American Narcissism, Andrew Hartman, Christopher Lasch, Conference Presentations, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Diversity of Thought, DSM, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Hamilton Crowne Plaza, Jackson Lears, Jonathan Holloway, No-Shows, Psychiatry, Psychology, Public Speaking, Randal Maurice Jelks, S-USIH 2015 Conference, Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, US Imperialism, Washington DC
This will not be a post in which I list every possible takeaway I’ve ever had from any conference or set of conferences. Instead, I have a few notable impressions to discuss, things of which the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians 2015 Conference reminded me two weeks ago.
For one, October 17 was my first academic conference presentation in eight and a half years, my longest stretch without going in front of an academically trained crowd since before my first day of grad school in August 1991. It was a good presentation, not my best, but far from my worst. I presented as part of my panel on American Imperialism, American Narcissism, with my paper, titled “‘We’re #1:’ How US Imperialism and American Narcissism Reinforce Each Other.” My main points in the paper and in the presentation:
1. That historians and other scholars (really, other writers, other intellectuals, educators, psychologists, and social scientists) should take a closer look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel for Mental Disorders (a.k.a., the DSM) and maybe use it as a means for evaluating American culture and society as narcissistic (301.81, the code for narcissistic personality disorder as of DSM-IV-TR), rather than merely assuming that it is so based on simplistic observations. (I knew from my previous experience in grad school and through working for Western Psych in Pittsburgh and Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health that some historians would have trouble with the soft evidence of psychology).
2. That even though my paper concentrated on the period after 1945, my argument was far more comprehensive. My larger argument is that narcissism has always been a fundamental default position of American culture and society, rooted in part in imperialism, but part of the basic character of the nation from its outset as a group of English colonies.
It was kind of fun to present, but would have been even more fun if folks on my panel or in the audience challenged some of my ideas and evidence. That’s often the way to make a paper or a presentation even better. (For those who have an interest, a copy of the paper is here to download, but I do expect some feedback).
It was good to meet some folks I either hadn’t seen in years or had never met before, like Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Jonathan Holloway, and Jackson Lears. It was good to see my friend and one-time student Andrew Hartman as he facilitated the conference (flaws and all). Mostly, it was good to be able to get out of my own head and own writing, to hear others talk about some of the issue I care about from a perspective different from my own.
But it wasn’t exactly like going to do the boogie-down at a Sade concert. Two things really stood out. One, academicians need serious public speaking training. The older I get, the more quickly I tire of watching presenters read their papers verbatim, as if the audience couldn’t download it and read it at their leisure. Even a mediocre presentation delivered as a speech is generally better than the best-read papers. Of course, even in the extemporaneous category, many academicians could still use lots of training and deliberate focus.
Two, where is the common courtesy when someone cannot make a conference to serve as a chair or present their work? The chair for my panel bagged out without so much as a tweet, much less an email or a telephone call. As the senior person on the panel, I became the chair the same afternoon I delivered my talk by default. Not a new thing, but a heads-up even that Saturday morning would’ve helped. I followed up with the derelict chair after the conference. He still has yet to respond to my message.
All I know is, I need to do more of this, especially if this idea of mine is to evolve into a larger project. But it can’t be me speaking only at academic conferences. Other settings, with other thinkers, old and young, disagreeable and full-fledged advocates, I’m in need of them all. If or when I do come through, though, please, please show up.