Academic conferences can bring out snarkiness, competition, cruelty in even the nicest people: they've got these intellectual territories to defend, ideas in which they have a great deal invested, and when someone threatens that territory by challenging those ideas, watch out! I've been in and observed my fair share of very heated exchanges--about like when Warren, Jonathan and Andrew argue over who was the best James Bond. (I love Andrew's resentful claim that "Timothy Dalton should win an Oscar and hit Sean Connery on the head with it"--not that I love Timothy Dalton OR Sean Connery--actually I hate the whole Bond franchise--I just can't help laughing at the line.) You'll sometimes see outright hostility flare up in the Q&A sessions after panels. It doesn't always happen, but it happens often enough.
One of the many great things about the Slayage conference was how little of that occurred: people were generally courteous and generous. I'm not saying no snarkiness occurred--it did--but the few times it happened just underscored how rare it was the rest of the time. We decided it was because we are so often attacked for having this bizarre scholarly interest in this element of pop culture most academics feel is beneath their notice, so when we got together, the main thing we felt was gratitude at being among friends. Still, it was very cool to go to a panel and hear such good-natured exchanges. By no means did everyone agree with everything they heard, but I've rarely seen criticisms presented and accepted so graciously: "Have you thought about this?" "Why no, I haven't! Thanks so much for suggesting that." OK, you hear stuff like that at conferences all the time, except that the graciousness of such statements is often a mere veneer, but when you heard it at Slayage, it seemed sincere.
Even when people discovered they had profound differences of opinion--say, someone who loved the final season found him/herself talking to someone who hated it (like me)--the difference didn't cause an argument. People agreed to disagree.
And there was plenty of well-deserved glowing praise: again, because so many of our colleagues think Buffy studies aren't serious, most people who do it try to be as rigorous and thorough as possible. One of the best panels I attended was on the musical episode, "Once More with Feeling." Cynthea Masson presented a great paper called "‘What Did You Sing About?': Acts of Questioning in ‘Once More with Feeling'" and Michelle Dvoskin presented an equally great paper called "Under Their Spell: ‘Once More with Feeling' and Queering the Audience." I also really liked a panel on three secondary characters, Xander, Anya and Faith: Claudia Rollins discussed Anya as a Shakespearian truth-speaking fool, while Reginald Abbott presented on "Xander with a Y (Chromosome)? Or ‘No More Butt Monkey': The Xander Harris Legacy of Masculine (Mis)Identity in BtVS." Abbott was especially great: his throw-away comments were hysterical. At one point he suggested that Joyce's death was NOT the only death in the show that didn't involve supernatural causes (as is usually assumed) because he felt her brain tumor was probably caused by living with the horrible blob of green energy that is Dawn.
I also really liked Elizabeth Rambo's paper on "‘Queen C' Goes to Boys' Town, or Killing the Angel in Angel's House," which discussed Cordelia in terms of the Coventry Patmore ideal of "the angel in the house." (I admit I liked this paper partly because it supports ideas I have about Cordelia.) There was even a very detailed parsing of speech patterns in character dialogue: one of the featured speakers was Michael Adams, who discussed "The Matrix of Motives in Slayer Style." (Adams has published a book on Slayer Slang, with Oxford University Press--that made a lot of the pooh-poohers do a double-take, 'cause you can't get much more reputable than Oxford UP.)
I also just enjoyed meeting people. I mentioned my blogging habit whenever it seemed appropriate, but few people seemed to share my interest. One of the few was Roz Kaveney--she does great work and is also just a very interesting person--check out her site, Glamourous Rags. I also learned that Jane Espenson, one of the writers for BtVS, has a blog, which I haven't started reading but plan to.
Several people asked me to post my paper on-line, and I'm not going to do that. It's just not wise in academia to do something like that until the paper has already been published, and then sometimes there are copyright laws that prohibit it. I will, however, give you a paragraph from the middle of the paper:
Some of you might remember a Canadian band from the early 90s called The Pursuit of Happiness. They had a single called "I'm an Adult Now," which contains the lines "Adult sex is either boring or dirty. Young people, they can get away with murder." This seems to be the attitude on Buffy. In "The Freshman" (4/1) Buffy goes to Giles's apartment and discovers him in a dressing gown; soon thereafter, a partially clad Olivia walks out of the bedroom. Buffy is horrified, and when Giles asks, "I'm not supposed to have a private life?" she replies, "No! Because you're very, very old and it's gross." In fact, the "grossness" of adult sex is a joke mined all the way through season five, at which point the Scoobies themselves are all past 21, and officially adults as well.
I plan to shape the conference paper into something I can submit to a journal, and if it ever gets taken, I'll let you know.