Dreaming of a post-pandemic conference in Cairo

This post is about a conference that the ECLT graduate students at AUC and I are organizing, and what we are trying to accomplish with it. The conference, “Dreaming of Antiquity and Its Global Futures”, will take place, in sha Allah, in Spring 2022. Here is the call for papers (CFP), or rather, one version of it:

I’ve never organized a conference before, but I’ve been to a LOT of academic conferences and thought a lot about how we could try to make them…how should I put this? More widely appealing? Less insufferably boring even to the tiny target audience? More “lit”?

As fate would have it, I’m organizing the second international conference our department will have hosted since the advent of the apocalyptic Covid-19 pandemic. In his all-too-timely book Flowers of Time: On Postapocalyptic Fiction, Mark Payne, who will travel to Cairo for the conference and deliver a keynote lecture, writes the following:

Postapocalyptic fiction is by definition catastrophic. The forms of life it imagines can only emerge from disaster on a global scale. They are not, and cannot be, the outcome of a deliberate crafting of social realities that has their installation in view. They can only emerge from a lack of political deliberation, out of the need-based sociality that characterizes human association in the aftermath of a catastrophic event that human beings did not intend. The apocalyptic event affords human beings a way of beginning over that circumvents their own best intentions for themselves with regard to their form of life.

Mark Payne, Flowers of Time, 3

The Covid-19 pandemic was, and remains, a communication apocalypse: it wiped out our ability to communicate safely with each other while in close physical proximity. Suddenly, in an instant, the default medium of communication for most activities (teaching, seeing theater, holding legal depositions, eating together, dating, etc.) became so unsafe that it had to be treated as unavailable and replaced with some alternative. The alternative, of course, was digital communication, which seems to have been preparing for this very role all its life.

In academia, or at least in the humanities, before the pandemic, one could only assume that everyone (faculty, students, staff, administrators) everywhere had some means of accessing the Internet sometimes–whether through their smartphone or the university library–and the expertise (and willingness) at least to use email, access links, and create simple documents. Now we must and do assume that everyone has personal Internet access from home or wherever they happen to be (in case of lockdown or quarantine), and that they have the expertise and–barring technical glitches we’ve come to accept as inevitable–the bandwidth, for a Zoom meeting. We must also assume that meeting in person will be riskier (if only modestly) than it was pre-pandemic for the foreseeable future, especially when one considers particularly vulnerable groups (older people, those with underlying health problems, etc.); and that for the foreseeable future masks will be required for large groups (classes, faculty committees, etc.) meeting indoors, a rule that will make sense but likely be widely ignored.

The upshot of all this is that the pandemic has offered us “a way of beginning over”, as Payne puts it; it has compelled us to reconstruct all of our core practices with different fundamental assumptions and conditions.

As we all know by now, digital meetings can be annoying and inefficient for a variety of reasons. However, there are also some wonderful things about them. First, anyone anywhere in the world can join any meeting as easily as anyone else–that claim requires all sorts of caveats, but we now use it as a working assumption. Second, it doesn’t cost anything to join a digital meeting: it doesn’t cost commuting time, or gas money, or subway money, or legwork, or airfare, or hotel fare, or anything like that. Finally–as if these weren’t wonders enough–when you judge that a digital meeting doesn’t require your attention, but you still want to appear to be present (remaining, as it were, “on call”), you can simply mute yourself and turn off your camera. The magic of this simple fact about digital meetings reminds me of what the birds in Aristophanes’ Birds tell the audience about the advantages of having wings (trans. Stephen Halliwell):

These are big advantages indeed. Do they mean we should never do anything in person ever again? Definitely not: we all miss lots of things about being together physically. Does it mean that digital communication will become our permanent default modality for most things, while meeting physically in person will be treated as an exotic expense that must be justified? As much as I suffer from screen fatigue and enjoy interacting with people in person, I think it’s better this way: in-person academic events pre-pandemic were often extremely tiresome and in desperate need of an upgrade. Every academic conference I’ve ever attended fits that description.

