#43: The Secret Chancellor's Ball
There was a lot of hot air in the city, and it wasn't just the midwestern humidity. Or, highlighting the inequity of the conference model.
As a student hell bent escaping university without a student loan, the only dive I ever made into a pool of currency was into a pile of loose change, Harbour Bridge tokens, and Canadian Tire money dumped from a Snoopy cookie jar onto my bed for the morning coffee. To see the world, then, conferences were good opportunities for relatively inexpensive travel.
Now, I have colleagues who tell me of rich graduate school experiences, travelling far and away to share their science, or engage in field work.
The Shetland Islands, where it is apparently just littered with ponies.
Where did I go?
Indianapolis, during the (second) Iraq Invasion, with a mid-summer humidity bordering on repressing, army recruiters on every street corner, and weird sounds at night that I would Google from my high-rise dorm room to learn that it was emanating from a tornado siren.
On the first official night of the conference, attendees were invited to a dinner hosted by the University Chancellor and his wife in their home. Grad students never turn down free dinners, and I was staring down the business end of a cereal box for meal supplementation, so I was happy to accept the invitation.
As the shuttles rolled slowly from the campus grounds, and began a crawl through increasingly lush neighbourhoods with immense lawns and estates, though, there was a growing nervous energy on the bus. I look down at my clothes, the nicest ones I had brought, and smooth out a wayward wrinkle.
The commute is languid, a walk through molasses, and only after thirty minutes of gated communities do we turn onto a circular driveway more befitting eminent guests in carriages than sweaty academics on a rented bus.
White stone front steps leading into a brick mansion stand proud in front of looming black thunderclouds. Perched at the top of the stairs, and flanked by several members of the house staff, is an immaculate woman, dressed in a skirt and blazer, with a tight smile and rouge that was doing important structural work.
Silently and efficiently, we are whisked through a dark, polished foyer into an all-glass conservatory filled with beautiful sun-tropical plants and delicate iron frame bistro tables. White gloves are circulating fancy snacks and wine, but no one is eating much as the glorified greenhouse brings in more dinner guests.
I try to make small talk, but I’m an outsider; I only heard about this conference through a recommendation of my supervisor. And while I like to talk to people, learn more about them, and create connections, I’m not a schmoozer. (You can be good at engagement while also being genuine.) I do eventually find another graduate student, a New Yorker who is equally unimpressed with the society pages on display before us. But it’s all a bit strange, and, frankly, counterintuitive to any real scholarship or engagement.
Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, the brown noise of a hundred-plus sweaty academics is cut through with a piercing screeeeeeech.
We look around, and find a staff member at the entrance of the conservatory, microphone in gloved hand.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. May I please direct your attention inside the foyer?”
The thick crowd squeezes back into the dark foyer. Adjusting my eyes to the dark expansive space, I take in the tall wood panelling, the vaulted ceilings, and a spiral marble staircase on which the woman with the tight smile stands next to an older gentleman. At their feet, are two carefully coiffed poodles, adorned with crisp red bows.
“Thank you for coming to our home this evening, and welcome to the conference…”
There are the usual general remarks about how this will be an excellent conference, as well as the schedule for the evening (i.e., when we would actually be fed). The First Lady - for yes, this is what she calls herself - begins to relay a history of the house, which they inherited as part of their tenure. More museum/mausoleum than home, the rooms that I can peer into from my spot in the crowd are resplendent with firmly-stuffed couches, high boys patterned with wood scrolling, and ornate mirrors.
Restrained, and certainly with no place to curl up with a book, a cup of tea.
“…but there are some drawbacks to now living in this house. I have to call my husband on his cell phone to call him for dinner, because this house is just sooooo beeeeg.”
A weak wave of titters through the (in)-crowd. New York and I share an incredulous look.
The First Lady then introduces her husband. She notes that he used to be known as a shorter name, but has asked people to now use his formal moniker since assuming this new role.
Murmurs of understanding in the (in)-crowd. Several more of us are now wide-eyed, looking at each other as if to quietly ask if we are part of an elaborate joke.
“…I have to admit that we had to do a bit of decorating ourselves here, even though there are so many lovely antiques. But I just love decorating myself. Soooo, I would like to challenge anyone here – for a bottle of wine from the cellar – to pick out the décor that I bought at Walmart versus the estate heirlooms.”
Let Them Eat Cake
Who cannot come to the table because of the space we have created to share science?
How can we create or adjust our event to welcome them?
After recently serving on one committee of conference planning, and starting another for late 2023, I think a lot about that ridiculous July night 17 years ago.It still provides me with a grounding for the sparks of inspiration that can easily carry away good intentions. I mean, I thought I, starving grad student, was on the outside looking into a cartoonish affair, but I was still inside with the poodles. I am white, cisgendered, able-bodied. I somehow still scraped up funds to go. Who were the voices not heard those few days because of the way that conference was organized?
I’ve learned that these inequities are further exasperated with medical conferences. Carolyn Thomas in her Heart Sisters blog outlines the problems with creating supposedly Patients Included conferences, and that what organizers are often looking for are actually very healthy and wealthy patients. Her thoughts are echoed in the great patient engagement tweetstorm of 2018, in which 883 tweets on #HowToDoPtEngagement and #HowNotToDoPtEngagement were shared by 80+ patient and caregiver partners, talking about the many ways we forget to leave a seat at the table for everyone.
I’ll turn it over to you in the comments. What are your conference experiences? Do you want to learn more about creating equitable spaces to share knowledge?
Of course, lest I start sounding like one of these anti-avocado toast assholes, my folks helped with a roof over my head for a third of grad school, and a second-hand set of wheels. I was very privileged.
With all apologies to those from, or with affection towards, Indy; perhaps my experience was not a good reflection of your offerings. (I’m not interested in returning all the same.)
I wish I was making any of this up.
I wondered at this time if she, too, changed her name, too, to something long and unmanageable, like her poodles.
A foolish endeavour to challenge academics to anything that involves alcohol as the prize, but since the hooch was free-flowing, her bet was safe, and no one was going to risk snooping around, lest she released the poodles.
Excuse me while I turn to sand.
Another excellent learning experience that you have shared with us, Bryn.
Planning a conference right now and while we were grappling with the realities of planning in the current context (locked into pre-COVID contracts for example!) that was my statement when people were talking about equity in conference attendance: conferences are not equitable! (Virtual ones are a bit better but bring up another host of issues, like who gets dedicated time, they aren’t actually carbon neutral, registration fees are still prohibitive.) In a specialization where there’s an incredibly stark dividing line (academic health sciences librarians tend to have PD funds, hospital librarians tend to have nothing), this is something that we grapple with alllll the time.
I enjoy a conference, probably because of my privilege, plus the fact I’ve been able to scrape some support together a number of times. For someone who spends most of the year alone and talking to her computer, that in-person conference is a balm to the soul. But we’ve got a looooong way to go to fix conference culture, like you’ve pointed out here.