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.


PAS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bla2222 said...

I have enjoyed going to PCA/ACA events in the past but declined to go this year.

While sometimes it is possible to engage in enjoyable conversations, I am outside of academics and have had a harder time engaging fellow PCAers.

I am going instead to the Sports Historians conference because I am hoping to engage with specialists in my area. We'll see if being outside of the academy hampers me there.

I agree that destination cities are expensive and would be open to going to college towns but am worried that I would not find people to connect with and would not have the amenities of the city to make up for that.



Patrick Cox said...

Conferences are way too expensive! Hotel, food, registration, travel... Many times I've had to minimize nights in hotels to save money, which has often meant not attending as much of the conference as I'd like. Other conferences I've missed entirely because of the cost. As a grad student, I need the CV lines and the networking...and of course as a grad student I'm the lowest paid person at the conference and least likely to be receiving any sort of funding for being there. And the funding most of us get is reimbursement--a system that really only helps people who have the money up front.

Cheaper cities would be much nicer, even if that means the city lacks tourist attractions or a rich cultural scene or night life: I can't afford them anyway, and they don't qualify for reimbursement.

Marla said...

I agree completely with your post. As an independent scholar, these kinds of conferences are a rare opportunity for me to meet and talk to people who share my academic intersts. That's why I was so disappointed this year, when many attendees seemed to regard giving a paper as a necessary interruption to their vacation plans: there seemed little sense of community. I count myself lucky that I live nearby and could travel into Boston via commuter rail, but going to a conference is a special treat for me because I have no institutional support for research or travel. Clearly air fares and hotel rates are not going down, so I have to choose which conferences I go to based not so much upon my interests as my pocketbook. What really needs to change is the way that members view this conference. I, for one, am looking for something more.

digital_sextant said...

Good post, Mark. I share your thinking in many regards, and agree with what you've said about much of the conference.

Some of the regionals do events in college towns, but I'm not aware of any event on the scale of the PCA that meets in college towns instead of cities with huge hotels. The conference has over 2,000 people every year, with nearly all of them presenting.

I lamented the cross-scheduling of GT as well (I was also in conflict with it, and I also had good attendance), but to schedule him as a solo event means leaving all those other rooms empty that whole time, which means more people who have to present at 8am on the first day of the conference or 3:45 on the last day.

It's really the curse of the big conference -- you can't go to any but the biggest cities.


(Full disclosure, I'm the new VP of area chairs and have been on the exec board off and on for the past five years.)

Mollie Freier said...

Years ago, when I was a member of the ACA board, I suggested Minneapolis as a PCA venue, and was told they didn't have enough hotel rooms and presentation rooms to accommodate us. There's no way that a college town could handle us.

But I agree that, in general, the expense of travel is prohibitive. I'm an academic librarian, and ACRL has started having a virtual conference that runs at the same time as the on-site conference. There are fewer presentation, and there's still a registration fee, but you save the cost of travel.