Friday, July 03, 2015

Conference serendipities

Enough about wandering and paying of debts--what about the conference? 

It was great. Relaxing, exhilarating, inspiring, exhausting--everything I like about an academic conference without the  stress and snobbery of MLA, where people have to check your nametag to determine whether you're worth wasting time talking to. 

ASLE is just a bunch of profs and writers who are passionate about literature and the environment, and they have a lot of insight to share. I heard a theory-heavy paper on Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam trilogy, a group of pedagogy papers on using hydraulic fracturing as an exercise in critical thinking, and a well-researched essay on the history of fart jokes read at 8:30 in the morning to a standing-room only crowd (except by the end of the essay, most of us were falling on the floor laughing). 

(And if you're wondering what makes fart jokes an appropriate topic for a conference on literature and the environment, ask yourself this: what other natural process evokes so much cultural shame while inspiring so many great authors to create comedy?)
What about my paper? It went well. The room was crowded and the discussion afterward did what academic conferences are supposed to do: raised some questions I will need to pursue further, offered insights that helped me see how to refine my argument. Most conference papers feel like the end of something, a completed item to check off a to-do list, but this one felt more like the beginning of a bigger project that will carry me forward for quite some time.

And then, of course, I had plenty of opportunity to share ideas with interesting people. On the flight to Spokane I chatted with John Lane about W.G. Sebald and canoeing and later bought his book My Paddle to the Sea, which allowed me to vicariously experience a canoe trip that turns alternately enlightening and harrowing. I heard Joni Tevis read from her great new book of essays, The World is On Fire, and later we shared a refreshing piece of key lime pie and talked about teaching, writing, and odd little shops. I went birding with a poet, shared a dorm suite with an expert on children's nature books, and chatted with a prof who recently taught a book I'm teaching for the first time this fall.

These accidental encounters are the best part of an academic conference, but they don't happen at conferences where attendees are consumed by academic snobbery or concerned about impressing the right people. At ASLE, serendipity rules: any encounter could result in a new connection, every conversation in a new insight. I came home refreshed and ready to tackle the next stage in my summer writing project, with a notebook full of ideas to plug into my classrooms this fall. 

Plus a little sunburn and sore eyes--a small price to pay for such a refreshing experience.     

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