Connecting while conferencing

I attended the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (Canada) annual conference this past weekend.

The conference was held at Wilfred Laurier University. It was quite a trip to stay first in snow-White Waterloo, and then to hurry through the burst of colour that is Toronto.

At a roundtable keynote, I spoke on Muslim women’s participation in the development of theology, and then relaxed and enjoyed an exchange of ideas with comrades and sisters.

The conference was excellent, and when I wasn’t chatting with friends, every talk I actually listened to opened new windows. I recommend this conference to all Canadians. I also wasn’t the only US resident who trekked across for the conference.
But now, I prepare for another conference – the third this month, and why is November favoured as a conference-month? It’s a nasty time for travel and weather, after all. — As I prepare for a conference, I am torn. Surely many people of colour, many marginals, many minoritized/minority people (God, how many terms can I come up with) must have the same struggle all the time.

It’s hard to attend a “mainstream” “majority” “national” conference after attending a “home space” like AMSS, where every panel features topics near and dear to my heart.

Take a few steps towards the registration desk and dear and/or familiar faces appear. Or you see faces that COULD be familiar, – people who could be friends of friends of friends (and who, amusingly, almost always ARE friends/relatives of friends/relatives in my close-knit diasporic South Asian Muslim community.)

And in these spaces you get a chance to voice and develop ideas that don’t fit into majority frameworks. In majority spaces, you’re tentative about these ideas, and you whisper them nervously. But in “home spaces,” someone echoes them for you, and listens, affirming that you are not completely insane. “Home spaces” reassure as well as nuture, challenge as well as encourage.

And once the conferencing is done, you mentally find yourself rubbing your hands in glee for the post-conference socializing that awaits you. Yes, it’s been a long weary day; you’ve been listening, processing, learning, and networking like a demon. But surely you can sacrifice 2, 3, 4 hours of sleep for the AMGS (Association of Muslim Gup-Shup or chat), my unofficial title for AMSS. This is where we poke fun at every theory, every academic fairytale, our own efforts at academic-social mobility, the nakedly competitive dynamic that runs like blood through academic circles. We laugh at our own mixed theological and political positionings. We poke pins through our own academic egos.

In a cozy circle of friends, we can laugh about our own marginal selves. We can deconstruct our attempts to seamlessly navigate the majority and the community. We can joke about our apparently poised navigation of professional spaces, and about the jarring moments where differentness in Anglo spaces yields endless quantities of humour. We can laugh at the ways we both disguise and serve up our minority identities, depending on the occasion.

In these cozy spaces, I can reveal in all its glory my immigrant cultural discomfort with the nitty-gritty of North American ways (do I have to wear non-drawstring pants to conferences? So I really can’t wear mules  to an interview?) and my friends will laugh – but in total acceptance of my strangeness, recognizing themselves or at least their immigrant parents in my strangeness. My strangeness belongs amongst them: they won’t stare in horror or distant sympathy at it. They won’t gaze upon me with the appetite that attempts to consume my otherness because it’s terribly “interesting.” I can relax, knowing that I am no longer a source of “data.” Tired from a life of strangeness and disguise, now I can rip all the layers off and be me in all my chaotic oddness.

Here too we can rip into our Enemy theory/theorist of the day, and then turn around and rip into our own animosity, with no demands for a singular one-dimensional positioning. We can shift and swim seamlessly into our many forms, knowing that we are completely understood. We can laugh about being eyed with fear and suspicion (as Muslims), with fascination or distaste (as ethnics), and with disbelief (as Westerners), and we know that we don’t have to perform anything to be believable.

Without this behind-the-scenes connection, academic work, conferencing, and academic networking are high-stress environments. And without the reassuring eyes of our comrades looking over at us as we present papers, conferences are empty, disconnected affairs. Wandering namelessly through corridors, looking for the next panel where you don’t know anyone, is hard work.

Trying to connect with people at conferences is not the easiest thing in the world. The corridors, the seminar rooms reek of fear and ambition, and there simply isn’t enough attention to go round, so there’s suspicion, dislike, envy and competition. Everyone is yearning to be seen, and it seems no one wants to LOOK at anyone else.

The struggle for me, when I attend other conferences, is to try to replicate something similar to what I have at AMSS. The struggle, when I encounter other academics, intellectuals, theorists, published authors, assistant/associate/full professors, – the struggle is to find human beings.

