Conference report: “The Actuality of the Theologico-Political” at Birkbeck

I’ve just returned from London, where I was participating in the awkwardly named “Actuality of the Theologico-Political” conference at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. Overall, it was the best conference experience I’ve ever had — and it was my first time in London outside of a few side-trips when I was studying at Oxford in undergrad. I reconnected with old colleagues and met some very valuable new colleagues as well (whom I hesitate to name, lest I forget anyone). Being part of such an impressive program gave me some serious imposter syndrome, but no one treated me like an imposter or outsider. I honestly started to worry that my imposter syndrome was itself an imposture!

The format was a bit rapid-fire — most sessions had three papers, nearly an hour each, all in a row followed by Q&A for the whole panel. It was very difficult to give every paper the attention it deserved, and I have to confess that there was one out of every group of three that I simply could not focus on, through no fault of the presenter or their content. As is typical in such conferences, white men were vastly overrepresented, but the participants who fell outside that demographic made a decisive impact on the conversation — in my view, it was a great illustration of the fact that inclusiveness is a substantive necessity and not the dread “political correctness” (a condition that was often over-diagnosed, even as Milbank totally got away with saying some ridiculous thing about how the West abolished slavery in the Middle Ages and then only adopted it again due to the influence of Islam and African society itself).

I invite anyone else from this general region of the blogosphere who attended the conference — and I know you’re out there — to share in greater detail and supplement my efforts here, hampered as they are by jetlag and various other afflictions associated with a wine reception and its aftermath.

In praise of the ACLA

This past weekend was my aforementioned seminar on Agamben at the American Comparative Literature Association, at which I delivered this paper (PDF). It was an excellent panel all around — all the papers were substantive, and the discussion was easily the best I’ve ever experienced at a conference.

In large part, this was due to the quality of the participants and the well-defined nature of our topic, but I believe that the unique format of the ACLA’s annual conference is a big part of it as well. Instead of having one-off sessions, the ACLA is organized around multi-day seminars, and all presenters are expected to attend all the sessions. This allows for an extended dialogue and — especially crucially in my view — allows everyone to know basically where everyone is coming from. In my experience, one of the things that makes conference Q&A sessions so futile is the fact that there’s no real back-and-forth that can allow you to know where a person’s question is coming from (a gap which people understandably, if lamentably, try to fill with the “more a comment than a question”). People other than presenters also attend at most sessions, but having a core group provides a center of gravity for the converstaion.

I’ve been told that the format doesn’t automatically lead to good results, as there are lackluster and disappointing sessions. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the ACLA’s format gives a superior baseline expectation — as opposed to the traditional humanities conference session format, where a really good panel is experienced as something of a miraculous event.

Travel tips for academics?

I have a strange relationship to travel. On the one hand, personal history and persistent lack of money have made it seem unappealing to me for much of my adult life — but on the other hand, I’m fascinated by the practical side of planning it. I always read this kind of article in the NYT Travel section, for instance. Most of these advice pieces naturally focus on business travellers, but I wonder if there might be some benefit to discussing tips for specifically academic travel (conferences, campus visits, etc.).

Do any of you have tips you’d like to share?

Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity: On the Ground

We’re heading into the last day of what has been a fairly intense conference here in Washington, DC.  The best word that I really have is “intense,” in that nearly every moment is being used in some way, and there is a lot of discussion, networking, resourcing, etc.  An interesting mix of folks are present:  academics, pastors, laypeople, c.e./r.e. directors, interested outsiders.  All faith traditions are present; I had lunch with German Methodists and spoke to Unitarian Universalists on my way out of lunch.  We are all here to talk about the future of children’s and youth ministry in the so-called “emergent”/”emergence”/”missional” ministry contexts; realizing that the faith formation of younger folks has been neglected in this conversation.

My presentation went really well, and people keep coming up to me to tell me how much they liked my talk on The Synaptic Gospel, which is gratifying because it is this audience who I intended to reach in the book.  The conference bookstore ran out of copies of the book Continue reading “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity: On the Ground”

AAR/SBL 2012: Please Boycott Hyatt

Workers at Hyatt Hotels have asked patrons to boycott their workplaces. In conjunction with a group of religious scholars supportive of labor rights, they have addressed a special plea to participants in AAR/SBL to boycott the Hyatt McCormick Place and Hyatt Regency in conjunction with the conference. They’re asking attendees not to stay at, eat, or attend panels or interviews at those two hotels.

A petition you can sign at the link above will be delivered to the AAR and SBL Boards of Directors in advance of the conference. A strong, early show of support from scholars affiliated with the organizations will allow them to pull conference events from Hyatt early, and prevent them from forcing attendees to choose between attending events and respecting picket lines.

In Chicago, Hyatt has refused to adopt the contract that other major hotels abide by. Nationally, the boycott against Hyatt is based around their use of exploitative subcontracting arrangements, poor working conditions for housekeepers (and lobbying to prevent regulatory improvements), and other reasons explained here.

I have worked alongside the UNITE HERE union in many capacities, as an organizer in my first post-college job, as an ally when I was in local government, and as a member in my college dining hall. In the labor movement at large they are passionate advocates, tactical innovators, and well known for empowering workers as leaders in the union structure and as a “countervailing force” within their own workplaces. I have complained in other venues about dumb boycotts, but this is a principled and effective use of the tactic. (It’s notable, and common to boycotts led by this union, that they are called by workers in the hotels, who go into it knowing that reduced business means short-term sacrifice of their hours and tips in exchange for long-term strength.)

It’s by comment-section felicity that I ended up connected to this community, and I’m grateful to have the soapbox to connect something personally important to me to you. Please sign the pledge and help persuade AAR/SBL to move its conference business out of Hyatt.

AAR Round-up: An Open Thread

AAR is next weekend, and I thought it might be helpful to have an open thread where we could gather together panels featuring blog regulars or else topics of particular interest.

I’ll start: I’m going to be part of a panel on the Body of Christ on Monday from 1:00 to 3:30, where I’ll be presenting on Zizek’s use of that concept.

Scenes from a Conference

With much-appreciated financial assistance from a few of you here at AUFS and the fine folks who put together this year’s Religion, Literature & Culture Conference at the University of Iowa, a few weeks ago I made my way to Iowa City. First things first: I absolutely love Midwestern college towns. I like college towns in general, but something about in-the-middle-of-nowhere Midwestern college towns are especially delightful. One minute you’re dining at a Long John Silvers in some random highway-exit town, whose denizens actually wore blue overalls, like they knew I was going to be there and had to fulfill the stereotype, taking in the insanely paranoid, but wonderfully narrative, signs that adorn Illinois’ & Iowa’s rural highways; and the next you find yourself surrounded by the soon-to-be-ex-Iowa-residents, the gorgeous corn-fed students of the University of Iowa. Back to the signs real quickly: the ones telling the story of the grandeur of corn were self-serving in a way that I could understand, if not agree with. More interesting, though, were the ones arguing against anti-gun laws that, at least on a national level, to my knowledge anyway, are not even being discussed in committee. Fox News country is, they led me to believe, very dangerous. Unarmed, I kept my doors locked and windows tightly closed. Continue reading “Scenes from a Conference”