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 Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

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.


10 Responses to “More thoughts on the Joni Mitchell conference”

  1. Andy Farke Says:

    I have a friend who has a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion, and awhile back I asked him about the humanities culture of tightly scripted conference presentations. At least from his perspective, he said that the language of philosophy has to be incredibly precise, so the practice helps avoid any miscommunication that might arise during off-the-cuff remarks (and the resulting rain of pedantry from the overly critical audience). I’m not sure how much this explains things outside of philosophy, but the comments made sense to me.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m not sure I see why being correctly understood would be less important in the sciences than in the humanities.

    On the other hand, I can see how the precise form of words would be more important in the humanities. I’ve written previously on how precise the use of language is in Joni Mitchell’s own songs. If the talks (I beg your pardon, papers) are written in a similar spirit — as extended prose poems, if you like — then you can imagine that presenting them would be more like a recital of a composition than an exposition of ideas. Maybe that’s what’s going on?

  3. Frosted Flake Says:

    AS a black man. Here I thought for 35 years it was WITH a black man.

    With all due apologies to precise language.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nope. Look more closely: Joni appears on the cover three times. In the leftmost one, she is in blackface as the self-invented character “Art Nouveau”. See The Only Black Man at the Party.

  5. Allen Hazen Says:

    Speaking as a philosopher, who has presented papers at many philosophy conferences (many of them specialist logic conferences, so I’ve seen a mix of philosophy/mathematics/computer “science” cultures)…

    Reading a paper aloud is an abomination: written English doesn’t become spoken English just by being voiced! I often find that a written paper read aloud is … incomprehensible: the need to process the language makes it impossible to follow the argument.

    Reading aloud is just laziness or incompetence. Philosophy often does require linguistic precision, but the better presenters can be as precise as necessary without reading aloud, or reading aloud only a few selected sentences in a genuinely spoken context.

    And a very few of the best literary artists among philosophers (the late David Lewis of Princeton University, for example) can write papers which are both as precise as anything and also so felicitously written that they can be read aloud and still be followed. But that’s a rare skill.

    (Lewis managed to write a monograph on the foundations of set theory with — except for an appendix — no logical or mathematical symbols. English, used well, is precise enough for the needs of mathematical logic. Ordinary, idiomatic, English.)

  6. old smelly froglegs Says:

    i hope you also dissected the necks of one or more of those long necked theropods in the pond outside the conference building.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Sadly, no; not only was time short, I’m sure my new HSS peer-group would have fully understood the significance of the process or the beauty of the results.

    Saddest story about swans: Darren Naish once found a dead one on a beach, but instead of bringing the neck home and prepping the vertebrae out, he just hacked off the head and left the rest behind. What a tragic waste.

  8. We do have too many swans.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, that video was … unexpected.


  10. frogs wonklsey Says:

    Darren Naish WOULD leave the rest of the carcass. Typical theropod worker move, only focusing on the cranial anatomy.

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