around, I'll be in a situation similar to yours VU (at least if things go well): and then we'll see.

Has anyone ever been to a conference that differentiated between grad students and people with PhD's in the field (or jobs)? I can think of 10 different reasons for that not to work well or be fair or kind, but at the same time, the one time this time round I found myself locked into a session with only grad students, I felt a little cheated. I prefer to hear work that's likely to be published.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I've been to the WWDC, which, to non Apple Geeks is the World Wide Developer's Conference for people involved with creating software and hardware for Apple computers. It's a Big Deal. I've been both as a professional developer, and, most recently, on a full student scholarship from Apple.

The students, about 300 of us, versus about 3500 others paying a lot of money, have different badges; we're easily identifiable.

Tiruncula said...

I've been to conferences in Europe that are very hierarchical. Not so fond of that vibe.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I'm a little surprised, actually, that you experienced the name-tag-tango at K'zoo. I've gotten it at nearly every other conference (especially MLA), but never at Kalamazoo. I always assumed that it was because in the smaller, specialized world, people were more likely to know and understand what it is you do.

Maybe Tiruncula is right, and it depends on one's subculture. Of course, Dr. V., you (reportedly) came to my session, and didn't speak to me at all (*sob*).

Karl Steel said...

Lisa Sp: how did that student vs $$ people thing work? Did it make for a better conference experience, did it turn into one in which sessions largely populated by students were attended only the presenters, or...?

Lisa Spangenberg said...

Well, Geek conferences are different, and WWDC is more different still.

Presenters are generally compensated, at least with a free conference pass. Most, I'd say 60% of the presenters at WWDC are from Apple.

The students were sometimes targeted by conference organizers -- I was on my up to a session when a security person, overly aggressively, pulled me out and said "You have to go to room X with the other students for a presentation."

I went to room x, and then turned right around to go where I wanted -- I'm not an engineer so a lot of what Apple thinks I need/want, I don't need/want.

But other than that . . . students were recruited, and courted, because software and hardware companies want trained people with Mac skills/knowledge/experience.

Needless to say, it's always a little weird when they interview me and ask what I'm studying . . .

But I felt that often at the 'Zoo I was seen as "lacking" because I was a student.

Oh, and the two times I helped presenters with hardware, they thought I was a Umich staff person and railed at me . . .

Tiruncula said...

I'm pretty surprised that you've felt slighted as a student at Kalamazoo. But then I came out of a big program whose students went to the Zoo in such numbers that we felt like we owned the place. We probably really irritated everybody else, but it certainly provided a protected space for those inside the horde.

And I think Dr. RSN and I are in the same congenial subfield. Y'all should come over and join us!

History Geek said...

Oh yeah some of the looks I got when people found out I was 'just' an undergrad.

There is a reason the Geek had a minor panic attack or two.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

I fully expect to be at a much less recognizable institution once I finally finish, so I reckon I'll get to deal with the name-tag scan soon enough.

A recent hire at a Big Name U. has told me that people who couldn't be bothered to look at him the month before he got hired were falling over their feet to introduce themselves the week after. He was (appropriately) sickened.

I have gotten ignored good and plenty for being a grad student. Remembering my first experience at the MLA of several years ago still causes me to physically wince. I could not have been more invisible--I even got ignored by just about everyone in my own department at our open bar because I was "only" presenting a paper and wasn't on the market.

I've rarely felt so deflated: I read the MLA Guide from cover to cover at 15 and have been a member since I was 19, so I'd expected it to be like coming home to the Mothership. Instead, it was a lot like my miserable high-school prom experiences all over again, albeit without the Garth Brooks songs and the hoop skirts (though I did see some real fashion travesties there).

I liked K'zoo about five hundred thousand times better, despite my experience at the dance having turned out to resemble the prom even more closely than MLA did (for rather obvious reasons, since there was actually dancing involved). But I was in K'zoo as part of a flotilla of people from or associated with my university, which helped.

DM, I'm horrified that people got pissy with you when you tried to help them and they thought you were on staff. Dear Lord! What is wrong with people? Didn't their Mamas teach them anything?

And HG, if you go again when I'm going, we should plan to meet up during at least one wine hour so we can hang out. I'd have loved the chance to talk to you more. Besides, I think I could introduce you to some reasonable people who're more likely to be impressed than weirded out by an undergrad who's attending K'zoo.

Seriously, some people just have no sense.

Karl Steel said...

