Friday, April 29, 2005

What happened at the BAAS conference: or, why love academic conferences (part I)

A long time ago I promised/threatened to write about my time at the recent BAAS conference, held in Cambridge. Well, to give it some context, it may be worth describing in further detail what previous events have been like.

This was my fifth such event - consecutive no less! - but the first time I was completely off-duty for presenting my own research. Spring 2001 was at Keele (scroll for my paper summary "A biographical pursuit of Peggy Guggenheim"), a location and timing that had many absent Americans due to 'hoof and mouth'. Barring the pleasures of company, it was wet, windy, and I lost one of my beloved 3-D doggie earrings... I must have been a bit stressed by that as the following year someone who was in the same accommodation block as me even recalled my hunting for it!

[NB Yes, Chrissie, I know who that was!]

Spring 2002 was in Oxford (this links to a selection of paper summaries) and the weather and atmosphere was as deliriously hot there as Keele had been bitter, isolated and cold. Having had my proposed paper refused entry, I instead had a poster presentation on filmic and literary references to Peggy Guggenheim. This basically meant I had to hang about for a session and be willing to talk to people about my ideas; which was okay because I can talk till trails of donkeys fall over behind me. Partly because it was Oxford, and as the farm crisis had abated somewhat, we had a few more Americans come over: but as it was only 7 months on from 9/11 the atmosphere was somewhat muted. Still, this was a fine conference with much entertainment value in both the papers and the socialising.

Spring 2003 and we travelled to the glories of Wales: Aberystwyth (again, scroll to read a summary of my paper on gift-exchange theories and tzedakah). Apart from the hill to the beach, and the journey - hours from anywhere so lots of confused Americans! - this continued many of the traits of Oxford. Sunny, with a reasonable range of entertainment: though allowing time between panels to move locations would have been useful. Also the food was ... well, Mushroom Stroganoff should not be dished up to vegetarians using the same spoon as for the beef stroganoff (which was mostly gristle). Bleugh.

Spring 2004 and it was the turn of Manchester (sadly ASIB didn't continue with the conference paper reports). Now I like Manchester. I have fond - and a few not-so-fond - memories of the place from when it was a regular stop-off for me when en route to Leeds and my MA studies . But Manchester, April, the Oxford Road... not the best scenario for an outdoor barbecue, n'est pas? Yeah, we thought so too. There were some grand papers - not least was the return of Richard King as a speaker. Richard King is the type of intellectual and all round good guy you just wish there were more of in academia. Besides which, he has the best southern accent you can hope to listen to this side of the Mississippi Delta.

Which brings me, belatedly, to Cambridge 2005. Largely, but entirely, the sun shone on us again. This always helps. There were a couple of downpours but the opening and closing days were both gloriously full of sun. As ever, there was a mix of usual suspects and new faces. To give a better flavour of what the conference is like, scan your eyes over the conference schedule.
Of course, what always makes BAAS fun are the people. New folk in for this year included Jonathan Ellis (Reading - about to be Sheffield); Alison Kelly (Reading - PhD candidate); Matthew Shaw (British Library); and Paul Woolf (Birmingham). Amongst familiar faces I socialised with were Ann Hurford - my colleague at Academic Support, Nottingham, with whom I travelled to Cambridge (sorry there was no wine on the train; tradition broken before we started). Since we finished our PhDs last spring - both of us were viva-ed by the time we got to BAAS in Manchester - we hilariously hardly see each other now, except to occasionally pass on the corridor. So it was really nice to have some fun with her. But we also saw Peter Rawlings (Bristol UWE); Peter Kuryla (Vanderbilt); David Brauner (Reading); Dave Greenham (former Nottingham PhD colleague and now criminally under-used academic eking a living as so many graduates do); Catherine Morley (soon to be at Oxford Brookes on a fellowship) and copious numbers of Nottingham folk, past and present. In fact, it is something of a standing joke that especially with regards to our large postgraduate community, Nottingham is rather like the New Holy Roman Empire of American Studies: all-powerful and just a little bit disliked for its domineering presence (should that be Holy American Empire perhaps?)

Of course, that is not to underestimate the importance of the accommodation and other matters: they were nice rooms this time and I even had a view of the bluebells in the college gardens at Robinson. Eeh by gum, we didn't get such views staying at the Manchester Oxford Road Travel Inn (cos it was cheaper than booking us in halls).

