More thoughts on the Joni Mitchell conference
July 5, 2015
I wanted to get my initial report on the Joni Mitchell conference out quickly. But since posting it, more thoughts have bubbled up through my mind. I’m thinking here mostly about how a humanities conference varies from a science one. Now of course this is only anecdote, nothing like a scientific survey: my sample size is one conference (for humanities) and only one field for science (vert palaeo, natch), so we should beware of generalising from these observations.
With that understood …
The Joni conference had mostly parallel sessions: a pair of panels early in the morning, then a pair in the later morning, then three simultaneous panels in the after-lunch session before dropping down to a single plenary session for the later afternoon. (My talk was in one of the three parallel panels, so less well attended than it might otherwise have been.) I don’t know how common this is in humanities conferences, but it’s never done at SVPCA or ProgPal. SVP, of course, does run parallel sessions — but then that is a very big meeting, with thousands of delegates.
I used the word “panel” in that description, which I’ve not come across in science conferences. It refers to one of a set of parallel sessions. The idea is that all the talks in a panel are on a somewhat related subject, and the panel ends with all the speakers coming back to the front together, for a discussion with the audience and among themselves. This is actually a really nice way to run things — much better than the very nominal Q&As at the end of SVPCA talks. It helps you to develop a sense of who people are, as well as digging deeper into the topics. My sense is that this is pretty typical of humanities conferences.
One less positive difference is that it seems far more acceptable in the humanities to read papers out loud from manuscripts. By no means everyone did this, but quite a few did, and it seemed to be thought normal. This did work out well for me in one respect, though. Because of the parallel panels, I missed a talk I would have liked to have heard, on using Joni’s music in therapeutic contexts. But when I later spoke to the author of that paper, she was able to give me a hardcopy of the talk. (I read it today.)
Did I say “Joni”? One aspect of this conference that corresponded pretty well with my prejudices was a sort of liberal guilt that popped up its head from time to time. Most of the speakers referred to our subject as “Joni” rather than “Mitchell”. In the round-table discussion at the end, someone suggested this implied an unwarranted level of intimacy, and indicated an unconscious sexism on the part of the participants. There was quite a bit of agreement with this, but I don’t buy it. I think we refer to Joni Mitchell as “Joni”, when we don’t refer to Paul Simon as “Paul” for two reasons: one practical, one fundamental. First, because Joni is a rare and distinctive name, whereas Paul could be Paul McCartney; and second because the high level of self-disclosure in Joni’s music creates the impression of intimacy. I don’t think it’s anything to do with her being female and Simon being male.
Similarly, there was some angst about cultural appropriation regarding Joni’s use of jazz idioms, and particularly about her appearance as a black man on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977):
I can certainly see how that cover makes people uncomfortable in 2015, and I can easily imagine that it would have done even in the very different climate of 1977. On the other hand, it felt a bit strange to be part of a 100% white audience debating this. I’m not sure what conclusion would be appropriate, so I won’t attempt one.
Finally, the demographics of the conference were maybe the biggest surprise. I’m not good at noticing race, so I may have missed someone; but as far as I’m aware there was not a single non-caucasian face at the conference. And perhaps even more surprising, in a conference about a feminist icon[*], although the attendance was about 50-50 men and women, the programme was dominated by male speakers. From a quick scan of the programme, I make it 15 men to 7 women, so more than twice as many.
As with most of what I’ve said here, I have no idea what to make of this. I just offer it up as an observation, and I’ll be glad to know what others make of it all.
[*] Joni Mitchell has explicitly disowned the description “feminist” on more than one occasion; but as a woman who not only held her own in man’s world but by most judgements dominated it, she is certainly an admirable example of practical, if not dogmatic, feminism.