Ghosts of ISAs Past and Future

As I work on my last (of way too many) presentations for ISA 2014, I can’t help but remember my first two ISAs. The first was in Portland, Oregon in 2003 – I went to the conference to see what it was like, without applying to present. The second was in Montreal in 2004 – my first international conference presentation. In Portland, I went to dozens of panels. I listened to them, engaged and interested, and asked questions that provoked discussions and helped me make network connections that jump-started and have lasted throughout my career. In Montreal, I wrote and fully memorized a fifteen-minute presentation (which I gave standing, choreographed with expressions and movements) on a paper on feminist methodologies that I never even ended up trying to publish. I was on a panel with a number of storied names in the field, who I watched with awe, and felt flattered just to know. As I remember those two ISA conferences, I remember them as full of energy – intellectual inspiration, social connections, excitement at meeting people whose work I admired, and a sense that something really interesting was happening, and I was getting to watch.

I contrast that with my experience at ISA 2011 in Montreal again. While I was in the same hotel with the same bustle and probably more intellectual energy, I greeted that conference with something different than the excitement that I had seven years earlier. There were a lot of critiques of my ‘disinterested’ behavior at ISA 2011 – a radical change for a lot of reasons. First, of course, people knew who I was in order to wonder about my level of interest. Second, I suppose, I knew enough people that those criticisms got back to me. But other than that, and more important than that – it was true, I was behaving in a disinterested way. I single out ISA 2011 because it changed my thinking about ISAs, and taught me a lesson that I figure might be worth sharing as we approach another ISA.

Most of my critics at ISA 2011 were missing the fact that I had been seriously injured a couple of days before the conference, and had an ongoing crisis at home that I was choosing to be away from for the conference (a decision I might not re-make three years older and wiser). But that was not the only reason I felt (and acted) differently about ISA. Over the years, ISA has become a place to see friends, to get ideas, to listen to presentations, to engage with other scholars, to collaborate, and to get feedback on work in progress. All of those things are incredible sources of both intellectual and personal energy.

That said, over the years (and I realize how silly that sounds to those of you who have been at this much longer than I have), I think I lost sight of those as the primary purpose of ISA. I came to have so many engagements to do so much work that I would set all of my alarms to wake up ISA week a week in advance, and plan out the conference in fifteen-minute intervals to make sure that I got to see all the people I needed to see and do all of the business that I needed to do. In the busyness that the initial energy had inspired, I allowed that energy to be conquered by the pure exhaustion of overextension.

While I might be a particular (and particularly obsessive) example of this phenomena, I have noticed a similar change in a number of my close friends and colleagues – many of us are too exhausted to enjoy either the social opportunity or the intellectual opportunity of a conference the magnitude of ISA while balancing competing expectations and obligations. What I learned at ISA Montreal as I was too tired (emotionally and physically) to be present when I was talking (much less when other people were) is that conferences were more fun when I was a graduate student – and not (exclusively) because I had less obligations. They were more fun then because I gave myself the time to be awed by their intellectual magnitude and enjoy their social atmosphere rather than booking every second of my time as if that were the point of a meeting like ISA.

Since ISA 2011, I have tried to remember that as a lesson in conference-management now that I am no longer (and, alas, will never be again) a graduate student – that the awe I felt then was appropriate, and the exhaustion that I sometimes feel now is a waste of the energy of the conference. I take that lesson to heart as I prepare to travel to Toronto for what will likely be my busiest conference yet – but always greeted with a smile (and maybe even an inappropriately-timed beer).

  • Bill Ayres

    At a good ISA, I don’t think there is such a thing as an “inappropriately timed beer”. By all means, enjoy yourself! Looking forward to seeing you there.