A Critical Eye on the USSF

I’ve said this before. I’ll say it again. I went to the USSF with the goal of finding water to drink. Since I have spent a lot of childhood times in Atlanta and its suburbs, the disparities did not shock me. They were not ok. They need to be addressed. I spoke to people who were actively addressing them before we arrived and will be actively addressing them long after people stop expressing actionless shock about it.

The running of the conference itself had little surprises for me either. We academics are seldom on the same page but one thing most agree on: conferences are hell if you let them be:

  • They are often poorly articulated (meaning transportation and flow)
  • people don’t show up or their panels come undone because of poor scheduling
  • pompous people always talk too much in too many places
  • political dramas are inevitable, especially when conferences are designed with a middle class white audience at the center
  • rarely will costs, basics, or abilities be taken into account
  • lots of interest will inevitably mean missed panels & ADHD triggering schedules

This doesn’t mean we should not hold organizers accountable for better planning and cultural competence. We must demand the most accessible (ability, economics, diversity, etc.) conference possible – and I for one believe that the possibilities include all of us with minor disappointment rather than the status quo of centering the few. As I have also said elsewhere, there are models of conferences that start with diversity at the center that run much more smoothly than your regular fair and we should all look to them.

However, when you have to go to a lot of these things, you learn tools to avoid most dramas, tune out most blow hards, and navigate the conference site with the most ease possible. You pick up on cues that certain topic threads will recreate the same paradigms you are there to avoid, unlearn, or dismantle. As long as open harassment is not occuring, you learn to find the path to getting the most out of the conference and leaving the rest for feedback/talk-back sessions for next year’s planning committee.
So, my experience of the USSF, documented in multiple previous posts, had few disappointments. The criticisms I do have were large, though I did not get into them here in much detail, preferring to address them in the USSF feedback forms. The connections and possibilities I gained from going were immense. For once, I wanted to focus exclusively on the possibilities.

However, constructive criticism is productive precisely for the ways it points us toward a better way of doing things. It is this form of criticism, or intellectual engagement, that I try to teach my students. I want them, and myself, to be able to engage the problematics of a situation with the goal of deconstructing to reconstruct a better way (post-structuralism) rather than avoid engagement or simply pomo out and deconstruct for the sake of ego.

Recently, I read two posts that I think do the work of deconstruction rather well. One does an amazing job of reconstruction as well. So go check them out and lend your voice to the reconstruction effort.

Pay close attention to that piece about dealing with your own backyard instead of being a “hero” in someone else’s, because self-righteous indignation about issues that community activists are already working on does not social justice make.

The next N. American regional forum is at the end of this year in the midwest I believe. I am sure organizers are already mulling over how to make the next USSF a better experience and would love to hear from you.

Dare I say it: be the change you want to see in the world; don’t just talk about it.


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