Monday, May 20, 2013

lessons from an academic conference

Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion (Eastern International Regional) Meeting held at the University of Toronto.  Over the course of two days, there were over 100 scholars presenting talks on various aspects of religion and I was one of them.  The topics ranged from transformation in pilgrimage to photographs of Old Colony Mennonite life to Hindu texts to mysticism in the book of Job to Buddhist art practices to imagination in the Muslim context to conservation of sacred materials to the philosophies of Derrida and Balthasar to imperfect martyrs to sexual metaphors for the reign of God to church planting in Germany to pews vs. chairs to cancer as the apocalypse.  And that's just a small sampling of the breadth of material that was offered for our learning pleasure.

For those of you unfamiliar with academic conferences, let me explain how they work.  First, these meetings are meant to be opportunities for conversation between students, teachers, and researchers on a particular subject - in this case, religion.  To this end, most of the people attending a conference are presenters as well as audience members.  Aside from a few plenary sessions which feature keynote speakers, the presenters are speaking to a relatively small crowd (a dozen or less was the average at this conference).  The schedule is usually divided into panels, each lasting one-and-a-half hours and featuring three presentations.  Each presenter is allowed 20 minutes to present their paper (most read from a written text and add comments as they go) and then there are about 10 minutes for questions.  Since most of the people at these meetings are quite knowledgeable, the discussions can be quite complex and in-depth.

In general, I have a great time presenting at these conferences; they challenge me to communicate my findings and ideas clearly and concisely, and the questions always help me see where I could expand  my knowledge and improve my communication skills.  In addition, by attending various presentations and talks I always learn a lot about areas that I would never have the time (nor inclination) to study and these sessions make me not only better informed, but a better student of life.  Perhaps most importantly, I meet a lot of scholars and learners from across the world who are interesting, intelligent, amusing, and usually have rich stories to tell. Over the years, I have learned some important lessons from attending these conferences:

1.  Listening is more important than telling people what I know.  At all of these conferences there is usually some time to socialise.  Being an introvert (and many scholars are) this can be challenging, but I have found that it is quite easy to talk to strangers at these meetings.  All I have to do is ask them what they are studying and away they go: everyone loves to talk about what they are passionate about.  Unfortunately, some will go on and on and on without ever including me in the conversation or noticing that I have lost interest.  A few people, no matter what the topic being discussed, always bring it back to their area of interest.  It seems to go with the territory when people are so invested in a specific field of study.  Others are better at involving people in a dialogue and I have made some very mutually beneficial connections.  It would be a shame for me to go to a conference and spend the whole time talking about my pet topic.  I would consider myself no richer for having done that.  So at each conference, I tend to look for someone standing or sitting alone; I walk over to them, ask them a question, and listen.  Sometimes it gets boring (at which time a trip to the snack table or the bathroom is usually a good exit strategy), but most times, I meet a wonderful human being who is interesting and has something to teach me.

2.  Numbers are not the main thing; making contact is.  At this last conference, the panel I was part of was scheduled for the last slot of the day.  This is not so good for attracting people because some attendees inevitably have to leave early and most are fatigued by that time (which means they skip it).  When our session was scheduled to begin, there were four people in the room:  two presenters (the third one was absent due to medical reasons), the chair of the panel, and one attendee.  It could have been a bit discouraging, but the mood in the room was decidedly jovial, casual, interactive, and upbeat.  By the time I got around to giving my presentation, a few others had joined the group and it was a lively, appreciative bunch who asked good questions and were very attentive.  One of them was a board member for the larger AAR body and frankly, it was an honour to be able to present my ideas to her and answer her questions.

3.  Analytical thinking is best when combined with humour, life experience, relationship, and prayer.  A fellow scholar once asked me how I turn off my analytical/critical process when I am in a church/devotional setting because otherwise it must be distracting to spend the whole time picking apart the talk and critiquing the theology of those sharing their spiritual experiences.  My response was that I don't.  I never want to shut down one part of me; I believe that would be like trying to walk with just one leg or at least a few toes missing.  In an academic setting the critical/studious/analytical side of me is at the forefront, gathering information, making observations, and trying to find a reasonable explanation for the material I am engaging with.  The intuitive/devotional/spiritual side is chugging along beneath the surface, tracking what is going on and at various times, thankfully, offering up quite amazing insights and ideas that analytical me could never come up with.  When I am in a church/informal setting, the roles reverse.  For the most part, I try to listen to the heart of what is being offered, to recognise the motivations behind the words.  The analytical side of me still churns out theological critiques and dissects anything that seems to be uninformed or contradictory. When these critiques surface in my mind, I thank "analytical me" for the data, evaluate whether or not it is a loving and generous gesture to add these thoughts to the conversation, and if not, put the data aside for later consideration.  There are times to teach/correct/analyse and there are times to put on love above all else; one should not get the two mixed up.

Anthony DiStefano, a teacher in a secondary Catholic girls' school, writes about his frustration at students who don't seem to care about learning "first things."  He says: "The first impulse of the teacher in me is to lecture, to assign readings, to target their intellects with the clear draughts of sound doctrine, but this is a mistake.  The correct 'answer' is love, and not just saccharine niceness that merely affirms but rather the kind of commitment that...led the Son of God to pour himself out for the world." [1]

Academic conferences always cultivate a healthy humility in me because one is surrounded by so much knowledge and experience.  And if I take the time to listen, I will also find wisdom, prayerful hearts, and generous spirits.

Matte from Montreal


1. Anthony DiStefano, "And the Word Became Text," How Balthasar Changed My Mind, edited by Rodney A. Howsare and Larry S. Chapp (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008), 57.    

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