Thursday, April 19, 2012

Some thoughts on the PCA/ACA conference

I'm on the mend from a particularly nasty upper respiratory infection, but I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about Boston and the PCA/ACA conference while it's fresh in my mind.

For those of you who don't know, the PCA/ACA conference stands for Pop Cultural Association/American Culture Association joint national annual get-together. There are regional meetings as well; the Southwestern meeting is usually in Albuquerque,  NM, but it sometimes makes it down to San Antonio, Texas. I went there last year, as the national conference was also at the site of the southwestern conference.

This year, the national conference was in Boston, Ma. A great city, a legendary city, a kind of mirror to New York in many ways; similar culture, architecture, history, etc. A great rivalry exists between them and it's easy to see why. It was certainly the most expensive PCA/ACA conference I've ever been to, from the air fare to the bill of fare, and all points in between. Looking ahead, I see it's not going to get any better, either, because next year's national conference is in Washington, D.C., a destination not exactly known for its inexpensive-ness. Two years from now: Chicago.  All of this begs a question from me: What exactly is the purpose of this annual get-together in the first place?

See, the PCA and the ACA started throwing annual conferences to give those academics in pop culture and American culture studies (two areas of academia that have been heretofore marginalized) their own place to present papers (thus adding to a person's c.v.) and meet up with and exchange ideas with other people working on the same area of interest as yourself. I would say that, at one time, maybe that was the case. But the higher ups have been courting these expensive, destination cities for several years now, and I contend that it's doing the people attending these conventions as huge disservice.

Granted, some of them are getting stipends and grants to go and present. But many more are grad students--and I know this because that's who I've been talking to for several years now--who are starving themselves so they can come present. (thus adding to their c.v.). Simply put: this convention doesn't need to be in a destination city. It needs to be in college towns. Let me explain the difference.

Destination cities are places like San Diego, where people usually put things like nursing and teaching conferences. These are the kinds of conferences where you're supposed to get ten hours of in-service training, so you sign up for the first two sessions on Monday, leaving your schedule wide open for Tuesday through Thursday so you can go see Seaworld and the like. The whole thing is written off by your institution because in-service training is in the budget, so who cares what it costs?

College towns are places like Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wisconsin, where there's enough infrastructure to support a big gathering, but not much else to do. Oh, there's bars galore, and cheap, delicious restaurants everywhere, because it's a college town, and there's usually a historic or a music or an arts district, but it's still reasonably priced, which is great, since the vast majority of the people at the conference are going to be hanging out together, talking and drinking and eating (and mostly talking and drinking).

That's the kind of conference the PCA/ACA is. It's a bar-con. Most everyone there is either presenting, or attending other presentations on similar topics. Since most everyone at the conference is staying close to the hotel, why on Earth would you make it a hotel that's twice the price of something in, say, Columbus? And because the conference was in a downtown location, in one of the worst traffic cities in the country, you were either stuck on foot or forced to take a cab to get anywhere interesting--more needless expense.Especially when we're all paying for the privilege of presenting a paper, and we have to not only pony up for the conference, but also pay for a membership into either the PCA or the ACA. Talk about a captive audience...

Oh, and another thing: If you are going to the trouble and expense to have George Takai as your keynote speaker, what the hell is the point of scheduling him in the middle of the day, during all of the other paper presentations? I know what the committee was probably thinking: "Well, he's going to be addressing G/B/L/TG issues, so SURELY not everyone in attendance will have a vested interest in that topic, right?" Yes, right, except for one thing: the person giving that talk played SULU ON STAR TREK!  You just dropped SULU into the biggest gathering of geeks on the Eastern Seaboard. What's wrong with you people?

If I seem a little tweaked about this, you may infer correctly that, yes, in fact, Takai's talk was scheduled opposite my session. Thanks, PCA/ACA! You're awesome. I'm not complaining about the lack of attendance in my session; just the opposite. But I guarantee you that my room would not have been full had it not been for the use of the word "Gorilla" in my paper title. That's the only thing that saved me, and I know this because I asked the crowd. But that's beside the point. I wanted to see Takai's talk. It was the deciding factor on whether or not I was going to attend in Boston this year. Well, the joke's on me.

 Maybe we're the ones doing it wrong. Maybe the pulp studies guys and the Game Theory guys and the Comic Book studies guys and all of the other groups I've talked to are just doing it wrong. Maybe we need to just walk in like gunslingers, present our paper during our session, and then slap leather for Fenway Park and spend the rest of the conference away from the nerds. But that's not what we want. We're all in the sessions, listening, critiquing, discussing, and in general interacting with our fellow fans, scholars, and academics. We go out for lunch or dinner, but we always seem to end up back in the bar, talking about books, things to write, angle to take, new stuff to consider--you know, what you'd expect to be discussed at an academic conference. As it stands right now, I know most of the pulp studies guys who have been active for the past two years won't have the budget to attend next year. What will the mean? Will the chairmen of the conference even care? I don't know. But I'm sick and tired of going to great cities, at great expense, that I cannot enjoy because I'm tied into the conference. It just feels like I'm paying for someone else's vacation.