This Academic Life
Glad I got to run this morning for the first time in over a week -- this flu/cold thing really knocked me for a loop, and I was craving the peculiar opening that I seem to get most easily while doing some kind of repetitive physical task. Especially running. Hence I was able to think through a few things.

Another November, another conference -- the annual Northeast event, a conference I've been attending regularly since 1996. It was my first professional conference, back when I was in grad school. It was also my escape from the rather destructive environment of grad school, where almost no one had the slightest clue what I was doing and really didn't seem to care all that much -- an escape into an environment where I found like-minded scholars and kindred spirits and good conversations. And I've also just completed a year as President of the organization; I plan to stay involved with preserving and sustaining this fragile space in the hopes that it can play the same kind of vital role in the development of other young "critical IR broadly understood" scholars as it did for me.

Total conference cost for me: about $550, including plane fare, hotel, and food. Not too bad for three reasonably intense days of discussions and explorations -- plus a chance to hang out with comrades whom I don't see all that often, trade professional gossip, and practice being in (scholarly) form in a way that I sometimes find it difficult to do in my home institution.

I tried an experiment this time, an experiment stemming from my ongoing discussions with Magic and others about the purposes of conferences: I deliberately attempted to alter my tone during panels. I like and crave a good sparring match, of course, but I was trying to see whether I could accept the fact that other people do not seem to have the same inclinations and work with what they were expecting instead of trying to induce them into another mode of interaction by simply attacking and waiting for them to defend. Taking some advice from a number of people I tried to explicitly qualify what I was saying, signaling tentativeness and hesitation; I dropped a lot of hedge terms into what I was saying and explicitly invited people to critique me. Call it a more vulnerable kind of self-presentation, or a weaker style in the sense of Stephen White's notion of "weak ontology": -- less forceful, less self-assured, less final. Or, at any rate, signaling such a provisional status more explicitly.

See, I tend to think that these things are obvious and implied. It surprises me a lot when I am reminded -- as my friends and colleagues sometimes, thankfully, do -- that there are still people floating around our field who hold fast to notions like "objective truth" (in the non-perspectival, non-constructionist, non-Weberian sense -- a.k.a. Truth-with-a-capital-T) and "definitive conclusions" and "final readings" and that sort of thing. So whenever I offer any claim, it is to my mind only a provisional statement, serving largely as an invitation to critique and further conversation. The best thing one can do, the thing I am always interested in, is having someone come back at my claim and wrestle with it; then I can defend, we can tussle, and eventually produce the moment of connexion that can come from mutually proficient (s)wordplay. But apparently (and this is news to me, and yet another example of how tacit social rules remain mysterious to me -- unless I can spell them out and, in effect, write them down for future reference, I am rather oblivious to them. No social antenna, so to speak -- welcome to the wonderful world of Aspergia) when I simply advance a claim or a criticism or a comment, most people -- even in an academic environment where I'd think that people, having been exposed to the methodological issues generated by the collapse of the Enlightenment project, would realize and act on the realization that there is no self-evident connection between reason and Truth -- take offense, refuse to engage, and dismiss whatever I am saying. Apparently this has some connection to my failure a) to explicitly signal the tentative character of the claim and b) to say something supportive about the person's argument before offering the critique.

The second of these issues strikes me as deeply problematic in contexts in which I am facing off against professional colleagues, which is the case with many if not most panels at the larger conferences. It is problematic because a) I do not see much of anything of value in the arguments that many of my colleagues advance about things; b) when there is anything of value it requires such a drastic re-coding and re-writing of what they are saying that I might as well be making the argument myself; c) I do not understand why someone would be advancing an argument or a claim that they were not prepared to defend, even though I see many of my colleagues doing this all the time; and d) most people in my field do not seem to even understand their own arguments -- either the underpinnings of their arguments or the implications of their arguments -- and so almost anything I would say positive about them would require the kind of reconstruction of their points that I do not really feel is appropriate for the setting of a panel or similar public forum. In other words: saying something supportive simply for the sake of saying something supportive seems highly artificial to me to me in that kind of environment. My professional colleagues do not need my support; they are professionals and should -- should, but apparently often do not -- simply be capable of offering their arguments and then engaging in (s)wordplay over and around them.

