This year I went to the annual national conference of the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association in Chicago. The event took place from the 16th of April to the 19th of April and tackled a wide range of topics like “Beer in Culture”, “World Fairs”, “American Literature”, “Children’s Literature”, “Fairy Tales”, “Internet Culture”, Games Studies”, “Motherhood/Fatherhood” and “Fan Studies”.
It was my first conference in the States and this is an account of my personal experiences.
Part 1: Organisation
The national conference of the PCA / ACA has no overarching topic. On its webpage the association announces “we study all culture, not just those subjects approved by academic tradition” and this ideal can certainly be felt when looking at the vast and exciting variety of areas. Each area is organized by an area chair, who accepts and declines abstracts and arranges the panels. Presentations start on 8 am the first day and end at 9:45 pm the last day. There are 15-minutes breaks between panels. No coffee breaks are provided. None of the areas last for 4 days, though. Some start earlier and others later.
Getting the Hang of It
I want to emphasize that the atmosphere at the conference was very good. It was no problem to talk to people and everyone was friendly and welcoming. When it comes to the organisation of the conference, though, I am rather critical of its overall set-up and the flow of information beforehand. Maybe it is different for presenters in the States who have been in contact with the PCA/ACA before or have mentors who have been to an event and know how they operate. For me it was not really accessible how everything was supposed to work.
The association’s webpage provided almost no information about the general set-up of the conference. Neither did the conference’s web page. The fact that conference dates were not necessarily applicable for all areas but the duration of the whole event was not clear at all. This might not be dramatic for US citizens but for a presenter from Germany, who has to book flight tickets early to get reasonable rates it is essential information. So when two month before the conference (and 4 month after I had been accepted to it) the program was ready and I thus was informed that my area would be meeting on the 18th and 19th only this information would have been way too late had I wanted to amend my flight dates to it.
The conference took place in the Marriott Hotel Magnificent Mile in Downtown Chicago. This of course had its positive effects. (There was a Starbucks in the lobby, which was especially delightful to me.) The execution of the conference on site was flawless. Registration was no problem. The hotel could easily accommodate the huge number of talks; the meeting rooms were spacious and the areas in front of the meeting rooms offered enough possibilities to sit down or just relax for a few minutes. The technical equipment was very good and always worked. Although there were several meeting rooms on different levels, it was easy to navigate between panels and usually there was someone available to point out the right direction. Still, this service of course came at a price. A standard double room in the Marriott cost 159,00 $ (excluding taxes) for conference participants. This might be a reasonable rate as far as hotels in that area go, but for Ph.D. students it is a lot of money and makes the conference rather expensive and thus excludes a lot of researchers. Searching for cheaper hotels was not an option in that area. The webpage of the association announced that there would be other hotels available to book for discounted rates but did not announce which ones until two month before the conference. My two e-mails to the organizers asking for other hotels remained unanswered.
Timing and Panel Structures
The scheduling and composition of panels was often rather problematic. The conference had no pre-scheduled lunch or dinner breaks. This meant that if one liked to eat lunch or dinner or even discuss a topic further with another conference participant one necessarily had to skip a panel. Furthermore, on Friday the PCA / ACA offered a limited amount of baseball tickets to conference participants. Although this certainly was a generous offer, creating a fun alternative program to other peoples’ talks in a way for me lacked respect for these participants’ work.
In theory it is probably encouraged to stay with the area one is presenting in. In reality this not always made sense, though. Some areas were concerned with very specific fields of research like “Game Studies” or “Fandom Studies” and as such offered a rather round array of panels with talks being rather compatible. There were areas as well, though, that were structured more around a theme than a well-defined academic topic. These were, for example, “Internet Culture” or my area “Motherhood / Fatherhood”. My interest was in fictional representations of fatherhood and so many panels in my area did not really fit my academic interest, because here ‘real’ mothers and fathers played a bigger role. This made me switch areas a lot.
As panels were compiled out of the amount of talks that had been accepted for a certain area and not out of the whole group of talks that had been accepted for the conference, panels often lacked a clear over-arching theme or idea. Although many times it would have been possible to create very interesting panels, the talks that would have made up these panels were spread across areas and days. Furthermore, discussion was scheduled for the end of each session which is in itself not ideal but was complicated by the heterogenic character of the panels. It was hard to really find common ground for discussion which regularly lead to some panellists getting no questions at all about their presentation because the group necessarily focused on one or two talks.
Maybe Size does Matter
Several things astounded me and made me wonder about the effect the size of a conference has on its participants.
Although there certainly had been a team organising the over-all event these people were never visible, at least not to a “first-timer” like me. There were helpers, area chairs and the hotel personal but never the organisers themselves. There was, in a way, no real sense of attachment to the event, it was all rather distant and impersonal. This for me could firstly be felt in the high number of presenters who just didn’t show up. It could very well happen, that two out of four panellists would be missing and most of the time the panel chair for the session had not been informed about that. It seemed like people did not feel the need to act responsible towards other participants and presenters.
Additionally, probably because of the huge amount of talks, the panel chairs came out of the ranks of the presenters. This can work well, if the panel chairs are able to balance being a panellist and a moderator at the same time. This task is hard, though, and often enough the panel chairs did not manage to restrict their own talk to the time limit and rather than moderating the discussion and making sure every panellist got questions they, understandably, were engaged in their role as presenters of their own work.
Before the conference participants had been told to bring ten copies of their talk for the paper table where they were to be sold for a dollar each to generate money for travel grants. The paper table was in my opinion in itself a very good idea as it made it possible to, in theory, buy the talks one was interested in but could not attend. Out of the hundreds of talks only very few handed in their copies, though, thus displaying again that people did not seem to care too much.
The conference, as has been mentioned before, had no real beginning or end as areas started and ended at different points. This means there was no welcome or good-bye gathering of any kind. There was no pre-fixed schedule arranged by the PCA / ACA and it depended on the area chairs, how well participants started into the conference. So while Game Studies started into the conference with a game night, the Fairy Tale Studies people had a dinner and my area a drink together in the bar in the lobby most areas had nothing, which reflected rather badly on the work some area chairs were willing to invest into creating an engaging conference for their group.
I suggest that many of these maybe a bit pedantic critic points are connected to the fact, that the national conference felt like a huge machine that gave its participants very much anonymity and to a certain extent projected the feeling that it did not care about the details too much. This gives people leave to as well not care too much about the details. So in a way I am criticizing the structure of the conference but do as well feel that it was sad that often participants, panel chairs and area chairs did not seem to think it would be a worthy idea to rise above the machinery they operate in.
The second part of my conference review will offer a brief presentation of selected talks I heard.
P.S. Of course this review is highly personal and I am interested in other participants’ views on the subject.