Over that past 14-15 years, I have attended numerous academic conferences, typically 1-2 per year. That means I have gone to about 28-30 during that time span. Initially, when I would go to a conference, even one with hundreds of people, I would feel alone and somewhat isolated because, as a graduate student and instructor, I did not necessarily know how to take full advantage of the opportunities a conference environment provides in the forms of intellectual and pedagogical discussions and in regards to networking. Over the years, I learned how to become more engaged while attending conferences, but even then, I still felt alone at times, especially if i did not attend the conference with anyone that i knew.
While I’ve gone to conferences where I felt isolated and lonely, spending the majority of the time either in my hotel room or wandering around the city with my headphones on, i have gone to conferences where I became engaged, excited, and invigorated by the atmosphere and the interaction amongst participants. This occurred during the Catharine Maria Sedgwick (CMS) conference, partly because of its size. With less than 50 attendees, the CMS conference provided a space to get to know each participant and to converse outside of the panels. At larger conferences, with attendees in the hundreds, this aspect gets lost unless you know someone before you go or are the type of person who can make friends and small talk anywhere at anytime.
This is one of the reasons I enjoyed the 2016 College Language Association (CLA) and decided to go back this year for the annual meeting. Attending the 2017 CLA conference only helped to solidify my appreciation for the amazing group of scholars and students that attend year in and year out. Today, I want to talk about this year’s experience and explain why I think the atmosphere is something that every academic conference should strive for when they have their annual meetings. (I am not saying that no other conferences do the things I am about to discuss since I am only in one discipline and I have not even been to every conference in my own discipline.)
After rescheduled shuttles to the airport, rescheduled flights, rescheduled connections, and a shuttle ride from the airport to the conference center, I arrived at CLA 2017 10 minutes before I had to chair a panel on the works of Elizabeth Nunez. I Walked in and introduced myself to the lone panelist who was able to make it, and proceeded to jump right in. One of the panelist asked to have her paper read in absentia, so I read it before the other panelist read his. Both papers, and the discussion that followed, made me want to read by the Trinidadian author, especially Beyond the Limbo Silence (1998), a book that sounds similar to Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom (1933), and Boundaries (2011), a book about the publishing industry.
Immediately after the Nunez panel, I decided to go to a panel entitled “T.H.O.T.’s, Deadbeat Dads, and Derelict Students: Using Hip Hop to Examine Images of Black Women, Black Fathers, and to Improve Literary Among African American Students.” Here, I heard papers on the emcees using women, and a woman’s body, as a metaphor for hip hop, examinations of the father in hip hop, specifically an examination of Kayne West’s “All of the Lights,” and a paper on the ways we need to think about literacy with our students, particularly our African American students. I can’t get into all of the discussions that occurred on this panel, or others, but needless to say, ideas flowed through the room.
Finally checking in to my room, I rested a couple of minutes before heading back down stairs for the annual banquet where I talked with people I knew and met new colleagues. The CLA banquet is an event, an event that celebrates the organization and its ongoing work. Last year, I had the privilege of hearing Jesmyn Ward speak, and this year, I sat there as Jamaica Kincaid talked and read from her work. At the conclusion of the banquet, people received awards, undergraduates received scholarships to help fund study abroad trips, and past presidents and other officers received the recognition they wholeheartedly deserved. All of this shows the scholarly atmosphere that CLA embodies, one that supports and encourages dialogue rather than shutting it down to raise one’s own position.
Like last year, I didn’t stay for the after party, partly because I had been up since 3:00 am and it was already close to 10:30. So, the next morning, I got ready and went to present my paper on Frank Yerby at my panel. There, I heard papers on the national and popular media’s representations of African American soldiers during the Spanish American War, the ways that character descriptions highlight the fears of contagion and an Africanist presence in novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and a piece on trying to find recovery and healing for African American women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For the penultimate panel of the conference, I was utterly surprised by the audience and their enthusiastic engagement with all of our papers. Typically, the last day sees a thin crowd in any panel, but here, the room, while not full, approached it.
Even the final panel of the conference had a good crowd. Because of travel problems and other issues, the panel had two speakers, one who talked about linguistics in relation to the 2016 Presidential Election and one who discussed Audre Lorde in relation to the BLM movement here in the United States and across the world. Again, both papers sparked conversation, and I could not help but be inspired by each one.
After the conference, I went out to eat with some of the organizers. At dinner, one of them asked me how I felt about sharing a panel with undergraduate students. (The person who presented on Morrison is a college senior.) I responded by telling her that I did not have a problem being on a panel with undergraduate students. I said this because I recalled all of the things that I have seen, in only two years, CLA do to encourage and inspire undergraduate students. Members sponsor students for creative writing awards, study abroad scholarships, and papers at the conference. In fact, the presenter who spoke on Lorde and BLM is only a junior and she will be travelling with her mentor to Australia to talk with BLM members there for a study. This type of engagement is very important for undergrads, and it is one of the reasons I consider the CLA to be an association that others organizations should learn from.
I cannot sit here and type everything that continues to impress me about CLA. I hope that this short summary of my trip this year helps you see why these types of conferences are important not just for scholars to exchange ideas but also for undergraduates who aspire to enter academia or other professions and change the world. This is why I appreciate CLA and why I would suggest that if you study African American or African Diasporac literature and/or language that you seriously consider attending CLA and getting involved. You will not be sorry.
For more information about the CLA, visit their website.