Anyway, our opening speaker to the 50th year of BAAS conferences, Anthony Appiah, made a marvellous job of delivering a keynote plenary that was both erudite and accessibly delivered on the topic of de Bois. But despite that intellectual stimulation, after this it was wine all the way. And very, very good food. Still, I was very good. Even though I was one of the last five to exit the bar on the Thursday night/Friday morning - all usual suspects, in fact I could have probably named us all in advance as the likely group to be last out - I nevertheless did make the first paper session. Though in truth I had little choice as I had been collared to chair one of the 9am panels. Amazingly, it was worthwhile.

Gender and Meaning in American Culture

Mike Chopra-Gant (London Metropolitan University) The law of the father, the law of the land: power, gender and race in The Shield
Bill Osgerby (London Metropolitan University) Giving 'Em Hell: Masculinity and meaning in the American 'True Adventure' pulp of the 1950s and 1960s
Sinead Moynihan (Nottingham) Textual Transgressions: representations of Brandon Teena
Craig McClain (University of New Mexico) Gay Rodeo: carnival, gender and resistance

Now if those titles don't get you going after a dry mouth night of red wine-induced exhaustion, nothing can! Seriously though, this was a real pleasure and just what I needed to kick-start the conference. We opened with a good solid bit of pop culture analysis: American TV at its most interesting. This was followed by a presentation on a topic I scarcely knew existed: a hitherto hilariously unimagined world of magazines from the 1950s and the 1960s with titles such as Men, For Men, Male, Being Men, Men in Combat and many hundreds more. Beyond parody: and so utterly hyperactive in proclaiming their masculinity you couldn't ignore the homosexual undertones (overtones?!). Fascinating stuff. We then had another suitably gender-challenging paper next up from one of the new intake of Nottingham PhD students. Whilst Boys Don't Cry remains the best known of the 'fictionalised' retellings of the Brandon Teena story, this paper looked at the 'true-crime' retellings and a novel (clearly) based on the same narrative. She could also use Powerpoint better than I could ever hope to do. Finally, we had our first encounter with gay Rodeo: made even more spectacular by being presented by someone who physically brought it to life. The height; the boots, the belt... even the hat. With the video "Steers, Beers and Queers" at its heart, this paper told its (largely) unenlightened audience all about Gay Rodeo. Now that wasn't something I ever expected to know anything about!

Following this session, it was off to get coffee and makes fresh acquaintance with people before doing our bit to lend moral support to nice people we know (as well as hearing some great papers).

Alternate Histories: speculation and variation in Philip Roth, Carol Shields and Lorrie Moore

Alison Kelly (University of Reading) 'Writing anew': reshuffled identities in Lorrie Moore's Anagrams
Catherine Morley (Rothermere Institute) Altered visions of the American past: Philip Roth's The Plot against America
David Brauner
(University of Reading) The Other side of silence: Alternate Histories in the fiction of Carol Shields

This was a worthy follow-up to my great start, and confirmed to me that some of the best papers you hear come from good people. Swapping the order slightly from the original programme, savvy to issues of confidence, David went last. It was a really good set of presentations. First up, Alison's paper on Lorrie Moore brought to the a foreground a novelist few of us had heard of previously but whom most of those attending left wanting to read work by. Catherine Morley continued her previous and consistently inquisitive work on Roth by taking apart the mythologising surrounding his most recent work and deftly dealing with questions from other Roth afficianados. David Bauner has one of the most generous styles of presenting research one could possibly hope to encounter. He's the sort of scholar I'd like to think I could be, with a good amount of sensitivity to discussing gender that is rare amongst all too many male academics.

