Prologue to.

I’m probably not going to have the time to do a day-by-day color commentary on the ASAs, but this morning (before I even register) and next week (after I catch up on some sleep) are probably good times for some summary thoughts.

Last week I was visiting my folks and my father–also a sociologist–commented that he never, in 20+ years of going to the conference, ate a meal with someone else.  While this is surely an exaggeration, I think it is essentially true.  My father went to the meetings , spent each day (all day) going to meetings and browsing the bookstore, and each night eating alone (unless we were with him), around the corner from the hotel.  And he loved it.  My father actually catalogued these experiences.  Kept notes on the panels he attended.  Read the books he bought or was given. Felt awed to have seen a talk by Erving Goffman or Mayer Zald, and all the other older statesmen and young turks. Told stories about what he had seen.  It was the highlight of his professional calendar even though it was totally unadorned by many of the status displays the fuel most people’s enjoyment.

These “status displays” are the butt of jokes–I don’t know why they haven’t made their way to the bingo board!–but are powerful operators within the conference.  We’ve got the people who stare first at your badge (to see your affiliation) when they meet you, speakers that are unprepared or act as if answering questions is beneath them, attendees too busy to talk to a nervous graduate student or an old friend, and those who spend their whole visit complaining about some inequity–their bad department, their bad panel moderator, or all those bad status displays at the conference (which is–and I can’t understand why people don’t get this–a sign of lower status).

The argument is, of course, that knowing how behaviors are associated with strata can guide you toward action that is most felicitous of your personal objective.  So, it should be the case that, if what I have written is correct, you can try to increase your status by looking at everyone’s nametag, or pretending to be too busy to talk.  To some degree, that’s probably good advice.  Of course, to some degree it’s quite bad advice.  To begin with, there are lots of hurt feelings and long-term grudges born of status-driven behavior.  As a colleague (who was himself notoriously difficult to get along with) once said, “You never meet a sociologist only once.”  Whatever short term benefit you get from being a snob may be seriously disadvantageous over time.  Second, there’s a lot of these behaviors that happen by circumstance not design, and so imitating them may not lead to the outcome you intend.

For example–the busyness thing.  I started planning my schedule a few months ago.  I got and sent emails to friends from school, mentors, collaborators, and people I met at the meetings and only see once a year.  By the end of July I had one 3-hour spot free, on the final day, and one hour Saturday morning free.  And those are gone, now.  It means I have to wake up early to fit in some exercise every day and that I have to keep a close eye on the time so that I don’t offend someone by being late or absent.  So, if I act too busy to meet you, I probably am, and I’m not faking it just so that you’ll think, “Oh, she’s too busy to meet with me.  Screw her.” (This is something I feel like graduate students need to hear/read in order to understand why it can be hard to collar someone on the fly, especially if they’re more established in the field or live geographically distant from their colleagues.)

Anyway, I’m starting these meetings thinking about my dad, and the joy he had going to the meetings and drinking it all in.  I think he would have loved to have someone ask him to dinner, and would have preferred to feel “important” enough to ask a question in a talk (which I doubt he ever did).  But his enjoyment wasn’t spoiled by losing at the status game.  And I caution you and me: let’s not let the benefits of having a career allow us to miss out on the wonderful, totally non-ironic pleasures of professional practice.  Yes, it is too cold.  Yes, some of these people will act stupidly.  Yes, some questions will be too long, too boring, and uninspired.  Yes, people will act like they’re god’s gift to the discipline.  But let’s pretend those things are unimportant.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Prologue to.

  1. shrinkingisaac

    there are, however other reasons people stare at name tags. i am AWFUL at remembering names. i mean, to the point that i think my mom should wear one sometimes.

  2. Jenn Lena

    i love that you commented.

  3. Great post (which I’m just now seeing after the conference). Love the image of your father being dutiful and attentive.

    The level of assheadistry by big names — and worse, by some graduate students at top programs — never ceases to amaze me, but their repulsiveness is ultimately outweighed by the positive moments.

    Was hoping to meet you at the blog party, but I couldn’t stay long. Next year!

  4. Jenn Lena

    Sorry I missed the chance to meet in person, Dave!

  5. Jenn, I’m sorry I didn’t see this until afterward – it’s a very kind, thoughtful post which I will share widely (if you don’t mind!).

  6. Jenn Lena

    Andy–thanks for the kind words. If you think it will be interesting to others, please do tell them where to find it.

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