This year my Congress itinerary started with a side trip: on landing in Toronto, I stopped by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto, to meet the people who run it and my research assistant, an Athabasca MA student who’s working on a research project there. Everyone was fabulous and the archive is like an impossible and imperative project: a collection of queer Canada’s vital cultural and historical documents, housed in a Victorian three-storey house (not, I suspect, originally designed for this purpose); and a project whose private funding means independence from – but also inaccessibility to – public funding sources. Given the recent budget’s libary and archive cuts, the CLGA’s support system seems a mix of boon and bane.
Next stop was with family north of Toronto; they drove me to Waterloo on Sunday, where we met the family friends, a couple, who’d agreed to host me while I was in town for Congress. One of my hosts actually works at WLU’s communications office, so I was privy to interesting non-academic perspectives on Congress and media.
The first session I attended, hosted by ACCUTE, concerned critical theory in relation to current social questions of marginalization and gentrification; it also provided the first of numerous instances of delegates wearing red square fabric patches to express solidarity with the Quebec student movement. (My host and some delegates wondered aloud whether Congress might host a protest or march (between the manifencours and the spectre of censure hanging over WLU and Waterloo for their new corporate-funded research centre. I never saw any protest manifest, but then again I might have just missed it entirely based on my own schedule.)
After that session was the president’s reception, the big freeform meet-n-greet. Ran into a few people I know from Western and Guelph, including the indomitable Smaro Kamboureli, to whom I showed iPad-stored family photos in between the mobile calls she had to take, in our wave new world of augmented socializing. I introduced my RA to lots of people, but I think she found the scene something of a sensory overload. Every association gets invited to one of these receptions, and they tend to group like fields and interests, but not necessarily every association with people you know goes to the same reception you do. (Congress vets will advise newcomers, grads in particular, to go to every reception just to grab a good free meal. They’re not exactly regulated by bouncers and velvet rope.)
For the second consecutive night of the trip I endured the dim infinitude of insomnia, taking shape between the second night in a strange bed and nerves about the busy Monday ahead. Not an auspicious start to that day’s full program. Propped up by coffee, I presented a talk on Frankenstein in pop music for an ACCUTE session on New Directions in Adaptation Studies. The venue’s AV system played wonderfully well with the iPad, and played back the music samples I’d prepared at satisfyingly high volume and definition. This year the schedule of proceedings made much more breathing room for Q & A after the papers: a welcome change, making each session more productive and interesting for those party to it. In this case, I fielded some solid primary text suggestions and theoretical questions (such as one about how to distinguish adaptation from intertextuality).
In the session right after that, I joined a special “professional concerns” panel on cynicism in academia. While my previous talk had drawn several solid comments and questions from its relatively small but focused audience, this second session was provocative, feisty even – presenters and audience alike. Although some complained it was more familiar complaining, and floated some suggestions for action against sources of academic cynicism: workforce casualization, university corporatization -the now all-too-usual suspects. One excellent but then-undeliverable suggestion was for a panel on cynicism to include a higher-up university administrator. One of my co-panelists had maybe the best ever conference paper title for his talk – complete with a corresponding Venn diagram – but I’m not stealing that thunder here since the organizer has designs on getting the panel proceedings into print (more on that as it happens). For my part, I was pleased to be able to work into my presentation a shot of Margaret Sutherland’s painting of Canada’s ruling cynic, Emperor Haute Couture.
I represented AU at the association’s lunch for campus representatives, a yearly chance to give feedback on the conference, communications, and membership matters. Just before lunch I ran into a family friend who’s a philosopher, to find out he’d published a book and had recently been offered tenure-track work. Good to know some such offers still stand. Would there were more, for all the eminently deserving people you meet at things like this.
After that lunch, I played hooky for the afternoon, retreating to my hosts’ house in the suburb across the parkway for a leisurely run in the 35 degree late May heat. (Yeah, that’s real normal weather.) My host had recommended a nearby woodlot, on account of the shade, but I must have taken a wrong turn, and found myself jogging down an ever-narrowing dirt track. I turned back and sought civilization on encountering a patch of big ugly weeds spray-painted orange…and recalling that Waterloo was where the invasive and toxic giant hogweed had first been discovered a couple years earlier. Retreat!
Monday evening was time for the ACCUTE-hosted and strangely misnamed “wine and cheese,” preceded by drinks with the research team at the U of Manitoba’s Sex Worker and Missing Women archive, a team my RA introduced me to. This team’s work, like the CLGA’s, struck me as similarly imperative and impossible, possibly moreso, given the traumatic subject matter of and public recoil from their work. So maybe I didn’t meet everybody I’d been hoping to at the prior night’s reception; here was a welcome chance, instead, to make some new scholarly acquaintances.