After lunch, I did a bunk. I went into Cambridge to meet up with a young researcher based at Peterhouse with whom who I had been corresponding regarding women surrealist artists. I did get slightly lost, but in the end she spotted my visible style of dress (wacky tights) and took me to Fitzbillies for a cuppa and a natter. I then trundled back in time for my third panel of the day.
Politics and Detective Fiction
Cindy Hamilton (Manchester Metropolitan) The hard-boiled formula, historical consciousness and the politics of marginality: Sara Paretsky and Paula L Woods
Jennifer Terry (University of Durham) 'Always outnumbered, always outgunned': Circumatlantic Connections in the Detective Fiction of Walter Mosley and Patrick Chamoiseau
Paul Woolf (University of Birmingham) Prostitutes, Paris and Poe: the sexual economy of Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Again, this was another fine set of papers. Ann H and I had ran into Jenny Terry on the train and had encountered her at previous BAAS events. Cindy Hamilton had been external examiner on the lovely Celeste-Marie Bernier's thesis back in 2002. And Paul, well as noted earlier, Paul is now fully ensconsed in the "see-you-at-the-next-BAAS?" hall of infamy for those who offer great company and smart intellect and that you just look forward to re-encountering. [NB I do know that some papers in BAAS changed their titles slightly - but the topics remained largely the same]. Anyway, what was fascinating about this panel was how it highlighted the diversity of intellectual investigation even on shared topics like this. These were three very challenging papers that dissected the narratives and historical links of these writers, providing a real sense of the locations and styles that detective fiction could encompass.

Anyway, having uploaded this and added the links in, I now best get off home and properly recuperate over the Bank Holiday Weekend. Here's to May 1st all you remaining socialists. Solidarity CompaƱeros!


David Duff said...

Peter Simple, at the very height of his surreal, imaginative powers, could never have come up with this:

"Mike Chopra-Gant (London Metropolitan University) The law of the father, the law of the land: power, gender and race in The Shield

Bill Osgerby (London Metropolitan University) Giving 'Em Hell: Masculinity and meaning in the American 'True Adventure' pulp of the 1950s and 1960s

Sinead Moynihan (Nottingham) Textual Transgressions: representations of Brandon Teena

Craig McClain (University of New Mexico) Gay Rodeo: carnival, gender and resistance"

I have just knocked back a fairly hefty malt to prepare myself, so please, just tell me, did my taxes pay for this? Remember, I'm part of this despised "economic system" you are so eager to change, so if I did, at least say 'thank you' like a nicely brought up 'gal'.

Reidski said...

Get a life, Duff. Okay, so you have no interest in these matters, but why get so worked up when others are interested in expanding their knowledge and taking part in a general exchange of ideas.
Oh, that's right, cos "my taxes" are paying for it, as you put it. Well, my fucking taxes will no doubt be paying for a lot of things that you enjoy/support in society. Deal with it in terms of what is right or wrong in our society, not on the completely selfish position of how it affects your wage packet.
Anyway, it probably meant the equivalent of 0.0000001% out of your taxes in the last year if it was state funded, you tosser!

David Duff said...

Obviously Reidski is *not* a nicely brought up 'gal'!

Reidski said...

I was brought up nicely. Brought up to believe that by contributing to society as individuals, we would get more out of it collectively. In other words, brought up to believe that self-interest is a barrier to building a better world.
But, you are right on one score, I'm certainly no "gal".

David Duff said...

Reidski insists he was brought up nicely, but apparently, courtesy came along way behind being taught the benefits of ".. contributing to society as individuals.." I know all about that! I have been an individual contributor to society for 50 years. True, it wasn't voluntary because in our freedom-loving nation, the state uses force to rip your hard -earned money from you.

Over the last 50 years, I have looked very, very hard, well you would, wouldn't you, to see if they could spend it better than I could. Alas, the answer is overwhelmingly negative. Our charming hostess' description of her 'conference', which could, as far as I can judge, have taken place in a local pub at the expense of the bores concerned, is but another example.

Reidski's proposition ".. that self-interest is a barrier to building a better world" is at such variance with the facts of the real world that I worry for his eyesight. But then again, 'there's none so blind as them that won't see'.

Finally, Reidski intimates that he's a chap, to which I can only respond that according to the worthies taking part in the BAAS conference it is a very confusing world out there, so are you absolutely sure?

Reidski said...

"A chap"????? The only people that I know who use such terms are those who were tweed and enjoy hunting and shooting. Not that I have a problem with hunting and shooting, but, as for tweed, don't get me on that subject.
And I think we should carry on our discourse away from the glare of our genial host lisa.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Shish kebabs dudes, this is one serious amount of commentary! Have you got time for your own blogs?