Sunday, September 27, 2009

September 27

I am writing this entry two days later than usual—on Sunday instead of Friday—since I have been incredibly busy attending the annual conference of the International Relations Association. The IRA, as my future biographers will surely know, is the academic association for specialists in international relations. Like other such associations, it holds an annual conference at which hundreds of scholars (not just professors, I found out, but even advanced graduate students) present research papers. The annual conference is never held in the same city twice in a row. It was fortunate that the conference took place in Boston this year. Prof. Briggs encouraged all his students to attend.

The conference began on Thursday and ran through noon today. I went over early on the Thursday morning, stood in line twenty minutes waiting to register, and then spent twenty minutes looking through the huge program (bound like a book!) that was given to me along with a name tag by the registration desk attendant.

I picked a panel on alternate conceptions of international security that sounded interesting, and found my way to the room where it was being held. I was a little surprised because although the program said the panel would consist of four people presenting papers and two more discussing them (plus a chair), only two paper presenters and one discussant were actually there. I would soon learn, however, that this was par for the course at these panels—which was frustrating because the one or two paper presenters I wanted most to hear were usually the ones that didn’t show.

I would also learn that attendance at these panels varied widely. The first one I attended, for example, was in a room with about fifty chairs, but there were only ten of us in the audience—at most (people felt free to come in late or leave early). The audience for some panels, though, was huge. I think it all depended on the prestige of the paper presenters. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that everyone would want to hear the stars of the field, while next to nobody wanted to listen to grad student presentations. Not that the grad students minded. The ones I talked with were quite happy with a small audience, since their presentations tended to get harshly criticized by discussants.

I kind of felt sorry for the older professors who obviously were not stars. For a grad student, there is no shame in not attracting a large audience for his or her presentation. But for senior professors not to be able to do so just showed what duds they are. I attended one panel on revolution where although—surprise, surprise—everyone listed in the program for the panel (three full professors, one associate, and one grad student) showed up, I was the only person in the audience—until I left. To their credit, though, they proceeded with their panel, acting as if everything was normal. Maybe it was, for them.

After the first panel I attended, I went over to the book exhibit room, where fifty or so publishers had booths displaying all their latest releases. Just as among professors, there appears to be a pecking order among publishers. The booths of the most prestigious publishers were always crowded with people wanting to buy their books at the conference discount or trying to get an acquisitions editor interested in whatever they were writing. At the other end of the scale were the publishers’ booths that nobody seemed to visit and where those manning them were sitting around reading novels or just looking bored—if, that is, these unprestegious booths were manned at all, which some of them were not. The prospect of anyone even stealing their books was apparently not a concern.

I shouldn’t have used the word “manned” in the previous sentence. Although there are more men than women in academia, from this book exhibit it appeared to me that there are more women than men in academic publishing. And the women appear mainly to be young and attractive. I have to admit, I visited a few booths mainly to get a closer look at the pretty women running them. I wonder if publishers send them to these conferences specifically to lure the predominantly male participants over to their booths? [I’d probably better delete this paragraph, even if it does point out an interesting example of reverse exploitation]

At the book exhibit, I ran into Prof. Cohen from Cal State Barstow. He pumped my hand and declared loudly how great it was to see me—a little too loudly, for my taste. He insisted on taking me to lunch. But since he was on a tight budget, we didn’t eat at any of the expensive restaurants in the hotel, but went outside of it altogether to a fast food restaurant he’d already found.

I felt more comfortable talking with him there. It was fun hearing about people I knew back at Barstow as well as telling him about my classes and professors at Charles. It was nice, actually, that he was so genuinely interested in what I was doing.

Brendan, as he insisted I call him, asked if I was going to the Charles University reception at the conference tomorrow evening. I replied that I didn’t know there even was one. He then got out his copy of the conference program and showed me where it was listed. He’d clearly studied this a lot more closely than I had.

I wondered aloud whether the reception was intended for grad students like me. He assured me that all receptions listed in the program were open to all conference participants. In that case, I said, I’d probably go. He then said he’d be going too, and asked if I would please introduce him to Prof. Briggs. I said, “Of course.” What else could I say?

He thanked me, and then asked, “Are you coming to the panel I’m giving a presentation on this afternoon?”

“Sorry,” I replied, “but I have to go to my class at Harvard.” I don’t know why I said that, but it felt good. I had actually been thinking of skipping the class and staying at the conference.

Cohen took it well. In fact, he said he wished we could switch places, with him going to Harvard for me, and me giving his presentation at the conference for him. “After all those lectures of mine you listened to, you could probably give my presentation for me without even reading the paper!” he said enthusiastically. He was probably right.

