Barely having had the patience to finish my undergraduate education before busting out to grab hold of my adult life, I’ve missed the exchange of ideas that is (even-higher?) education in general and the academic conference in particular. Through the years, friends have related to me their agonies and triumphs as they prepared, submitted, and delivered lectures in their subject areas among small groups of colleagues on campuses around the globe. In contrast, during this same era I was preparing 400 word recaps of CDs and concert events meant to briefly engage a broad general audience. The content, no matter its quality, generally hit the recycling bin within days. It’s a fate I wouldn’t try to argue was inappropriate.
I’m not quiet sure “Sex, Hope, and Rock n Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis,” an event I attended last Saturday, was quite your average academic conference of the sort I’ve come to know entirely through third-hand accounts, but it got me thinking. First of all, about the enduring work of Ellen Willis, of course, with whose writing I am sad to say I had only a passing familiarity beforehand. I could tell you more about what I was able to learn about her and the new anthology of her work that’s just been published (a recycling of a more productive sort), but there’s already a much deeper perspective to be found here, so I highly recommend you take in those thoughts instead.
In a broader sense, however, it provided me with a glimpse into a world where people are engaging with information on a different timescale than I do most days. It reflected a balance issue in my own life, or rather an imbalance regarding the information my brain processes every day. Something I had always suspected was true–that the volume of information I was constantly consuming in brief online snippets was eroding my deeper intellectual instincts–turned out not to be quite so, but shot up a warning as I left the conference hall. Friend, conference organizer, and all-round lady-with-the-big-ideas Daphne Carr caught up with me just outside, and I confessed that I loved the event but was more personally struck by the depth of the on-stage conversation among the panelists. If I was going to continue to grow and develop, I had to slow down already, at least some of the time, and make room to think more deeply, more critically. I didn’t feel dumb, exactly, but I did feel depleted and distracted. The instinct wasn’t dulled, but the well was a little dry.