Association for Jewish Studies: Conference 101

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 I’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 – again, mostly academics and aspiring academics. It is a peculiar annual ritual, this flocking to far-flung cities (we’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 people’s current research.

The basic unit of the conference is the “panel.� 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, I’m sitting here in a panel called “Orthodoxy and the Internet,� and I’ll report more on that later. And I just finished my presentation as part of a panel called “studies in synagogue change,� 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 “goodness.� Sometimes they are dreadfully boring, and if you’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:

  1. sitting far from the door and having to go to the bathroom
  2. panelists speaking for longer than their allotted 20 minutes (this is, from my perspective, an unforgivable sin).
  3. Members of the audience, when given the opportunity to ask questions, just blather on about their own work.
  4. Seeing someone you want to talk to.
  5. Seeing someone you don’t want to talk to.
  6. Seeing someone who looks familiar (all these Jews look vaguely familiar to begin with), and you’re not sure if you know them.
  7. “Star� sightings. Deborah Lipstadt just walked into this panel. (side note: it’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 don’t necessarily intersect with mine). It’s not quite like seeing Brad Pitt or Lindsey Lohan, but, within the small world of Jewish studies, well, you get the picture. It’s really an intellectual thrill than anything else…. Funny. Academics are funny.
  8. The feeling that I should have left before this person started his/her paper. It’s bad form to leave during someone’s paper (and it feels crummy as a speaker, when someone walks out while you’re talking).
  9. The experience: “Who knew?� this is actually a really good response – it’s a shade shy of “wow� or “interesting….� But it’s a positive response, nonetheless.
  10. The reaction “who cares?� this is a negative response that is a touch on the tolerant side of “this is inanity,� with an edging toward a kind of hope. And I am always surprised when my “who cares� is met by someone else’s “who knew.� 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. It’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 “receptions,� which provide snacks and drinks to weary attendees (generally thrown by schools or Jewish organizations). And, then, as with prom, the “after parties� are where the real business goes down.

And, as with any conference or professional gathering, the most interesting conversations happen in the hallways.

I’ve gotta get to the hallway. After this speaker stops talking.

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