No Fancy Name
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
so that conference...and stinky california
The conference was in Los Angeles. I live in San Jose. For those of you unfamiliar with California geography, the typical route for the trip is a 340-mile jaunt through the Central Valley. The Central Valley produces a subtstantial portion of California's exported produce. It's farm country. It's also the Red part of California, if you want to look at things politically, but that's not why it smells bad—although it does account for an alarming amount of religious and conservative talk shows and christian music stations on the FM and AM bands in the middle of the night.

Anyway. The conference check-in/breakfast thing began at 8am, my panel was at 9am. I left the house at 1am to give myself p-l-e-n-t-y of time (it's a 5 hour drive). The first part of the trip takes you through Gilroy, home of the Gilroy Garlic Festival and, during non-Festival time, The Great Gilroy Stink. I love garlic, I love the smell of garlic, but the stench of Gilroy is not that wonderful garlic smell. It's more like rotted garlic and fertilizer. It's gross. Off the Gilroy exit of Highway 101, one takes Highway 152 and goes over a mountain and into the Central Valley. This is called Pacheco Pass, and its smell is a nice one, actually—orchardy and green and cows. Cows are fine. I grew up in cow country and the stench of cows doesn't bother me. It's pigshit that really gets to me, anything else I can handle. As an aside, I grew up downwind of a rendering plant, so I have a high tolerance for stench.

Through Pacheco Pass, you're dumped onto Interstate 5, and from that point it's 3 hours of flat and smelly (extra smelly around Harris Ranch, where the sheer number of cattle stuffed into a small space depressed me enough that I might finally be off red meat entirely) until you hit the Grapevine through Tejon Pass. It's not smelly, just dusty in the Angeles Forest and people drive like lunatics. But at 5am this was not an issue for me. Once over the Grapevine, you're not terribly far from LA, and the new smell will be that of LA smog.

I stopped at the Castaic, CA Denny's, whereupon I had a really crappy breakfast but killed 45 minutes or so. Then it was on to the Alhambra Starbucks—I mapped my trip to the Starbucks nearest to the CSU-LA campus so I could brush my teeth, freshen up, and wander over to the campus without looking (and smelling) like I spent the last 5 hours in the car. Success!

Oh, you actually wanted to hear about the conference?

Of the 45 or so speakers, 7 were from my fine institution, San Jose State University. NOT "California State University, San Jose," although that's how we were always referred to, because this was a CSU conference and the CSU doesn't like to remember that we're different—and defensive—about our name. Anyway, we had the second-highest representation—only the host school had more—and we are really proud of that. Four grad students and three undergrads presented (the three undergrads proposed their own panel: "Arthurian Legends and Literature"), and in addition we had six or so other undergrads (plus one faculty member) who made the trip for moral support. Very cool. Except, as you do, the four grad students sort of hung out together...but we had a really good time. Is that normal? Are you supposed to have a good time at a conference?

So my panel was first, and at the same time as the undergrad panel, so D and B were my supportive audience. There were approximately fifteen people in the room, including the keynote speaker, James Kincaid from USC. His work creeps me out just a little, but he was a lovely fellow and had words of praise for all of us, and asked good questions of each of us on the panel, which I thought was nice.

I sweated a lot. It was partially nerves, and partially my Italian heritage, must mostly because the makeshift podium thing was positioned directly beneath an absurdly bright fluorescent light. I read my essay a notch too quickly because in all my practicing it always hit 20 minutes and I didn't want to go long. Thankfully, I had made the "to be read outloud" version of my essay much easier on the ears than just reading the "to be printed" version, else the speed would have made it hard to follow. But I just couldn't find 2 more pages to cut from the essay—it was a 15-page essay for a class that I cut to just over 11 for the conference. Those of you who do this all the time will note that's about 1.5 to 2 pages too long for 20 minutes.

