It was, in theory, everything that is wrong with the academic conference. There was only one other person in the room to hear our presentations, other than those presenting. Everyone read from their papers. Chicago is an expensive city and most of us were paying for the conference out of pocket (I, thankfully, had some departmental support).
It was fantastic.
For an academic like me, a conference like this is a professional lifesaver. I don't work with or really know anyone close by who is interested in Canadian Literature. And because I am so far removed from people doing work in the field, as well as starting to work in a different area (Caribbean literature), it is hard for me to keep on top of the latest developments. It was wonderful to talk about Canadian literature with others who are as passionate and knowledgeable as I am, if not more so. These scholars are doing really great, even groundbreaking, work that will broaden our understanding of parts of Canadian literature.
It was also great to meet members of the next generation of scholars. It is really easy to get jaded given how tight the job market is and how unforgiving being on the tenure-track. Who wants to be a professor, who wants to get a PhD? People like the ones I met with in Chicago; passionate, brilliant, motivated, and each one with important things to contribute to the field of Canadian literature.
And I don't want to just interact with these academics online; call me old-school, but nothing beats the energy of a face-to-face encounter and exchange. It was a really great graduate seminar. We discussed our papers, what's going on in Canadian literature and universities, as well as our general ideas about academia and the direction of universities more generally. We represented the Anglo university systems: Canada, US, and U.K. I got to hear about the impact of the recent government cuts from a person directly affected by them (she was told not to hold her breath). One of the presenters called out how we view and form knowledge, questioning the silos education still force us into (she made her department create a new comprehensive exam: North-American literature). We talked about digital humanities and open-source journals (they are all creating and editing new open-sourced journals, funding by the Canadian government).
But outside of the conference, I was refreshed intellectually as well. Chicago is a wonderful city, full of cultural and arts events. I was able to leave all of my work (and family) behind for three days and just think. I didn't even bring my laptop. I bought a book, for fun, and spent one night reading. It happens less than you'd expect. I tried Alligator hot-dogs and enjoyed all-you-can-eat sushi. I met a young woman from a small town not too far from here who is now in Chicago trying to make it as an artist and start a web comic. I saw a concert and a Jim Henson exhibit, both which inspired me, and I will be blogging about it later this week.
It never would have happened had I stayed at home. I might only go to one conference a year (probably this one again), but it's worth every penny out of my pocket.