The AJS Conference 101 — a primer:
Not many people come to these conferences, so I thought, before I got into the guts of this experience, that I would offer up a primer on academic conferences, and specifically the Jewish Studies Conference, where Iâ€™m sitting now.
The Association for Jewish studies is a professional organization for (mostly) scholars who are involved in the study of Jewish, Jewish texts, Jewish phenomena, and other things Jewish.
This is the annual gathering of AJS members â€“ again, mostly academics and aspiring academics. It is a peculiar annual ritual, this flocking to far-flung cities (weâ€™re in San Diego, this year), to sit in hotel conference rooms and either give papers about our current research, or listen to other papers about other peopleâ€™s current research.
The basic unit of the conference is the â€œpanel.â€? This is a more-or-less organized group of three or four people who agreed to deliver 20-minute written presentations (and academics have, as you might imagine, not the finest performance skills) that are more-or-less thematically linked.
So, Iâ€™m sitting here in a panel called â€œOrthodoxy and the Internet,â€? and Iâ€™ll report more on that later. And I just finished my presentation as part of a panel called â€œstudies in synagogue change,â€? or something like that.
The panels vary widely in terms of attendance (my panel had about 15 people. This one has about 35), and in what I might call â€œgoodness.â€? Sometimes they are dreadfully boring, and if youâ€™re one of the 4 people in the audience, you often feel badly for leaving despite the painful boredom (this has happened to almost everyone I know. Often, sadly, more than once).
Other common experiences:
- sitting far from the door and having to go to the bathroom
- panelists speaking for longer than their allotted 20 minutes (this is, from my perspective, an unforgivable sin).
- Members of the audience, when given the opportunity to ask questions, just blather on about their own work.
- Seeing someone you want to talk to.
- Seeing someone you donâ€™t want to talk to.
- Seeing someone who looks familiar (all these Jews look vaguely familiar to begin with), and youâ€™re not sure if you know them.
- â€œStarâ€? sightings. Deborah Lipstadt just walked into this panel. (side note: itâ€™s interesting to me what other people are interested in, especially when people are further up the academic food chain that I, and whose perceived interests donâ€™t necessarily intersect with mine). Itâ€™s not quite like seeing Brad Pitt or Lindsey Lohan, but, within the small world of Jewish studies, well, you get the picture. Itâ€™s really an intellectual thrill than anything elseâ€¦. Funny. Academics are funny.
- The feeling that I should have left before this person started his/her paper. Itâ€™s bad form to leave during someoneâ€™s paper (and it feels crummy as a speaker, when someone walks out while youâ€™re talking).
- The experience: â€œWho knew?â€? this is actually a really good response â€“ itâ€™s a shade shy of â€œwowâ€? or â€œinterestingâ€¦.â€? But itâ€™s a positive response, nonetheless.
- The reaction â€œwho cares?â€? this is a negative response that is a touch on the tolerant side of â€œthis is inanity,â€? with an edging toward a kind of hope. And I am always surprised when my â€œwho caresâ€? is met by someone elseâ€™s â€œwho knew.â€? I actually love it when people express interest in things that do not interest me. And then, above that, when they actually know something about the subject at hand. Itâ€™s really amazing what people know.
The panels go from 8:00 in the morning until sometime in the early evening, when there are usually other meetings or â€œreceptions,â€? which provide snacks and drinks to weary attendees (generally thrown by schools or Jewish organizations). And, then, as with prom, the â€œafter partiesâ€? are where the real business goes down.
And, as with any conference or professional gathering, the most interesting conversations happen in the hallways.
Iâ€™ve gotta get to the hallway. After this speaker stops talking.