Passion is No Ordinary Word
by: Tim Anderson / Denison University
I knew the conference was a success on Saturday after I realized that after 48 hours I had not once wanted to go to the bookroom. Good thing too since I didn't see anything close to a publisher, or even a pile of books for that matter, which was fine with me. Flow, the conference, worked for the same reason that the online journal does: it simply doesn't feel careerist in any conventional way, shape or form. And because Flow is designed to prioritize the relatively quick engagement of ideas, I don't expect it to become wholly subsumed by the more standard practices of the academy. Yet I do think of Flow, the conference and the journal, is and will become an even more important place for media academics to employ because it provides such a rich and rewarding path for media academics to take their emerging passions and intellectual questions.
And I wouldn't be too surprised to be in the majority by noting how refreshing the conference was due primarily to its unconventional design. The architectural premise of the Flow conference, that its organization allow for a more “open source” set of inputs, was certainly the most compelling reason to attend and the most interesting part of the conference for myself. Having attended far too many other conferences, I had seen a few roundtables that tried to mix journalists, writers and academics together. But all too often I found these tribes talking across each other. And, to be sure, some of that happened here. But I also felt that for an inaugural event this was a success. While I have my suggestions, the fact is I left Flow with more ideas for research and conversation than I have from the last three major conferences I attended combined. I attribute that to both the organization and the willingness of those participants who attended to act in goodwill and abide by the format.
That said, my major criticism lies with some of my professorial colleagues who seemed reluctant to “give up the reins,” so to speak, and let the conversation emerge from a dialogue with the audience or other participants on the panel. Indeed, I was shocked to see how awkward it was for some of us not to think in “ten-minute answers” or “twenty minute papers”, myself included. While I found the two to three minutes of presentation time too short for anyone to say anything meaningful (I mean, haven't we learned that from years of watching televised presidential debates?), it seemed like five to six minutes was just enough. And I would hope that in presenting one's remarks us, as academics, become a little more “audience oriented” and encourage others to present in a way that engages the audience. For me, this is what the promise of Flow and other “open source” architectures offer us: by not controlling the terms of debate, we make those debates more fertile. For myself, the highlight of my own panel came when I had one journalist turn to me and claim that one of the points I had made about the necessity of musicians touring more in a digital environment was complete “BS”, a claim on his part which may or may not be true. Still, what was interesting about it was that it was he was listening, something that doesn't happen enough in the “four-paper-for-120-minute” panel model.
The other thing about his comment was that it made me laugh out loud because it was offered as a critique, but a generous and funny one to boot. For my money there was more laughter at this conference than I can remember at any other I have attended. And it was in these laughs where the most interesting moments for myself existed: because of the conference's organization around a specific ethos of listening you could actually hear the passion and spirit, that is the glue that drives our intellectual efforts. In watching other academics engage and exchange with other, more public forms of the intellectual such as journalists, musicians and video makers, I was struck by how surprisingly productive the conference. While I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to academic conferencing, it isn't because I am anti-intellectual. Rather, I find that the “inside baseball” jargon, tribal behavior and the thinly veiled punishments for past academic crimes that exist all too often bury a vital discussion of ideas, methods and the importance of intellectual passion. For a weekend my skepticism was replaced a sense of intellectual promise, which is something worth getting excited about, indeed.
Please feel free to comment.
view from the cheap seats
Both Tim and Michael Kackman touch on the room for improvement in the dialogue and interaction between panelists and audience members. I’d like to echo the notion that this was a necessary and ultimately beneficial growing pain for a newborn conference that’s sure to grow up quickly. I understand that it may have been frustrating at times for the academics in the room to have their two-cents shortchanged. But as a grad student still getting the hang of this conference thing, I often found the chaotic latter halves of the panels refreshing, if only because I found out that many people I had for so long only known as “names” turned out to have personalities!
FLOW served as a welcome antidote to the sit-and-read/sit-and-stare dynamic of traditional conferences, and Tim’s mention of the lack of “careerism” is spot on. Where else can you see an established scholar forced to take a seat on the floor while some shaggy undergrad forced to attend for extra credit eagerly awaits with a question sure to bring things to a screeching halt? The conference showed us that these things are (supposed to be) as much about the frenzy of congregation and conviviality as they are about the advancement of scholarship, and I hope that future installments continue to find and serve as a happy meeting point between the two.
giving up the reins
I think Tim’s point about giving up the reins is well made. The burden of participating fairly in things like the Flow Conference falls largely on individuals, and I think that a level of consciousness (on each of our parts) is necessary when we try to engage as equals. As at most conferences, people at different points in their academic careers were engaging with one another as well as with people who work outside the ivory towers.
While I believe most of us would say we are committed to fighting inequity, I think it is important to remember that inequity happens at all levels and at all places. No matter how hard events like the Flow Conference can try to create a level playing field, real equality can happen only when the people in the most powerful positions willingly let go of their privilege and authority. This is never easy, nor is it always possible. However, in the context of something like this conference (and I might argue, in life in general), this “letting go of the reins” is desirable. The panels at Flow that worked best from my view were thoe in which conversations happened not only across fields/disciplines/industries, but across lines of privilege and power as well.
With conferences like this, I find myself working to find a less jargon-driven way of speaking. After all, to employ the specialized vocabulary I’ve acquired is often to exclude non-academics from the conversation. I have to remember that while I generally don’t feel myself to be particularly powerful, there are places, like this conference, where my own position can allow me to engage in a way that excludes others.
My personal experience with both Flow the journal and Flow the conference has been that the majority of people seem to be undertaking similar leveling processes. That this is the case pleases me deeply, and has at points allowed me access to conversations, ideas, and experiences I might not have had otherwise. I hope that we can, as a community, keep prioritizing this “letting go of the reins.” To me, it’s a process that is both socially and intellectually productive.