Lisa Sp:

Ah! Well the tech conference doesn't sound as though it can be compared to Kzoo at all (security? compensation? what?).
Here's what I'm wondering (and again, I'm trying to absolve myself of responsibility for these ideas before I write them: which is cowardly): is the purpose of grads or even undergrads giving papers different from that of people w/ PhDs and/or jobs in the field? Is the former "getting professional experience/a line on your CV" and the latter "sharing portions of larger projects/work-to-be-published in its nascence"? If so, are we--here speaking as a grad student myself--primarily engaged in some kind of charity in attending the papers of undergrads/grads?

I'm asking these questions because I'm in favor of mentoring and helping out scholars more junior* than I am, but at the same time, I want to increase the number of good papers I see. And the more good papers I see, the more likely I am to want to go to Kzoo as much as I am to want to go to MAA (because I love those 14 sessions about wood!).

I do realize that my q's are not quite on topic. Socializing--the actual topic of this thread--is one thing, and it's no doubt ugly that people assume that only the FBDU folk are doing interesting work (or, worse yet, that people don't care about work and only about networking). I'm interested in counteracting that deplorable thinking, but I'm interested, too, in maximizing the quality of the papers I see. And right now I'm inclined to think that if I saw fewer papers by undergrads/grads, I'd see better papers.

This desire raises another question. How do y'all go about choosing which sessions you attend? I've not yet found a way that works once I've filled in my schedule with people I know. Once you've run out of names, do you go by school or by topic?

* Junior/Senior schema is bad terminology, I know.


Wiseass: I'm interested in reading your Kzoo paper. Could you email it to me?

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I went to the papers of people I knew (on and off line), not because they were grads and I wanted to support them, but because I knew they would be good (though I missed the first bit of Ancrenewiseass's paper).

In some cases, with peers/students, I asked "is it more intimidating to have a known friendly face there, or less?" I didn't go to the panel where the one who said "more" was performing--but I did read the paper in advance.

Sometimes people have reason to avoid grad students. I went to one session consisting entirely of grad students, including one who had filed/compledted his diss two days before. They were the most pompous, patronizing, and arrogant lot I encountered at the conference.

There's a tendency for some students to turn themselves into their mentors, to out patronize their patron. It's not good.

Dr. Lisa said...

Oh, ahem, when I was reading your blog I thought you might be somebody important, ahem, well, I...uh...have to run...lots to do you know.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. I think at of us went to hoity toity programs and took jobs at second-tiers. My colleague who began with me has more of a problem with it than I do. Most times, I'm just happy to have a job with colleagues I enjoy and who seem to like me.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hey, my tag said X CC on it. It has at the last few conferences I've been to. At AHA, it seems to matter a lot -- serious snobbery even from punkass grad students (Dude, I have a Ph.D. from a reputable U and one member of my committee is a Fellow of the MAA ...)

At MAA (which I like less than K'zoo, but mostly because there is just not all that much early stuff), I got a lot of that till people sae that I knew People Who Matter.

At a bienniel Late Antiquity conference I frequent, I have NEVER had that problem from the productive and senior scholars, although it probably doesn't hurt that I was an UG student of one of the conference founders and another is my DV, and the third now a friend. But it also seems to be a subfield thing.

K'zoo ... It was definitely there for some people. If I had not known a lot of people there, it could have been very lonely, I think. But between my friends at cooler Unis and the fact that I was often accompanied by a Senior Colleague and clearly on chatting terms with a couple of others, I think people didn't know what to make of me and gave me the benefit of the doubt.

Still, I admit I am going to be so glad to have SLAC U on my tag next year.

S. Worthen said...

The one time I went to a conference where we were all divided up into graduate/non-graduate sessions, I was disconcerted to find myself in the middle of an all-professor panel. Now under usual circumstances, this might sound like a good thing. But they'd never asked what my status was, and this was a small, friendly conference where, despite the status-divded of the sessions, the conference was single-track and everyone attended everyone's papers - no real difference in numbers between faculty and graduate-student days. But back to being disconcerted: when we arrived, they said they had received extra money - and that all presenting grad students were going to receive $50 to subsidize their trips there! Of course I wanted to be labeled as grad student then.

It'll be interesting to find out what, if anything, I end up with as an affiliation in this coming year...

Dr. Virago said...

I'm pleased to see the conversation is happening without me, since wifi access and time for it is limited here. And so I'll post my next K'zoo topic to encourage even more discussion amongst yourselves!

Meantime -- Dr. Nokes, *was* I at your session?? Really? Which? I was so discombobulated and doing so much panel-hopping that I probably didn't even realize it!

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Er, the blogging session? Maybe I was misinformed...

Dr. Virago said...

Alas, I was not there. But I'm kind of pleased to think I may have a doppelganger! :) Or maybe someone just confused Ancrene Wiseass and me -- she was there.