Too often, in academe, we operate as “pure” academics – and not human beings. Some of us academics even empty ourselves of empathy, compassion, and the desire to connect. We float in and out of crowds of fellow academics – thinking only of ideas and of our own upward mobility. Some of us function as “Mean Girls,” dragging down people who could potentially be our friends and comrades.

It saddens me immensely to think of how some of us feel obligated to empty ourselves of humanness in order to function and succeed as professionals. In many academic spaces, the junior and the nameless are often lost in anonymity, loneliness, and alienation, while the big names shake hands at the cash bar. And the “different” academics struggle even more, trying to find their own faces and their own concerns in White-majority spaces.

When I think of my friends in academe – Jasmin Zine, Maliha Chisti, Junaid Ahmed, Itrath Syed, Saeed Khan, yes, my husband Svend, and many others – I wonder how I could ever make it through the lonely spaces of academe without them. I think of the small number of close associates and friends – some of them my professors – that I hold close to my heart and not just to my mind.

Stuff the rugged individual, I say. We need our friends. We need to connect. And we need to think, reflect and talk together. When I ask you a question after a panel, I don’t want to tear you down just so I can shine. When I sit across from you at lunch, I want to see you happy and not just intellectually stimulated. When I attend a conference, I don’t want to just listen to ideas and to present papers. I want to connect. For now, my “home spaces” help me survive the others.

9 thoughts on “Connecting while conferencing”

  1. i just got back from mesa (also in canada this time around), and it was exhausting, in part because i simply don’t have those connections. the senior folks i knew or have been emailing with, who i tried to have coffee with? all unavailable (though all super pleasant). colleagues from my department? bwah ha ha ha ha, that’s a good one. making friends with folks i sat near? that would require i know how to talk to people. in the end, i got up every morning, woke up my sleeping wife and my recently-returned-from-clubbing friend and compelled them to eat breakfast with me, rode the subway to the conference, chatted up people with interesting papers for 5-10 minutes, ate lunch alone, and at the end of the day came home to our hotel room with a few business cards in my pocket and a ton of exhaustion on my shoulders.

    on the last day, the wife and friend snuck in to the conference to hear my paper. it was so great having an audience that included people i knew. i wish i could feel like i had people i knew around at other times.

    how do you meet people? ever? this is so disheartening.

  2. Salaams

    It was great to meet you at AMSS this weekend. You have a spark that lights the heart with laughter. Thanks for the gupshup and the generosity of spirit.

    “Hope to youth is like gas for cars. Without hope they cannot move forward” ( Dr. Ferguson, early school leavers report)

    I guess grown ups like us need hope too.


  3. It was delightful meeting and chatting with you, Suzanne. You radiate positive energy. I came away regretting that I didn’t have the chance to really chat more and get to know you better.

  4. “chatted up people with interesting papers for 5-10 minutes, ate lunch alone, and at the end of the day came home to our hotel room with a few business cards in my pocket and a ton of exhaustion on my shoulders.”

    Emily, what you say reflects exactly my experience with innumerable conferences. It so often feels so futile on one level. Yes, it’s always helpful on an intellectual level but does the experience have to be so disconnecting?

  5. im not sure those umbrella professional conferences are home spaces for anyone. id rather open a vein than attend a session of AAR that wasnt absolutely necessary. if the people i did my masters and ph.d with arent going to be there, i dont really see the point of AAR.

    and i want to say once again, how much y’all made me feel at home at AMSS.

  6. You are always welcome, Lawrence, you know that. In an email today, my friend Jasmin Zine quoted from Rumi to sum up this post:

    Be with those who help your being.
    Don’t sit with indifferent people, whose breath
    comes cold out of their mouths.
    Not these visible forms, your work is deeper

  7. Sigh… your post made me sad. I guess you expressed the sentiment well. I had a recent sad situation with losing a friend for no explainable reason who was as dear as the way you describe… I will never know why she turned into an ice queen… but youre right, the friends who are like family are to be cherished…. I guess even family can betray you…. its the risk you take when you love someone.

    Wow that probably made no sense… 🙂

  8. “I guess even family can betray you…. its the risk you take when you love someone.”

    Aisha, with that line, for the first time I came close to understanding the idea of risking in love.


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