Please Don’t Read Any Convention Papers

Mark Bauerlein’s article on papers delivered at academic conferences (above) reminds me of the day I discovered the awful truth about such texts. Arriving in San Francisco in the summer of 1967 to cover the annual sociological convention for the New York Times, I headed for the press room and asked for a copy of every prepared talk. “Come back in 15 minutes,” I was told. When I did, the aide said “All yours,” with a bit of a smirk, and pointed to a five-foot-high stack of papers. I read them all, pulling out two that I thought might make the Times on an exceptionally dull news day. The rest were unbelievably pointless and tedious. All those Canadian trees had been put to death for nothing.

Other academic conferences yielded a story or two, but the point was that these papers did not count for credit toward tenure, so they were blown off merely to justify sending each professor for an expenses-paid week in San Francisco. Believe it or not, the most noteworthy story I got at the convention came from the speech of the departing president of the association. He suggested that if Negroes (as they were called then) were so unhappy, the U.S. might buy land in Ecuador and ship them all there. This spectacularly idiotic idea got the full attention of my editors. (“Sociologist Urges ‘a Second Israel’ in Andes for Negroes.” Available online from the Times for $3.95 plus tax. Please don’t bother.) This article arrived in the mail last week from a publisher who wants to anthologize it, possibly to demonstrate that sociology may be in terrible shape now, but look what it was in 1967.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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