This is not Breaking Bad.

Albuquerque. Downtown Hyatt Regency. Thirteenth floor. Friday, mid-morning. Vacuum in background. Elevator bell down the hall. Door handle of 1306 blinks green twice. Door opens. Light creeps beyond the barrier of thick curtains. Message indicator blinks red on phone. Debris covers the bed.

This is not, unfortunately, a scene from Breaking Bad. Walter White is not holding the room key, Jesse Pinkman is not eating Funions on the bed, and Gus Fring is not waiting on the end of the telephone line. Instead, I am the one opening the door in New Mexico three weeks ago. I am there to present a paper, not manufacture narcotics, and my 24 hours in Albuquerque are about as far from the television show as you can imagine (minus the fried chicken).

The city played host to the 33rd annual meeting of the Southwest Texas PCA/ACA Conference. I arrived towards the end, on a Friday morning, because I had class (as teacher and as student) the day before. I got to the hotel in-between sessions, and luckily they let me check into my room early. After dropping my bags off, I went through my normal routine: 1) Check-in at the registration table, where I receive the brightly-colored monogrammed tote bag (this one was orange) and politely accept my complimentary coffee mug/travel thermos/paperweight/etc; 2) Make my way past the book displays, where I find the perfect distance between the wall and the table where I can see the titles to the books while still looking just disinterested enough for the sellers to leave me be; 3) Check out the snack machines/hotel amenities; and 4) Return to my room to assess my television options for my stay.

Back in the room I spend some time grading Reading Responses for my 1302 class and scout my options for lunch. I also browse through the conference program (this time it’s on a flash-drive rather than paper) and try and figure out which session(s) I will try and make it to that afternoon. I find a couple that sound interesting and make my way to the free lunch in the Grand Pavilion. After lunch I grade a few more Reading Responses and then head to Session 3076: “Sports 1: Mediasport” in Grand Pavilion IV. Here are the titles of the papers: “American Sports Stories: from the Weight Room to the Classroom”; “Sports in the Twitter Age”; and “Drinkin and Drivin: The Complicated Relationship between NASCAR and Alcohol.” I show up a few minutes early–to get a prime seat, of course–and the session begins a few minutes late. Grand total attendance: 4. This includes the presenters. One of the presenters has apparently had to cancel, so the panel and crowd are equal at 2 apiece. In a crowded session, the pressure is on the presenter. In “Sports 1: Mediasport,” the pressure was on the audience. I have never listened so closely to a presentation or tried harder to think of something interesting to say. My fellow audience-member and I–after moving up a few rows once we realized it was just us–were able to perform quite well, and by the end of the session there had actually been some rather interesting and productive conversations. I learned a few things and was able to provide some helpful feedback. I went back to my room with that good, academically-productive feeling.

My session was the next morning: “Cormac McCarthy I” in Sendero Ballroom III. The titles: “Lester Ballard and His Discontents: Understanding Cormac McCarthy’s Grotesque Hero through Freud” (this was mine); “No Country for Lawyers: Cormac McCarthy’s Legal Landscapes”; and “Post 9/11 and Post 2008: How to Read Cormac McCarthy and the American Dream.” Luckily my session had a much bigger crowd than “Sport 1: Mediasport” (probably 10-15, thanks to McCarthy’s popularity), and things went well. My fellow presenters were well-read and intelligent, and their papers inspired some great conversations. I also received some interesting questions and comments from the crowd, and after staying for “Cormac McCarthy II,” I again left with that good ol’ feeling of productivity.

This was my fifth or sixth conference experience, and they have all been unique in certain ways, while also strangely similar. And while the good feelings I get from presenting my work are important, I find myself with some questions about the conference system. I remember at one conference (I think it was the College English Association National Conference in San Antonio) being told rather stringently while standing at the registration table to do one thing: attend sessions. This was not a “I hope you enjoy your time at CEA” type of message; this was an “If you don’t attend sessions you are committing academic sin and are not here for the right reasons” message. And after going to more and more, I understand this push: how many sessions are like “Sport I: Mediasport”? How many presenters find themselves reading their work to one or two people, including their fellow presenters? What can be done about this? Is this, in fact, a problem? Where are all of the conference-goers if not attending the actual conference? Seeing the town (which seems a stretch considering some of the destinations)? Chatting with friends? Watching Breaking Bad in their hotel rooms? Maybe I’m just going to the wrong conferences.

I personally have experienced this audience-void before, and I remember being unsure about how I felt. On one hand, who cared how many people heard me? I still got to put it on my CV, and I still had the opportunity to present my work to a couple of people that seemed genuinely interested. On the other hand, what’s the point of reading my work if noone is listening? I always tell my students to join the larger conversation when they make an argument, because without that they have no reason to speak. If noone else wants to hear about Larry McMurty and small-town Texas, or Paul Auster and epistemology (two previous papers I presented to rather minimal crowds), then what purpose am I serving? Why pay for the hotel room, flight, rental car, registration, food, etc.? Is it worth the line on my CV?

Yes, it’s worth it. At least for me it is. I think that as English Department people we have already accepted the fact that not many people are going to be in the audience whenever we speak. We know that most people don’t care about what we care about, and most people aren’t interested in what we are interested in (At least that’s how I feel around most of my family, friends, neighbors, etc.) But we don’t write our papers and give our talks because most people want to hear them; we do these things for the few that do. We do it because the conversations that take place between 4 people in “Sport I: Mediasport” are, for us, valuable and worthwhile.

So I will continue to go to my one conference a year and read my paper to a small crowd of fellow _______-lovers (fill in the blank with whatever author, book, tv show, genre, etc. that you are interested in). And I will continue to explain to my roommates: Yes, I do actually fly across the country to listen to people I don’t know read papers I didn’t write about books I haven’t read. And I will continue to go to sessions like “Sport I: Mediasport,” “Southern Literature III: Flannery O’Connor,” and “Grateful Dead 13: Presenting the Dead, Historically and Artifactually”; not because it’s as exciting as watching Breaking Bad, because it’s certainly not; not because of the free monogrammed tote bags, which are slowly filling up my closet space; and not because I look forward to being another day or two behind my schoolwork; but because I believe it is worthwhile. If I didn’t, then why would I be doing what I’m doing with my life?

Of course, the CV line doesn’t hurt either.


  1. I admire your generous spirit, Todd, but it is frustrating when you work so hard on a talk that only a few people hear. Unfortunately, many conference attendees do show up primarily to get the line on their CV and don’t bother to give back by attending others’ talks. (I’ve been guilty of this more times than I’d care to admit.)

    Your post is a good reminder that the hotel bar isn’t going anywhere, and we can always squeeze in another session or two. You never know when you’re going to hear a really terrific paper, perhaps one that opens up paths in your own scholarship.

  2. I will say, just as a sidelight on Jim’s comment, that sometimes conference organizers are partly to blame. Some conferences accept vast numbers of papers, schedule vast numbers of concurrent sessions, and run 13- or even 15-hour days. With the best will in the world, it can be hard for a dedicated session-goer to attend even panels she or he would really like to hear.

    That said, there is a “conference karma ratio” that you can estimate by dividing the number of sessions you hear by the number you’re in. At CCTE 2011 my karma ratio was infinite, and at SCMLA 2011 it was zero, though I suppose it averaged out to a decent five or six for the year 😀

  3. I’m interested in Paul Auster and epistemology! And Larry McMurtry and small-town Texas, for that matter. And McCarthy and Freud (though I haven’t read _Child of God_; should I?)! Let’s talk.

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