Saturday, October 29, 2016

But where are the academic superheroes?

The final conference sessions I attended today took place in a room where the acoustics were not just bad--they were actively hostile to communication. The room harshly amplified every minor paper-shuffle and transformed each spoken word into a blow to the skull from a ball-peen hammer. But there was no graceful way out, no way to push out my chair and walk away without sounding like a battalion of tanks crashing through the space. And so I stayed and listened, despite the fact that I could understand about every third word.

But that was the only dud session I attended at a very interesting interdisciplinary conference. Among other topics, I heard people talking knowledgeably about the Taft-Hartley Act, the Matewan massacre, the urge to locate "heroes" within family genealogies, the rise of vice tourism in New Orleans, and Russian nostalgia for Stalinism.

Of course I gave my paper too, a little quick and dirty foray into garbage theory, examining the way two novels attempt to transform the debris left behind by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks into soothing narrative. Our panel was delayed when one presenter (not I!) had technical difficulties, but I tried to distract the antsy audience by suggesting that we present our papers via interpretive dance. Finally we got our show on the road and inspired some interesting discussion. 

After my session, I took a deep breath and put my brain into neutral, so I probably wouldn't have been equipped to comprehend that final session even if the acoustics had not been so brutal. I endured, and afterward I took refuge on a bench near the waterfront, a spot that is evidently quite popular with creatures of the Pokemon species and their human followers. I sat quietly watching gulls swoop overhead and sailboats skim across the harbor, marvelled at the low-flying planes landing just across the way, and watched the Saturday night crowd milling about: A gray-haired woman dressed in sparkly ball gown and tiara; two English bulldogs peeking out of a trailer pulled behind a bicycle; a young couple both dressed like Spiderman, although the man's costume looked more like baggy Spidey pajamas.

Then I saw a German shepherd wearing a Superman costume and realized it was time to call it a night. When the superheroes start walking the streets, evil supervillains and their henchmen can't be far behind, so it's time for innocent bystanders to get off the streets before we turn into collateral damage.

Of course, I may have figured out the perfect weapon to deter evil villains: take 'em up to that horrible conference room and talk at 'em until they wilt.

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