Last November, I posted about the conference goals I’ve been checking off since starting the American Studies Program at William & Mary. That post focused on my experiences at the ASA annual meeting, but that’s not the only large conference I’ve been wanting to attend. Last week, I accomplished my goal of going to another big conference that’s been on my radar for years, the annual meeting of the College Art Association, or CAA. Let’s take a look!

After years of rejected abstracts, I finally got to present some work at CAA’s annual conference. Image: A conference badge lying on top of a tote bag printed with the logo for the College Art Association.

Within the vast expanse of academic conferences, CAA has long been something of a white whale for me. I have a good track record of getting into conferences, but CAA has always been elusive. I’ve lost count of the number of abstracts I’ve had rejected over the years. Last year was a breakthrough because I had a panel session accepted, but I was hosting other scholars’ work, not my own. Even this year’s acceptance related to my teaching rather than my dissertation research (I submitted two dissertation-related abstracts but they were both declined). After so many years of rejections though, I was happy to present anything relating to any aspect of my work, so I accepted.

My presentation was part of a virtual session reexamining Museum Studies as a discipline in light of ongoing reckonings, cultural crises, and other issues. While the session was originally supposed to happen in person, we switched to an online format to accommodate our international presenters. As such, I could have stayed home, but opted to go to New York for the networking opportunities. Since I wasn’t staying at the conference site (an issue I will always take with these kinds of meetings is their expense), I decided to give the presentation from my own hotel room and then go to the conference afterward.

I take the train when I go to New York, and it’s become one of my spaces to work outside of home. Image: a window on a train looking out on a landscape with brown winter grasses.

The topic of my presented was the seminar I taught last semester. I focused on the practical aspects of the course, describing how I created the syllabus, the type of content I included, the assignments I developed, and student reactions. I also mentioned some changes I would make were I to offer the class again, such as focusing more attention on regional museums and institutions. My fellow presenters enjoyed learning about the class, and one of them asked for the syllabus. Through the panel, I’ve also made some great new contacts in the field, so overall I’d consider it a successful event.

Still life of a virtual conference presentation. Image: an open laptop with a Powerpoint presentation. A conference badge and printed script are on top of the keyboard.

While the panel was productive, the conference itself entailed more of a personal journey to appreciating its benefits. Maybe it’s because I’d been rejected so many times previously, but I had built up the conference in my head to be a really spectacular event. Yet what I found when I arrived was an academic conference like any other. Admittedly the pandemic has had a significant impact on attendance and programming, but the conference just didn’t seem like an especially bustling place. The papers were interesting but didn’t seem all that revolutionary or different from other sessions I’d attended over the years, so I couldn’t understand why I’d never had anything accepted (the key with CAA, I’ve noticed, is to have a fully-assembled panel of speakers when you submit, as that will increase your overall chances of acceptance). Even the hotel itself was almost identical in layout to the one used at ASA, save for a slightly different carpet pattern. It all made for a generic, disconnecting experience. I’d started wondering whether it was worth taking the trip at all, and whether I was feeling burned out on conferencing altogether.

Conference Deja Vu: like last year’s ASA, CAA took place in a Hilton. Aside from the carpet, I felt like I was in the same place. Image: An empty hallway in a hotel. The floor features striped carpeting in blue, yellow, and black.

As it turns out, all I needed was some sleep. After two consecutive nights of poor rest, I was downright cranky. No wonder I was feeling fed up with everything.

Day two was like attending a completely different conference. Feeling more rested and focused, I made a point of talking to new people, and stopped adhering so stringently to the schedule I’d made for myself. I attended a fascinating session on CETA, a program I first learned about while writing my prospectus, and ended up talking with the speakers right through the next session. I also became acquainted with several of the attendees at that session, including the new Assistant Director for the Living New Deal, an independent consultant focusing on art access in rural regions, and a Ph.D. candidate writing about exhibition ephemera. I gave each of those people my card and followed up with emails when I got home. During the lunch hour, I went to the reunion for the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and met up with cohorts I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Later that day, I met artists curating shows in shipping containers, and intend to visit their North Carolina site in the future. In between sessions, I attended the book fair and introduced myself to different editors. In short, I made an effort to talk to people and it paid off. I came away from the conference with an expanded network, potential collaborators, and a renewed sense of energy.

And despite a full schedule, I even made a little time for the Met, checking out Water Memories before taking the train back to Williamsburg.

In the foreground is BREACH LOGBOOK 22 BREACH #2 by Courtney M. Leonard (Shinnecock, b. 1980), 2021, ceramic whale teeth on wooden palette. In the background is Possession on the Beach by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), 1989, triptych on canvas.

Overall, I’m really glad I went to CAA. It reminded me of all the good things that can come out of conferencing. And although I will always advocate for the accessibility of virtual sessions, I’m happy that I decided to attend this one in person.

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