Tuesday, April 22, 2008

a seat at the (conference) table

Part of being a good institutional citizen of your school/university is attending paper talks. No, not just those free food ones sponsored by this and that student org or law firm. Go to those too, although you will get sick of pizza. If you are the type that goes just to get food but not from interest, well, that's a little mercenary of you, but who am I to parse and judge motives?

No, I am talking about the true test of intellectual interest and commitment: the brown bag paper talk. Like, you bring your own lunch and listen to people talk about their work, and ask questions.

I like brown bags. I don't go to nearly enough of them, mainly because they're all on Monday, when I don't have class and prefer to camp out at home with my stuff all around me. But again, I advise you (and myself): be a good citizen of your school. If you are not otherwise occupied, take two hours out of your day/week to go to a paper talk. Trust me, I am scolding myself. They are usually scheduled around the lunch hour, and so they don't even violate my annoyance at scheduling things in the late evenings, when people would rather be with their families (if they have them, and yes, they have them, even in "school").

But it's always interesting to me to go to a roundtable brown bag, because I never know where to sit in the room. I feel bad, as a still-student, sitting at the table. I feel like the kid who is sitting with the grownups, although some of these people are not that much older than I am (I am 27; to me, <+15 years = you are not that old). Do I consign myself to my second class citizen status and sit in the back, in the chairs that circle the table? Or do I sit boldly at the table, and feel weird about all the crusty old academics sitting in the chairs in the back? Does it matter where you sit?

What say you, crusty old academics and young academics? Do students belong at the same table as the faculty? Is it first come, first sit? Is it appropriate, nay, encouraged, for students to come to paper talks, sit at the table as "equals" (at least, as an audience to the talk) and ask questions?

Your answers shed light on institutional norms and culture. My Organizations prof last semester was abrasive and weird, but she sat at the table with us and frequently changed her position at the table, so that she was never at the head of the table or in the same position. She said that an easy to think about indicia of org culture was where people sat in the room, and how. In the sociology department, students and faculty shared the table, and everyone participated in the Q&A. In the business school, things were more stratified by implied hierarchy. Interesting, is it not?

Also, do you want comments from students when you present your papers to your colleagues? Who do you consider a colleague? Who is co-equal to you in the intellectual enterprise of workshopping a paper? What you respond will be indicative of your conception of hierarchy and the intellectual life of a school. Do you learn as much from your students as from your colleagues? Do you want to learn anything at all?

Sometimes, students need a little encouragement to feel welcome at the table, and welcome to comment and question. I am more shy than you might suspect in real life, and occasionally intimidated. Only when I am very consciously the student in the faculty/student interactions am I like this. When I myself go on the conference circuit, I think "hell, I have a JD too" and go with my "Aspiring Law Prof" persona. You would think that I could retain this identity in other interactions, but alas, no. Only when I'm presenting a work, or attending a conference as a nearly co-equal member. I should really stop thinking like this. I give tons of comments at colloquiums and conferences that I attend, why not the faculty brown bags?

Probably because these are my professors, from whom I take classes. It is hard to shake myself of that relationship, even though by now I've studied law and organizations enough that I might be able to give actually valuable comments. I have started to attend the same conferences as my former employment discrimination prof, and that was a little weird. We're almost colleagues! But not in my head. My head is stupid. So, props to TM for raising her hand and asking interesting questions, because it inspired me to do the same. Unfortunately, by the time I got the chutzpah, the session was over. Alas. Next time I'll summon up the chutzpah.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post is a nice example of a subject that has long interested me: how the organization of physical space (re)constructs social relations. The choice of room, and its physical arrangement, can say a great deal about the culture of a school/department.

When I was a legal writing instructor at Country Club Law School, all such talks were held in a room with several round tables that sat about 8 people each. Everyone -- faculty, LRW wage slaves, students -- sat where they wanted, on a first-come, first-seated basis. Of course, there were a few established groupings; and the "real" faculty seldom deigned actually to chat with the lesser-beings at the table (and were more likely to chat with the students than with the LRW dalits). But the arrangement did at least avoid a rigid hierarchical segregation.

At Acorn Law, we hold such talks in a classroom. Everyone in attendence sits in the "audience" as they like. Unfortunately, few students attend these talks. But those who do sit comfortably among the faculty.

I don't know whether the arrangements reflect any deliberate choice at either institution. But they certainly reflect (and reinforce) something about the culture at both.

4/22/2008 9:23 AM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

I'm a little unclear on which questions you want answered -- and which ones are meant to be rhetorical, which might be most of them (e.g., "Do you want to learn anything at all?"). But to answer selectively . . .

1. The place of students in law school brown bags is unsettled because of the lack of any grad student tradition and because of the sheer number of students. You are a special case. If it were me, I would sit at the table if I felt I weren't displacing someone better known to the speaker or more expert in the field, or if I felt like I was someone who might plausibly be introduced to the speaker (if an outsider) as someone doing work in the field. If there was no shortage of seats, I would almost certainly sit there, if only for aesthetic reasons.

2. You ask whether it matters where you sit. I think it does, but not as much as the local norms regarding who gets called on -- including who chooses, and in what order.

3. You ask what presenters want, including whether they want to learn. In an important sense, they do not; they want to perform, and to have their performance praised by people they regard as their peers (or, in a pinch, by anyone else). When it comes to learning, though, one of the things they want to learn is how others in the field -- those likely to publish in reaction, or to praise or condemn their ideas in private -- will react to their ideas, and on that front not all questioners are created equal.

There are many more topics raised by your intriguing post, but I am blathering on too long.c

4/22/2008 11:21 AM  

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