I’m not sure what my RA was expecting of the ACCUTE “wine and cheese” but I guess it wasn’t a club with a dark dance floor full of English and Cultural Studies students and scholars getting down to the eclectic, request-friendly playlist being thrown down by ACCUTE’s resident DJ. The ACCUTE party is always a Congress highlight, and this year’s may have been the best yet: the sound system was massive, the tracks were way more hit than miss, and the floor was constantly full. Also, there was a dry ice machine, which got put to good use. Standout selections included “Born this way” (I hadn’t heard it before on a proper system, which opened it to new levels of textured and tactile appreciation), “Blue Monday” (which I dug on with a verve that felt retrieved from high school days), and “Vogue” – mostly for the opportunity it afforded a few of the delegates who’d been there back in the day to actually vogue – an extraordinary dancefloor drama. Sadly, I had to quit the scene all too early, gently ridiculed for doing so by partygoers taking a break from the move-busting for sidewalk cigarazzi duty.
The early but not-quite-Cinderella-grade bail was necessitated by next morning’s 9 am session on the copyfight, which I had convened and was chairing. (At least all the exercise Monday killed the insomnia, finally.) The copyfight panel was a fantastic line-up for a respectable turnout (not massive, but respectable given it was going down first thing after ACCUTE party night), with delegates from both ACCUTE and SDH, which co-sponsored it. The speakers included a law-trained member of Western’s copyright advisory group speaking on Access Copyright, my RA on copyright and digital porn, and Digital Prohibition author Carolyn Guertin on the modes and meanings of digital remix practice. Understandably, many audience members were very concerned about the Access Copyright situation, on which much discussion ensued in particular – and in which developments keep coming fast and furiously, making it hard to keep one’s work timely. This challenge to stay abreast of the latest regulatory decisions and manoeuvres is a common caveat issued by researchers presenting work on copyright; it’s a sign not just of the subject’s currency, but also of its inordinate command of policy-making resource, its monopolization of political will.
Following some sightseeing downtime (sights including RIM hq, the llamas of Eby Farms, and Mennonites), I randomly encountered some #AthaU colleagues whilst grabbing a coffee, and we compared notes on sessions and associations. There are so many even for a more discipline-dedicated than interdisciplinary researcher to choose from. I’ve previously attended CATR, CCA, and SSS conferences; and even in just Anglophone literary studies I could also join at least two other associations beside ACCUTE: namely, ACQL and CACLALS.
Tuesday afternoon, then, I attended an SDH session on the politics of cyberculture. Antiquated as anything “cyber-” sounds, the session presented up-to-the-minute investigations of digital graffiti, remix culture in China, and interactive art installations. The SDH proceedings also afforded a chance to catch up with familiar acquaintances and make some new ones.
The experience of attending Congress as something of a tour guide – i.e. introducing my RA, an AU Masters student, to the megaconference – made for a somewhat different Congress itinerary than the solo kind I’d pursued in prior years. One obvious difference was that it made the event more about mentorship, from overall orientation to details of conference presentation. The mentorship approach got me reflecting on my own independent introduction to Congress as a gad student, and how disorienting and trial-and-error that autodidactic exercise had been. It also meant making new contacts, as I got introduced to members of my RA’s own growing research network: the U Manitoba archive team; Brock U’s Margot Francis, author of Creative Subversions, a new book about Canada’s racialized, colonial imaginary. It also got me noticing how widespread this kind of mentorship is, observing other scholars leading students on a kind of conference Grand Tour, and, moreover, how much more taken for granted (and, arguably, easy to organize) this kind of mentorship is at traditional, face-to-face universities.
The other novel dimension of Congress this year was staying with friends, one of whom works for the host institution but not as an academic, and the other in the private sector. They were very curious about what Congress is about in the big-picture way, and about what I was doing there in particular. On my last evening in Waterloo I treated them to a thankyou dinner at a hip little resto they’d raved about, a spot clearly staggering under the influx of hungry academic traffic; then we met a friend of theirs and, on a whim, went to take in a special concert led by Canada’s Polka King himself, Walter Ostanek.
Over pints and between rounds of the chicken dance (which got played more often that night than Lady GaGa had been the night before), my hosts asked me about my work; it’s a sometimes difficult but always useful exercise to describe one’s research in plain-speaking cocktail-party talk. In turn, my host shared a sense of what such an event looks like from the not-quite-outside perspective of the university communications office, its media wing, which represents the university to the media, the government, the public. She said that she’d spent most of Tuesday in the Congress media office, and that it was “dead.” I wondered aloud about the media office, how some years it contacts you if it thinks your work will interest the media: this and previous years, I’d filled out and sent in the media form, but to no apparent end – no press of mics and cameras waiting outside the classroom doors. “Bring it to the media office,” my friend said. That is: Don’t wait for the media to come to you, if you think your work is a story – take it to the media. Given recent, disturbing developments in Canada’s public intellectual culture – from the government’s muzzling of climate change scientists to the Canadian Library Association’s suppression of its own members’ activism – this strikes me as a particularly important take-away point. Canada’s public intellectual culture – even the idea of the public itself – is only as strong as those willing to stand up for it, though we do so in the face of the public interest’s active destruction by a regime beholden only to the narrowest of private interests. On this front, Congress could stand to learn much from CLASSE and the students in Quebec, in solidarity with whom so many delegates wore safety-pinned red squares … more visible to sympathetic eyes than to those who really need to see them.