Two exceptions to this rule: the sort of presentation where people explicitly say that they are just tossing something out that is half-formed and embryonic (often the case in a roundtable, but I have seen panels in which this takes place as well); and presentations by graduate students who are just entering the profession and who are almost by definition still finding their way. When I discuss graduate student papers, or ask questions of graduate students in public settings, I try to be more deliberately "constructive" (i.e. gentler, and a little more affirming) than I often am to professional colleagues who should know better. There, I said it: they ought to know better. Graduate students can't and shouldn't be expected to be operating at the same level of competence, but established professional academics? Especially those with "important" publications and a certain level of prestige in the field? Please. I do not feel it appropriate for me to be playing "educator" to them -- it's not a classroom, they aren't students, I'm not their teacher. I have students of my own; them I'll teach. And I'll extend that same courtesy to other people's students, and instead of blasting the incoherence of their position I'll invite them to think through that incoherence and give them an opportunity to flesh out how these things go together in their own minds…I'll try to create the same kind of space I try to create when advising one of my own students. But that takes a kind of authority that I do not feel empowered to claim when confronting a colleague's inconsistencies and incoherence -- unless they explicitly ask me for that, which sometimes some of them do.

I digress. I do that.

Anyway, what I did at this conference is try to modify my usual style of presentation and engagement during public session in three ways:

1) at a roundtable on a colleague's book -- a fantastic book that is about to be published, and a book that I can't wait to start assigning to my students left and right -- I began by pointing out that there was a dearth of books in our field that repay close and careful reading and re-reading, but that this book was a happy exception, and one of my favorite recent books period. Longish period of public praise before launching into my detailed critical engagement with the argument, an engagement that largely revolved around my usual hobby-horse about the conflict between a strong specification of subjective motivations and the preservation of agency. And scattering notes of praise throughout the criticism, plus ending on a high note about the kind of debate that I think this book invites us to have, a debate I think sorely needed in the field. Success? Well, the author appreciated it, and I got some feedback that I didn't come across as quite as obnoxious as I might have otherwise.

2) as a roundtable on "ethics and IR,"a subject about which I know little and which does not occupy the center (or much of anywhere near the center) or my work, I introduced the proper graphic representation of the fractal dichotomies I wrote about in previous entries, noted that this was just something I was playing with as a way of making sense of my frustrations teaching in a policy-oriented school, and then speculated on ways that this might help to make sense of our discussions about ethics (and what 'ethics' might mean to different groups of us). Success? Immense. People took the disgrams to heart and began to utilize them during the subsequent discussion, and several people told me later that the diagrams also helped them to make sense out of other experiences in their professional lives. So that worked pretty well, even as I used the conversation on and the participants in the panel to flesh out my points; people didn't mind being used as examples for some reason, and I think it went back to the way that I introduced the concepts.

3) when asking questions at a panel, I used a couple of formulaic signals suggested to me by others in the past: "help me think through this…"; "I think what you're saying is this, and I wonder about this implication…"; "Your reading of Nietzsche is interesting, since in my reading blah blah blah, and I'm curious about what you'd do with a passage like this one…"; and "I'm not sure what I think about this, but it's something I've been pondering and I'd be curious to hear what the panelists have to say about X." All of these, especially the last one, feel somewhat disingenuous; I do have a take on the issues I raised, even if it is by definition (see above) provisional and tentative, and the reading of Nietzsche I was skeptical about was, in my opinion, flat-out unsustainable, since the author was arguing that Nietzsche was making definitive knowledge claims rather than tactical interventions of dislocation. But I deliberately held back, used alternate formulas, and bided my time. [On another panel I held myself in check while a panelist went on and on in a wildly incoherent way; even though I was formulating a sharp rebuke that started with "but that makes no sense," I didn't voice it aloud. Instead I asked a question asking for a clarification of the difference between several of the terms that he had tossed out. Granted, this happened after one of my former students said precisely what I had been formulating, thus relieving me of the necessity of saying it myself, but still.] Success? Somewhat. The more "vulnerable" questioning style did promote a better discussion, I think, than might have been the case otherwise. And several people wanted to continue discussing the issue(s) with me afterwards, which was (I think) a good sign. Now, granted, the discussion was somewhat loose and woolly; what was "better" about it was that people were talking and responding, not necessarily that they were being particularly precise about what they were saying. But some conversation is better than no conversation.

So I altered my tone, and there was some improvement. But at what cost? I feel a little disappointed that there was only one really good argument in which I was involved at the conference. I am greedy; I always want more of those. Then again, one good argument (which was really the latest round of an ongoing argument) is certainly a positive thing, and I don't know how many really good arguments per conference should be realistically expected. And the other public conversations were nice, if not particularly earth-shattering. Plus, I know that I did a little bit to help alter the reputation that I apparently have in some quarters of being an obnoxious asshole; I know this from private conversations, which continue to constitute the real reason I go to conferences anyway. (More on those in a subsequent entry.) Also, Northeast is a smaller gathering, without so many prestige players in attendance; beating up on children and old people doesn't make for good sport. Northeast is a more nurturing environment, or at least it should be, and maybe my altered tone helped in some small way to make it so.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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