An amazing thing happened at a conference session this morning: a disagreement broke out. Most academic conferences I've attended sound like echo chambers, each paper serving to remind the meager audience that we are all enlightened, intelligent people here. Papers pat each other on the back and presenters politely reinforce each others' points, but rarely does real dialogue break out, the sort of dialogue that can occur only when big ideas bump awkwardly against each other in public. Those are the sessions that stand out in memory; the rest just blur together in to a big mushy mess.
Of all the conference sessions I've attended, the only one that burned a permanent mark in my memory occurred at a conference in New Zealand some years ago when a Maori scholar arose before a plenary session and angrily accused us all of being intellectual tourists guilty of cultural imperialism. Whatever else she may have accomplished, she made people think--and talk--about important issues.
At this conference I missed the roundtable discussion on What's Wrong with Academic Conferences, but here's my answer: too many papers on tiny, esoteric topics; too few big ideas; and too little ground for disagreement. Big ideas are messy and awkward and sometimes cause voices to raise and tempers to flare, but that would have to be better than all this polite agreement about issues that really don't much matter. There's no dialogue in an echo chamber.
On the other hand, twice this weekend I've heard scholars suggest that we should subvert the dominant paradigm simply by moving our chairs into a circle. Call me cantankerous, but if all it takes to assert one's status as a revolutionary is to move furniture, then I've got a few classrooms full of subversives. Dangerous? Not unless you get in the way while they're moving their chairs.