Conference Contagion

Brock University
Pond Inlet

The academic has the strange experience of working alone and in a large group simultaneously. Despite being part of a rhetorical discourse community and a physical departmental community, it is nevertheless easy to feel alone as one reads through endless stacks of books while writing everything from essay comments to book-length treatises. Enter the conference.

The conference is useful in a number of ways: as an opportunity to network, to receive feedback on your research, to meet others in your field with whom you might collaborate, and to get involved in administrative aspects of various academic organizations. But for me, what the recent ACCUTE conference made so clear is that the social aspect of the conference is as important as the professional aspects. Interacting with others is vital to our ability to produce good work, and unfortunately, this is something I think many of us often forget in the whirlwind of deadlines and to-do lists.

I confess that I did not have high expectations for the conference before attending. As I flipped through the initial program in the weeks before the big event, I thought that there were relatively few panels of relevance to my research. Canadianists and Victorianists seemed to be the two largest camps, and, as I am neither, I expected to feel somewhat out of place. But this was not at all the case. The biggest lesson I learned at Congress was to avoid retreating too far into the specificity of my own research.

I heard papers on Medieval, Early Modern, Victorian, and Canadian literature—none of which are really my area—and still found my mind racing excitedly with ideas. From the NAVSA series on “The Uses and Abuses of History” to the debate on “The Modern Academic and Copyright Law” to Faye Hammill’s keynote address on “Sophistication, Modernism, and Entertainment,” to the extremely popular poetry event “Soirée des Refusés,” I felt recharged and reinvigorated with each event I attended. Moreover, I began bumping into other students and professors I knew from various levels of my university education, and even our informal conversations were infected by our excitement about things we had seen and heard.

See, when academics attend a conference, their enthusiasm and excitement becomes contagious. It’s difficult to avoid becoming infected by the energy of thousands of minds and voices coming together in collaboration. Although I arrived expecting to find few connections to my own research, I left with a supply of creative energy that followed me home and made the month of June extremely productive.

Congress 2014 poetry reading at Niagara Artists’ Centre

Congress 2014 was held at Brock University in St. Catharines, and as I did when Congress 2012 was at WLU, I helped to organize a literary reading, pulling together fourteen poets who were also scholars giving papers at Congress.  My colleague at Brock, poet-professor Gregory Betts,  found the venue — the fabulous Niagara Artists Centre on St. Paul Street in downtown St. Catharines — and booksellers Noelle Allen of Wolsak and Wynn and Kitty Lewis of Brick Books stepped in to manage book sales. Gregory and I each invited some poets, wrote an ad, got a few organizations on board to advertise, and when the people began to pour in at 7:55 on May 25, it was clear that this event was going to be standing room only.

Gregory and I hosted, working out a classic buddy-comedy style that owed absolutely nothing to Nichols and May. English and Film Studies doctoral student Shannon Maguire kicked off the reading that featured poets as diverse as Nathan Dueck, Eric Schmaltz, Phoebe Wang, Charmaine Cadeau, Natalee Caple, Colin Martin, and Andy Weaver, who ended the night with a fantastic love poem. Gregory was a showstopper reading from his book, This is Importance, a poetry book made up entirely of creative errors about Canadian literature and it pretty much brought the house down. (Note to self: in future readings, read BEFORE Gregory.)  Noelle and Kitty reported robust book sales

The fairly new tradition of literary readings at Congress was begun in 2011 in Fredericton, at the University of New Brunswick, when Prof. Ross Leckie called on poets from graduate students to modernist icon Travis Lane (and everyone in between) to do two minutes at the microphone.  Walking away from that event, Eleanor Ty said to me, “We should do this at WLU next year.”  We did, and Jamie Dopp organized another at the University of Victoria for Congress 2013, and now the only question is, who will champion the Congress poetry reading at University of Ottawa next year?

Tanis with Gregory Betts May 2014