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Friday, March 23, 2007

The RSA Blues

This RSA conference may go down in history (history, I tell you!) as the one that makes the members of RSA refuse to pay dues next year. I do not understand what they're spending all that money on. Conference programs? Misprinted -- the times along the margins of the pages don't always match the actual times of the panels on those pages (this is particularly disastrous for a conference that features 12 sessions of 40,000 panels each). Name tags? They don't even say 'RSA' on them. Just your name, your affiliation, and "Annual Meeting" all printed in black ink on white cardstock in what looks to be 14pt. Times New Roman. I could be anywhere! Which brings us to the next thing they're clearly not spending money on. The hotel. We're trapped in some strange section of town between the bay and the interstate which passes for a cultural district in Miami. From GEMCS I expect this kind of thing. I like it, even, in that context. GEMCS is the scrappy little conference that could. The adventure of walking through rubble to find a good bar in Tampa? That was fun. But couldn't an organization with what I'd guess is over 1,000 dues-paying members find a place that didn't have stains on all the carpets of its rooms? Or how about one that can actually house all the conference attendees? Half the people here are staying at some "spill-over" hotel by the airport, paying 25 bucks one way to get to where the 'action' is. And don't get me started on the book exhibit. I know RSA itself doesn't pay to get publishers in here, but there are like four presses with tables here, and they all specialize in facsimile editions of Italian grammars! Argh!

If I sound a little gripey, it's because of the sheer expense of this conference. Not everyone works at Huge Pile of Money U, and there are only so many of things my department will spring for. I'm seriously considering crossing this one off the list. What do I really get out of RSA? A chance to see my non-dramatic peeps in action. That's good. A sense of connection with historians, art historians, and scholars working on continental renaissances. That's also good -- and possibly even intellectually important. But I also get completely overwhelmed by the panel options (there are approximately 324 this year), and I have very little faith in the program-selection committee. No real fault of their own: it's just impossible to choose 972 good paper proposals. I end up going to see the same people speak year after year, simply because I know their written work is good. I suppose this is true at most conferences, but still. There's something about the size of this one that actually squelches my desire to be adventurous.

If RSA is going to continue to be a monstrous, and therefore presumably profitable conference, it should be organized with style and purpose. There's a fantastic amount of raw material here, and there has to be some way to bring scholars with interrelated interests into conversation with one another, rather than atomizing them into a million tiny panels. Perhaps broad aesthetic or historical categories could serve as organizing rubrics for seminar-style sessions a la SAA? I could imagine historians, art historians, and literary scholars working together on Empire or Labor or Patronage or even something as broad as Style. Maybe there should be a greater number of large, purposefully cross-discipline paper sessions bringing together reputable scholars from different fields under a broader heading? Just a bit more guidance from an organizational center would, I think, make this a great conference. But as it stands right now, it feels a bit like torture, plus seeing some friends. And I think nearly everyone in Miami this year would agree with that.

  • At 3/24/2007 11:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    You forget to mention the elevators up to the strange parlor rooms that take 30 minutes to arrive and then stop between floors, leaving each human sardine inside breathless with panic.


  • At 3/24/2007 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    ha! true, and terribly so. Even when they work, they jiggle as they stop, taking a few extra bounces before the doors open.

    I also forgot to mention the WMC outdoor festival happening a few blocks away, replete with heavy bass beats just loud enough to make my entire room vibrate.


  • At 3/24/2007 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    And yet the only time I submitted a panel proposal to RSA, I was turned down. [Insert sad-faced emoticon here; here at BtR, we are forbidden from actually using emoticons.]

    Unlike others, I don't particularly like conferences; they're necessary, but they're not an expense or a time-suck I relish. I can justify them (in my own mind) if I suspect there are going to be papers I should or should want to see, and rarely does RSA supply enough such papers.

    Vibrating rooms, however, sound like a lot of FUN!!! Dom-dom-dom-dom.


  • At 3/24/2007 01:20:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I'm still hearing it. We're at 120 bpm, I'd say.

    And as far as you being turned down, I cannot see a logic to who is or isn't, besides those strange sinecures granted to senior scholars and organizations.


  • At 3/24/2007 01:45:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Perhaps the problem continues to be that they (the WMC) STILL have better drugs than you do. Had the RSA's scheduled shipment actually arrived, I'm sure you wouldn't have noticed the stained carpeting, shuddering elevators, etc. And maybe Greenblatt would have looked just a bit more like Robert Smith.

    (Okay, scratch that last image--that's a textbook Bad Trip right there.)


  • At 3/24/2007 10:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Don't forget the fifteen-minute breaks between panels in the morning and the afternoon, the scheduling of panels on pretty much the same topic at the same time, the absurdity of locating some of the clearly most popular sessions in the tiniest of rooms, the $16 breakfasts, the surly waiters, the crappy wifi...

    The final reception, though, was impressive even though there seemed to be only about six chairs and two tables. But that probably explains the stained carpet.


  • At 3/25/2007 12:08:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    You know, that banquet was shockingly good, despite the baleful look on the face of that giant deep-fried fish. I have to give credit wherever it is due for the meal.

    And I'm happy to report that at 12:06AM, the dance party outside my window seems finally to have wound down.


  • At 3/25/2007 09:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Last year I spent almost my entire 36 hours at RSA at the bar watching March Madness--then I gave my paper and left. Though I love San Francisco, I was completely broke at the time and spent way too much money. So even when it's in a great location, it can still suck. And clearly, no basketball fan can ever truly enjoy being at a conference when there are games on.
    I will agree, however, that the buffet is almost always spectacular.


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