He then asked if I’d be at the big IR theory roundtable tomorrow morning which Briggs, Saltz, and Arch Faircloth would all be on. I hadn’t heard about this either. He showed it to me in the program. I said I’d definitely be there. As we parted company and I walked to the T station, I realized that I’d have to miss Trizenko’s class to attend the roundtable, but I knew it would be worth it.

The next morning, I met up with Michael Radkowski and Doug Terenti (Brigg’s other first year grad student, as I thought of him) just before the big IR theory roundtable. It was being held in one of the hotel’s large ballrooms with hundreds of chairs. Even before it started, the room was pretty full. Yes, everyone wanted to see the stars! And Michael, Doug, and I all felt great being the students of one of them.

We were having a good time together when Brendan Cohen came and sat with us. It was annoying: he didn’t understand all of our “insider” talk and kept asking me to explain what we were saying—which embarrassed me a little in front of Michael and Doug. It was like going on a date and running into an aunt who then decides to tag along.

Fortunately, the roundtable soon started up. Briggs, of course, gave a masterful presentation. Although I didn’t agree with them, both Saltz and Faircloth also did very well. In fact, after their presentations, the two of them engaged in a spirited impromptu debate which Briggs was notably left out of. Similarly, people in the audience mainly addressed questions and comments to them and not Briggs. Toward the end, Cohen (who had been raising his hand in vain up to now) was finally recognized. He started by noting (again, to my annoyance) that Briggs had not published much since International Relations: A Neo-Radical Interpretation came out in the last decade, but then asked (to my relief) when we could expect his next great pronouncement on international relations.

Briggs brightened up considerably at hearing this, replying, “It should be released at next year’s IRA conference in Washington.” He then went on to give a neo-radical critique of the Saltz-Faircloth debate until the chair interrupted him and declared the session over.

I managed to ditch Cohen, going with Michael and Doug to a nearby Indian restaurant where we heaped scorn on Saltz and Faircloth and came up with lines that Briggs should have delivered in response to them. After lunch, we went back to the conference and split up. The two afternoon panels I attended were dull, and I left both early to wander around the book exhibit. We all met back up in the evening at the Charles University reception where we told Briggs what we had decided he should have said at various points during the roundtable that morning. He laughed at some of the things we had come up with and said he wished he’d thought of them. “The reason why I was so quiet,” he explained to us, “was that everything Saltz and Faircloth had to say was so dull and boring that I could barely stay awake listening to them.” We felt most uplifted by this.

Cohen suddenly appeared, clearly waiting to be introduced to Briggs. I obliged. Briggs remembered him from the question he asked this morning and seemed pleased to meet him. Briggs repeated his line about not saying much due to the other panelists having bored him, and Cohen laughed loudly. Cohen was really obsequious toward Briggs; I’d never seen him like this before. Cohen made me uncomfortable again when he started to go on about how I had been his star pupil back at Barstow. Briggs was clearly losing interest in him. Michael and Doug seemed bemused.

Fortunately, Cohen’s elegy came to an end when a remarkably beautiful blonde girl came up alongside Doug and put a lovely bare arm around his waist. Caught by surprise, it was Doug’s turn to be embarrassed. He quickly recovered, though, introducing her to us as his wife, Angie. She, then, became the focus of attention. I had not met her before, and apparently Briggs and Michael hadn’t either. Briggs asked the standard questions: where had she and Doug met, and how long had they been married. She responded in a lovely southern accent (why is it that men who speak with a southern accent sound stupid while women who speak with one sound sexy?) that they had met while students together at New Dominion University in Northern Virginia. They got married shortly after they had both graduated this past summer.

“So what do you do while Doug studies?” Briggs asked.

“Oh, I’m just a waitress now. But Doug and I have a deal: I support him while he gets his Ph.D., and then he supports me while I get mine. Right, Doug?” she asked teasingly, pinching his arm. He nodded, clearly somewhat embarrassed.

I have to admit, I envied Doug a little. It must be nice having the company of such a lovely woman.

I attended conference sessions all day Saturday and Sunday morning as well. It was exhausting, but nothing stands out in my mind that is worth reporting—except that I attended a panel where Danielle Stephens (Trizenko’s TA and one of my office mates) presented a paper. Fortunately for her the audience was small, because she was being lambasted by the discussant.

The trouble with doing area studies, as she does, is that it is just not theoretical. And so nobody who does theory can respect it. Yet while the discussant’s criticisms of her paper were undoubtedly valid, it seemed to me that he didn’t have to be so harsh in delivering them.
But being lambasted appears to be the lot of grad students who deliver papers at academic conferences. And to her credit, Danielle responded with a spirited, good-humored defense. I only hope that I can exhibit such a degree of “grace under fire” when it’s my turn—as I both hope and dread it will be at next year’s IRA conference in Washington.

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