But! My friends said that it was still easy to follow, and was interesting—and they would tell me the truth. The first person in the panel, she was very composed as she read (something I strive to be) but her paper seemed very repetitve and I didn't really get the point of it because I kept drifting in and out from active listening to wandering brain. The third person didn't read her paper and instead said she was going to present a summary or some such. I'm not sure what she ended up doing as it wasn't entirely clear, but I think she should have just read her essay.

Then it was lunchtime—entirely vegetarian, and even vegans would have eaten heartily, which surprised me but then again, it was LA. None of us were presenting in the second session, so the D and B and R and myself went to a panel that was horrible. I mean really horrible. The first panelist a) wore a three-piece suit b) introduced himself as someone who wanted to be a politican c) gave us a handout that he said summarized his essay (it said "genius" on it in 36-point font) d) proceeded not to read his essay but instead ramble on about books he said "you should read" as if we were all illiterate buffons and e) was an excruciatingly pompous jackass. The four of us just stared at each other throughout his 20 minutes, trying to see if the others were independently coming to the same conclusion (we were). Wow. The second person also gave a presentation rather than a recitation, and she really didn't have the background to do her topic (it was linguistics-oriented, supposedly, but anyone who had taken more than Intro to Linguistics, such as two of us sitting there, found all sorts of issues with what she was trying to say). But she was pleasant, not a jackass, so it was an improvement. The third person in that panel did a fine job of being a lovely scholar and not a jackass, but none of us thought she really did what she said she was going to do with her essay. You'll notice a trend here, and I'll get to that at the end, because I think it's important.

In the third session, D was presenting in one panel and B in another, so R went to support B and I stayed and supported D—and the entire gaggle of undergrads and the prof floated between both in a manner that I would have considered pretty darn rude except they were supporting my peeps so I was cool with it. I know, hypocrite. Whatever. D presented a very clear and interesting essay. The other two people were okay in their own way, although I thought the one person tried way, way too hard to make her essay fit into a theoretical perspective rife with 50-dollar words when all she really had to do was apply the theoretical perspective clearly and consicely. The third person did just that, and very well (although it too had a gazillion 50-dollar words...I purposefully cut those from my reading copy but kept them in the printed copy, because I didn't want myself or my audience to get all tripped up over them. bad idea? good idea? I think it depends on the audience. you?) but her paper was 1/5 of her MA thesis and it showed. It was very dense, and you felt like you were missing something (like the other 4/5). She was a very calm and methodical reader, which is great, except she went 15 minutes over the allotted 20. Uncool.

Then I drove home, arriving at my house at 9:45pm. I couldn't sleep. I didn't get to sleep until something like 3am, and then I slept almost the entire next day. Not good for getting work done, but I was pretty much dead to the world.

Back to the thing about writing clearly. The four grad students, we came to the following conclusion on our own: the 7 essays from SJSU were, as a whole, the most clearly written essays in the conference proceedings. I say that not at all to show disrespect to the other attendees, some of whom wrote very good essays, but I say it out of pride in my department that all of us—who wrote these papers for entirely different classes and professors—had the same undercurrent of good, solid writing. We have a crop of MA students right now containing a solid core of people wanting to go to the next level—this is different than the crops of MA students in the past, those more likely to get the MA because they are school teachers who want the pay bump, or people who are more of the "professional student" variety and not so much the people ready, willing, and able to sell their souls to academe. It's as if there's a more hardcore scholarly group of folks than there were in the past, and we're proud of it. Not many of our students go on to do PhD work, but they can get into good places when they do—one is going to CUNY next year.

Basically, this conference made the hardcore group even more hardcore, as we're plotting other grad conference to attend and other ways to represent our department with pride—and more importantly, with skill! Our immediate success is important not only for ourselves as we attempt to take the next step in our academic careers, but for the folks coming behind us—we want to show people that we're not just some commuter state school, but that we have great faculty and a solid core of budding scholars...all for $1700 per semester! W00t!

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