Friday, June 15, 2018

dear academics: here's how not to be a dick

I get regular emails from, a site devoted to the announcement and sharing of academic papers. If I recall correctly, I clicked a bunch of preference boxes when I first signed up for this service, so the papers that come my way tend to be relevant to me and my field (religious studies, but more specifically, religious diversity, interreligious dialogue, Asian religion, etc.). Once in a while, a random paper will slip in, like this one:

Some Scattered Tips for Not Being a Jerk at Conferences
The good professor gets it right in his first paragraph: academics can be real dicks.
The summer is nearly upon us, and that means conferences. I’m not the most avid conference-goer, though I generally enjoy them when I actually make it. We academics can be a difficult lot, with fragile egos and precious little affirmation to go around. For that reason, conferences can be brutal, disenchanting experiences, particularly for those in doctoral programs or early in their career.
I think I've only ever been to one single academic conference, which was in 1999: a symposium on religion and postmodernism, which introduced me to the intimidating term ontotheology. Some of the panelists, in a rather small-minded way, peppered the keynote speaker, Jacques Derrida, with lengthy, over-complicated questions about his particular perspective. One especially plump and giggly professor reminded me of the business prof from "Back to School" who told Rodney Dangerfield, "I have only one question... in twenty-seven parts." This prof's question for Derrida was so long and rambling that people started laughing around the two- or three-minute mark. I had trouble even following what the question was. Derrida sat quietly, then somehow managed to concoct an answer that may or may not have been a response to elements of the porcine giggler's query.

Oh, wait: I did go to a Buddhism conference in Anyang once. It was about the lives of the bhikshuni (Pali bhikkhuni—nuns), and my hero Robert Buswell was the keynote speaker. That conference, too, featured some unpleasantness; I recall one grim nun whose response to a male professor's paper included such criticisms as "factual inaccuracies" and "leaps in logic" (the nun spoke in Korean, but I was getting this in English through an earpiece, and it felt brutal). Yeah, academics give each other shit and have to put up with a lot of shit. I imagine there's a positive side to all this, but as someone without a Ph.D., I have trouble seeing it.

Anyway, don't be jerks, guys. And gals. I know that's a tall order, given all the delicate, approval- and validation-seeking egos, but do at least try to be nice.


Charles said...

I think it depends on the conference and the field. Folklorists in general seem to be fairly laid back people. I've made lots of friends at my main conference, from grad students to prominent established scholars. When people offer criticisms to papers, they generally do it with grace and humor--I've never seen someone be an outright dick to someone presenting a paper. I guess we're just not that kind of crowd.

Come to think of it, though, most conferences I've been to, even outside AFS, have been pretty friendly. MLA felt a little intimidating and impersonal, but I didn't feel like people were going out of their way to be dicks. But I really only attend folklore, ethnology, literature, and Korean studies conferences. Perhaps other fields are harsher.

Kevin Kim said...

I bet the religion and philo conferences are the worst.