Cheese and High Heels

March 7, 2010 by Jen

This week, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for a literature conference. In case I hadn’t figured this out before, I was reminded, first, that English majors and professionals can turn anything into a verb–and I mean anything. (The buzzword for the weekend was “dissertating”: i.e. Are you dissertating yet?)

Second, though, I was reminded that such conferences, and the travel involved, make for some pretty great, albeit quirky, stories. For instance…

Conversations in airports and on airplanes. I had one conversation about mountain biking, small towns in Vermont, the graphic design industry, Macs vs. PCs, beat poets, and werewolves. Another involved Harleys, face masks, and the beach. A third revolved around small businesses, family life, and the oddities of various airports.

The unique characteristics of a town from an outsider’s perspective. U.Wis-Mad has 40,000 plus students, and is essentially a college town. Its residents consider 33 degree weather license for shorts and flip-flops, but also gloves and scarves. The lakes on either side of the city were frozen solid, with a thick layer of snow. What else would you do but set up your hut and ice fish (verb?), cross-country ski, or snowmobile? Well in Madison, they would add a Statue of Liberty emerging from the water (ice), placed in close proximity to a sign left over from summer which said, “No Lifeguard On Duty.” The idea of liberty drowning near a university is beautifully ironic, non?

I love signs. Especially the one in O’Hare, which helpfully informed the patron of the women’s restroom that one of the stalls was “Out of Order: No Door.” Oh, the possibilities. First, the need to inform users that there was no door. Second, the fate of said door. Not your usual target of pickpockets…

I’ve never been one to discount the non sequitur. For example, the combination of classic, even gothic or medieval architecture on the campus with a large number of concrete buildings closely resembling parking decks. Or the fact that all the postcards in novelty stores around the city sell only images of the city in spring and summer. I guess if you’re there in winter, they need to convince you to come back.

Perhaps because I hit an unseasonably warm spell (30+ degrees), I really liked the city. It’s a university town, with tons of small coffee shops and bookstores with names like “A Room of Her Own.” Also a substantial number of specialty popcorn stores (key lime, anyone?), ice cream shops, and, yes, the requisite wine and cheese stores. Local cheeses got an A+ in my book. The main thing I would do differently, in retrospect, is invest in some non-high heel dress shoes. Walking 7 blocks to the conference, 7 back, and numerous in between to sight see, did not make for Happy Feet, despite all the ice.

But I suppose these are the sacrifices we make for professional development. Whatever that’s worth. In all honesty, I think most conferences can be summed up in a few choice phrases (not including the word cohort, the other new buzzword I picked up): free breakfast. sly attempts to read name tags. awkward meet ‘n’ greets. questions unrelated to the speaker’s research. one-upmanship. covert admissions that you’ve never read The Scarlet Letter or Dracula or Virginia Woolf. and so on.

I was in an odd place, not a PhD candidate yet, presenting outside my field, not teaching an undergraduate course. The others on my panel were presenting chapters from their dissertations. I felt a bit like they were speaking a different language. The odd thing is, I picked it up. By the end of the weekend, I could converse (B.S.) as well as the next person–about funding issues, my “specialization,” faculty relations, the job market, and even some Marx or “thingness” (or Sherlock Holmes, another popular reference).

Fun? Yes, especially over fish ‘n’ chips. Honest? Not so much. Did I learn a lot? Yes. Can I see myself jumping through those hoops? Sometimes, yep. Do I want to?

That, dear readers, is indeed the question.

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