June 4th, 2009
I am composing this entry at the annual learneds congress of the humanities and social sciences in Ottawa. I have been attending these meetings since 1980 when I presented my first formal paper as a very nervous graduate student. I am more than loyal to these annual meetings. That first paper to a group of peers and senior scholars changed my life. It led to my first contractual teaching job and, as is obvious, eventually to this blog. For me, it’s like attending a reunion of a family I actually like. Some 29 years later I look back in gratitude.There are over 8,000 scholars, students, and ardent intellectuals here. On the first weekend of the 8-day conference, this group of knowledge seekers crowded into Ottawa along with some 36,000 marathon runners. The streets around the Parliament buildings were surreal, invaded by philosophers, sociologists, linguists and profs of that ilk, carrying distinctive canvas congress tote bags and sporting those familiar, dorky plastic name tags. You could spot the academic at twenty paces. I am afraid we are not the most sartorially interesting street walkers.
But this year all these PhDs randomly mingled with thousands of people of every body shape wearing running shorts and tank tops boasting their official, registered numbers. Everywhere you looked you saw a collage of joggers–I mean, runners– bumping up against professors. It was hard to tell which group was more satisfied with itself.
The congress was held on the verdant,Â sprawling campus of Carleton University. A train and a river run through it. It took me a good two days to find my way around without walking in circles or into water. Clearly the campus architecture was designed either by a student who had once failed his program or by a graduate with a perversely sadistic sense of humour. Not only did the landscaping defy coherence but the interior of some buildings that shall remain nameless resembled Escher illustrations, with stairways leading nowhere, and certainly not to heaven. The campus is a labyrinth, all right, and conquering it made me feel as smug as one of those marathon runners after 20k.
It’s been said that a spring conference in Canada is only as good as its beer tent. Carleton didn’t disappoint in that regard. There is nothing quite so lovely as a picnic table, a bit of bench, and a cold brew in the warm late May sun, catching up with good friends and former graduate students, especially after a morning of textual analysis or extended discussions about globalization.
Where else but at a campus congress beer garden could one be harassed by a poet? A sweet-looking man of uncertain age, pressed jeans, orange t-shirt, sun hat, and two braids in his hair–kind of cute–approached. He bore a backpack from which he pulled a yellow sheet of paper on which he had copied his latest poem. Read it, he urged me, interrupting my conversation with a friend, and tell me what you think. Little did he know he was talking to an English professor.
You can’t tell a wandering poet to get lost at a learneds conference, and so I read it.
I won’t quote it here. I don’t have the anonymous poet’s permission. Let’s just say it was, and still is, a free verse twelve-line ode to nature and connectedness. Corny, sweet, and essentially irrefutable in spirit.
What do you think, he asked?
The form doesn’t do anything for me, I said, but it’s hard to argue with the message. I suppose I might have given it a B-. He didn’t seem bruised by that, just smiled ever so slightly, gathered himself together and headed off to the next picnic table. Last I saw him he had approached a table of about 8 male graduate students, yellow paper in hand. I wonder how that conversation went. Long may he stay free of iambic pentameter, I suppose.
We lead very privileged lives. That’s trite, I know, but it’s hard to deny the sheer specialness of being at a conference of peers whose chief focus is learning about and sharing fresh ideas, even changing the world. It feels quite lucky. No wonder graduate students yearn to hang around the academy for as long as possible. Indeed, there was a lot of talk both in and out of sessions about graduate studies. Consensus was that we should be coaching students better about what their graduate degrees can do for them if they choose careers beyond the academy. Today’s economic uncertainty seems to make such coaching imperative. If we are going to encourage so many more people to pursue masters and doctoral degrees then we have a responsibility to show them the whole range of possibilities, help them adapt and discover new pathways, whether they are studying Physics or Classics.
Frankly, there’s no life like it.
Thanks toÂ InformatiqueÂ for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.