The Chronicle Review

Sex and the Conference

June 22, 2007

Sex and the conference. Oxymoronic, I know, and in all three senses of the word. Yet there it is — the reason the married people go, the reason the single people go, the reason travel stipends were invented. Sex and the conference is proof positive that — in the face of all evidence to the contrary; despite what you see when you look at your fellow panelists; regardless of the fact that it is, after all, Iowa City — hope springs eternal.

Yes, there is such a thing as monogamy. I'm not talking about you. While you and your beautiful partner are headed for a summer sublet in Wellfleet, the rest of us are going to the conference. Following are some tips for the unwashed.

June 22, 2007

Academic conferences are an annual ritual — maligned, yes, but also beloved (where else can you reconnect with old friends?). For 50 years, The Chronicle has dispatched reporters to these confabs. Perhaps you’ve seen us, notebooks in hand, pestering for interviews, pleading for gossip. An axiom of our coverage has been our belief that often the most interesting aspects of a conference aren’t on the program. It’s what’s whispered in the hall, over coffee, at the bar. But until 2007, we’d never covered conferences as hotbeds of assignations. Our eyes were opened by Jessica Burstein, an associate professor of English at the University of Washington, who offers this whimsical advice: Get a smoking room (the best-looking people are smokers), get to the bar by 10:30 a.m. (to ingratiate yourself with the bartenders), keep the minibar key with you at all times (they’re interchangeable and you never know where you’ll wake up!), and beware: The mores of mating differ from discipline to discipline. How many professors have taken Burstein’s advice out for a spin? More reporting is needed.

When you get there, the first thing to do is get a smoking room. Of course you gave it up years ago. Good for you. The truth is, though, that the best-looking people are smokers, and if you're lucky you'll end up with one of them, or at least have a chance to experiment with their lung capacity. Smokers are so desperate to find a nicotine-friendly haven nowadays that the feeding chain is entirely askew, and you can often succeed outside your customary sexual tax bracket. Smokers have the added bonus of a relatively short life span, so you run less risk of seeing them twice. There's also a much higher chance of getting bumped up to an executive suite if you claim to have requested a smoking room. To rid yourself of the osmotic cigarette smell, simply have your clothes dry-cleaned on site before you leave. If that's not possible, just say that you ran into someone from NYU in the Denver airport and they dragged you to that unbelievable smoking bar on the second floor where a Dixie cup of warm water is $6 and the, ahem, waiters act like they're at Le Cirque. Ten minutes in there and you reek like an ashtray. "Honey, I'm home. Oh that?" Denver.

So you've got your smoking room, which also smells like an ashtray, but it's an executive suite — with three minibars, each with its own little key. Pocket the keys immediately and keep them with you at all times. It is a little-known fact that minibar keys are themselves promiscuous and work in a trans-hotelian fashion. Should you find yourself wandering around some slumbering stranger's room at midnight, listlessly wondering what could have made you think that someone working on Trollope would become interesting when he stopped talking, it is entirely possible that one of those little keys will fit the lock of that minibar. Face it: You're never going to see him again, and after what you just went through, a few homuncular bourbons and an Almond Joy is the least he can do.

Your job now is to find the registration area. No matter how far the schlep, stay focused: If the opportunity presents itself, you may be able to score somebody else's name tag. Some conferences do, alas, insist that you identify yourself in advance to the bastard breed of Samaritan whose job it is to rub it in that you are merely you. Following that humiliation, you will be awarded a folder so brightly colored that it clearly has just been ripped from the arms of a weeping 6-year-old. Inside you will find the map that helpfully shows you how to get to where you already are, a name tag with a phonetically rendered version of your so-called name, a ticket to the lunch you will never attend, and a Big Chief pad on which to note the brilliant insights of every panelist you will hear over the next three days. There is something else, though, something else ... ah, yes, the program. Throw that away. You're here on business.

However, at other and happy times, the name tags are laid out on a table. I regard this as a buffet and suggest you do the same. This for multiple reasons. First, instant alibi. Like, duh. Second, parading around with someone else's name pinned to your chest can bring out all sorts of characterological deficiencies that in toto amount to an interesting new personality. After all, it is your job to make sure that Lazlo Mancini of Little Dubuque's Learning Institute has a good time; look at what he's going home to. Famous people's name tags are slightly more dangerous, but here, as elsewhere in life, reward comes with risk. For two giddy days I was Judith Butler. I actually got her that raise, not that she thanked me. This leads me to suggest that you stay within your own gender and height skew, but on the other hand, only on my third day of being Sander Gilman did someone ask me if I perhaps should be attending to my calcium intake. All in all, there is no reason why you should confine yourself to one alternative persona, given identity's performative nature. If, for whatever bizarre reason, you are content with your own personality, more power to "you."

It is often the case that name tags involve the deployment of a safety pin through one's lapel. That is an extremely annoying convention for those few of us who actually care about our clothing. I did not pay an unmentionable sum of money for this Jil Sander number so that I might shove a pointy metal stick through its incredibly beautiful surface. Nor did I don this shirt in order to conduct a scientific experiment concerning the savage powers of adhesive backing when exposed to Armani. If I had wanted my clothing shredded, I would have gone to a faculty meeting. But enough — you stifle your sobs, because you are Michael Fried, and he does not cry.

At some point, find a bar. I suggest that you avoid the rush and stake out your terrain no later than 10:30 a.m. You may have to elbow aside the medievalists, but they tip over relatively easily, having been there for several days running. By the time 5 o'clock rolls around, you will know all the wait staff by name, and they will know you by yours, or in some cases "yours." Having tipped with increasing liberalism, you are now the center of a hard-working family, of which each member is delighted to assist in perpetuating your fiduciary stupor. Should a prospective partner present himself or herself, you now have the luxury of asking Luke to ask Damon to ask Franny to get this fine specimen beside you a double something on the rocks with a twist. Academics are impressed by people who know other people's names without the use of name tags. For this reason, the best effects are achieved by avoiding bars where the staff roam pre-tagged.

If you find yourself in a group, direct your powers of concentration toward those who seem to you the most attractive or, failing that, the least frightening. You are free to ask them about their work, but know that you risk the danger of a reply. Substantive responses often have the effect of killing any zest for life you may have managed to work up in your earlier prep time. More fruitful topics include your proclivity for housing homeless kittens, the fact that you find your interlocutor extremely engaging, and the quality of your room's minibar holdings.

While you are free to depart holding hands, it is more likely that your new friend will wish for some discretion on your part. The mores of what constitutes discretion differ from discipline to discipline, and it is up to you to ascertain them, but here are some pointers. Creative writers stand up, say "I'm leaving now," and then stare fixedly at you. Philosophers, a more intuitive lot, simply disappear into the mist, but you can find them in the hallway in front of the vending machine, slamming their palms against the display window because the Doritos bag got wedged halfway down and now they are out of quarters. Sociologists loiter in the parking lot. Psychologists will follow you to your room, so there's no need to say a word, although you may require a temporary restraining order by noon the next day. Ethnographers are fine with exiting while necking. Historians may require some cajoling, but the promise of a side trip to the 7-Eleven magazine stand will usually suffice. Literary critics are already tapping their feet impatiently at your room's doorway by the time you get there, but will waste valuable time explaining why their book was not positioned in the very first row of their publisher's table in the books exhibit. Scientists have already found their way into your room; get there quickly or they may be done before you arrive.

What you do next is up to you and your lawyer's interpretation of the Mann Act. Above all, have fun, be safe, and don't stay in touch.

Jessica Burstein is an assistant professor of English at the University of Washington. Oddly, she has just been granted tenure. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 42, Page B5