This year, I will not be attending the AWP conference in Tampa. I will not receive a tote bag, nor will I peruse the book fair and return with conference swag like pins or bookmarks or back copies of cool literary magazines. I will not hear any talented writers read their work, nor will I go to a poetry slam or watch creative writing professors dance awkwardly, nor will I hit up any local bars and wake up too hungover to attend the panel I’m supposed to present at, and when I don’t have time, I certainly won’t visit the many tourist attractions and restaurants that probably exist somewhere in Tampa, possibly.
Academic conferences are big and expensive and time-consuming. This is not to say that they aren’t beneficial, but conferences can be stressful. I know that I’ll be missing out on the best that AWP has to offer. I’ve only been to one AWP conference, way back in 2015, which was intellectually fruitful. Two years after that, I went to regional and national Popular Culture Association conferences. I’ve had plenty of good experiences at conferences. I’ve been introduced to new books, new authors, and some new ideas. But as an institution, and worse, an expectation, conferences are unruly and cumbersome.
(I might be the only remaining academic of my generation who attends conferences only for the panels. I admit it; I’m a nerd. But I don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars just to drink and eat in another city. I don’t know how to be anything short of earnest about it. That’s just who I am).
I won’t be able to meet the editors of journals who have accepted and published my work, or who have rejected it, to see what they have published. To get to know the journals I want to see my work in somewhere. I won’t be able to see friends and colleagues in creative writing I haven’t seen in a long time.
All academic conferences have the same issues. If the amount of money it took to give every attendee a tote bag went to making conferences more accessible or less expensive, or if conferences could find ways to include people without the carbon emissions of travel, they could become less unruly, less cumbersome. What we get from conferences, most importantly, should not be exclusively available at them.
Instead of going this year, I’m setting my sights on next year’s AWP, which will be in Portland, Oregon, a short trip from Moscow, Idaho. I know more people in Portland; I can visit more friends and family between as many panels as possible. Traveling to Portland from Moscow will be less costly, less polluting, and if nothing else, by then I’ll have forgotten about my conference-induced stress.