For many years my department (ECLT), which has an MA but not a PhD program, has organized and hosted an International Graduate Student Conference at the AUC campus in Cairo. While the conference has invited submissions from MA and PhD students in Comparative Literature and related fields (which means, basically, all of the humanities) from around the world, in practice most participants have been AUC students, along with a few from other universities in Cairo. This is understandable. While it’s fairly inexpensive to fly to Cairo from other places in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe (to fly to Cairo from Athens, for example, takes only two hours), it’s a long and expensive trip from the USA (and from China). And why would international MA or PhD students want to go to the expense to travel to Cairo, given that we don’t have a PhD program? For the pleasure of hearing other academic papers on the conference topic–papers they may or may not understand well enough to be able to formulate a question other participants will not laugh at? I think not.

For the pleasure of visiting Egypt, whose renowned cultural and environmental riches few Americans or Europeans, even ancient history buffs who have traveled widely, have ever seen in person? And for the opportunity to meet and initiate collaborations with graduate students and faculty in our department–which is both the only department of Comparative Literature in the Arab world, and the only department (to my knowledge), in this land that was for more than a thousand years a major center of Greek and Roman culture, which offers courses in Greek and Roman literature? Definitely. But as always, there is a cost to coming in person: they must either apply to their own universities for travel funding or pay out of pocket; and if they are coming from the USA, they will have to endure a lengthy flight. The conference, then, ought to be organized in such a way that for in-person participants, that cost is justified.

The problem is that it’s difficult to justify planning in-person events catering to visiting international students if you have no idea how many international students will come or who they will be.

So we decided to do things differently this year: solicit proposals, for digital and for in-person contributions; and then shape the conference around the proposals we receive, accepting all those that seem worthwhile and that we have the resources to support. Unlike pre-pandemic in-person conferences, this one will not consist (we hope) of just one or two brain-frying days, but will be structured in whatever way makes most sense based on the number, kind, and quality of proposals we receive: if we receive 300 amazing proposals, the “conference” may consist of a series of events spanning the Spring 2022 semester.

We’re also accepting proposals not only from graduate students but from anyone: something to consider especially if you’re a professor who has been wanting to visit Egypt (friends in this category, I’m looking at you), or and undergraduate who might be interested in our MA program, or a band that has been wanting to record an album in Cairo…

Speaking of bands, another thing we’re doing differently this year is opening up the conference to creative contributions as well as scholarly papers. In addition to Mark Payne’s keynote lecture, there will be a keynote performance by the Egyptian singer Shereen Abdo, as well as, we hope, performances by other local and international artists (including local DJ Sharshar and, just possibly, a member of the once-New York-famous DJ duo AndrewAndrew, who mysteriously disappeared five years ago).

“Dreaming of Antiquity and Its Global Futures” is intended as an evocative and highly inclusive theme: “dreams” refers not just to brain activity when asleep, but to any imaginative fantasy expressed in fiction, poetry, film, architecture, or any other medium. Why do humans fantasize about antiquity? Why does the thought of standing before the Pyramids of Giza, or the Parthenon, evoke even in downtrodden adults a childlike sense of wonder? When have fantasies about antiquity generated real nightmares in the present? What dreams of antiquity will we, and should we, dream in the future–and what will those dreams be worth? These are only a few of the conference’s guiding questions.

Let me emphasize, finally, that “Antiquity”, for the purpose of this conference, is geographically all-encompassing (ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient China, ancient Mars…) as well as unquantifiable: it isn’t possible to say what year “Antiquity” begins and what year it ends, because it just isn’t like that–it is what a philosopher might call nonsense, or a poet a dream. If something seems like “Antiquity” to you, it probably will to us, too.

Send your proposal, with the format and information described in the posters above, to samuel.cooper@aucegypt.edu by August 25, 2021.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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