Sunday, March 4, 2012

Of Monsters and Miracles, Conventions and Conferences

When I was a kid, my dad, my brother, and I all went to a Star Trek convention together. My dad grew up watching James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock on the original series, and he made sure to bring up his sons in the same tradition; every Saturday evening, we gathered in front of the TV to watch Picard, Riker, Data and company seek out new life and new civilizations.

It only made sense, then, to attend a convention where hundreds of like-minded people would be gathered to celebrate and discuss the fictional universe Gene Roddenberry created.

When we arrived at the convention, though, we discovered that, although we were genuine fans of Star Trek, we were little more than casual viewers compared to kind of die-hard fans show conventions attract. One guy’s homemade Borg outfit looked as convincing as the costumes on the real show, and as far as I could see, he stayed in character the entire time.

During the convention’s costume contest, most of the dress-up conventioneers were proud to introduce themselves and explain the DIY intricacies of their cardboard phasers and felt-patched Starfleet uniforms. But not the Borg guy. When asked to introduce himself, he responded, “We are Borg,” as if that explained the situation perfectly.

I hadn’t thought about that Star Trek convention in a while, but it came to my mind several times this weekend while I listened to graduate students present papers at the “Of Monsters and Miracles” conference at the University of Western Ontario in London.

I heard papers about The Jersey Shore, H. P. Lovecraft, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, Carlos Castaneda, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the ways Mexican drug cartels use music videos to spread their messages and vengeance and intimidation, and a few others. I presented a paper about Attack the Block, a British alien invasion move that was released in the summer of 2011 and that not very many North Americans have seen.

Many of these papers, mine included, focused on fairly obscure subjects and were read to rooms of people who had not seen the movie or read the book being explicated. But even if you were lucky enough to have someone in the audience who was familiar with your topic, chances were good that they had not studied or researched it to the extent that you had.

In other words, while the presenters could appreciate one anothers’ obsessions, because we all had similar degrees of obsessions, we were not unified around them the way die-hard fans at a Star Trek convention are, because we all obsessed over different things.

At the same time, though, these people were closer to an “ideal audience” for my paper than most of my friends and family. Not many people understand the kind of work and focus it takes to create a paper you could be invited to read at a conference like this.

In the end, I’m thankful I had the opportunity to go to the conference and present my paper. It was a good experience, and it’s something that will look good on my CV when I apply for jobs. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think, Is this it? Is driving to far-away schools, sleeping in cheap hotels, dressing up in my best academic outfit, and listening to papers that I barely understand half the time really as good as it gets?