School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Photo of Sharday Mosurinjohn, Jessica Davey-Quantick, and Michelle Smith

Sharday Mosurinjohn, Jessica Davey-Quantick, and Michelle Smith
Photo courtesy of Dustin Washburn

Conference Season Is Here

By Sharday Mosurinjohn

May 2015

What are the occasions in your life when you can expect to gather everyone you want in one room together and have them pay attention to your object of interest?

“Wedding” is probably the first word on your tongue, but it’s not the one I’m thinking of. The one I have in mind is free from the obligatory invitations to distant relatives but laden with free food. A conference is what I’m talking about. But if we’re going with the wedding analogy, mine was a justice-of-the-peace-style affair.

Along with a colleague, Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, from Queen’s Cultural Studies program, I recently hosted a conference of about fifty people called Engaging Boredom: A Symposium For the Practice and Theory of Resisting, Embracing, and Understanding Boredom. My own research is about boredom and our experience of time in what you might call “networked” societies,” that is, societies with an abundance of digital connectivity that supports an information capitalist economy and whose economic values are the reference point for pursuits in our so-called leisure time as much as in our work lives. The experience of time I’m trying to get at is, paradoxically, one of scarcity and speed – that it is too fast and there is not enough of it – and I think of this, actually, as a uniquely 21st century boredom. This is a shared, cultural mood of boredom born of living in a condition whose information contents are repetitious, whose choice demands are paralyzing, and whose means are too often bereft of meaningful ends. (And yes, there’s a chapter on texting).

We conceived of Engaging Boredom, idealistically, as a sort of un-conference, hence the more oblique synonym “symposium.” We are believers that such an event can a.) be genuine fun – to which end we had Songza playing during breaks and the live music of Starline City with their song “Ennui” at the day’s close; and that it can b.) be of value to those outside of academia.

Photo of Nathan Townend

Keynote speaker, Mr Nathan Townend
Photo courtesy of Dustin Washburn

With that in mind, we invited an academic keynote, Dr. Michael E. Gardiner from Western (Sociology) speaking on boredom and political economy, as well as a community keynote, Mr. Nathan Townend (Interim President of the Kingston Green Party and Federal Green Party Candidate for Kingston and the Islands 2015) speaking on boredom and political apathy. Dr. Gardiner discussed boredom as one of the consequences of the way that labour today increasingly calls on “the full gamut” of workers’ creative, intellectual, and emotional capacities – too often around the clock. Mr. Townend observed that “the current cultural conversation around voter apathy, which revolves around voter turnout, falsely promotes the thing itself, when in fact Canadians are politically engaged.” From his experiences talking with constituents in all walks of life, he affirmed that “our present moment is critical in terms of a need to defend democracy.”

Other sessions included short videos from artists, a workshop on dealing with boredom in the classroom (with live action zombie apocalypse role playing!), perspectives from Law, the results of experiments from Psychology, a talk on boredom and “vanilla” sex in an era of Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-style BDSM, and a firsthand account of boredom in military deployment.

The reason I wanted to have a dedicate time and space to gather in person like this was twofold.

One was as a way of consolidating a network around a topic that’s cropping up in many parts of the academy that have traditionally had little reason to talk to each other. I credit the field of Cultural Studies for encouraging me to think thematically in ways that cut across domains in ways that are “undisciplined” but well organized.

The other was that I believe wholeheartedly in the contribution of this work to understanding some of the key struggles of our everyday lives. Crystallizing so many perspectives on it in an event was a good vector, if you will, for linking specific conversations to a larger public one. Boredom, of course, is relatable for so many of us who are trying to get a handle on managing time, attention, distraction, and the things that really matter to us – if we’re lucky enough to already know what they are.

Thanks to a former Cultural Studies colleague who now works in communications at Queen’s, the conference was pitched to news stations across the country. (You can catch a segment on Vancouver’s CKNW from the night before the conference here, and an interview from a post-conference perspective if you tune into CBC’s Fresh Air with Mary Ito this Sunday, May 24 between 7:30 and 8 am). This media presence is another dimension to the town/town approach of this event; it reflects a belief in public scholarship and in the idea that interdisciplinarity doesn’t have its boundaries at the edges of campus. (If I could do it over again, advertising in non-academic circles would be a priority, as would more time for chatting in between sessions).

Nine months in the making (there’s a shotgun wedding joke in there somewhere…), Engaging Boredom would not have been possible without the generous help of the Student Initiative Fund (SIF), an Alma Mater Society (AMS) grant, the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) Grants Program, as well as from Cultural Studies, Languages Literatures and Cultures (LLCU), Philosophy, and Religious Studies, and promotional materials donated by the Campus Book Store and the SGPS. Because of these contributions, registration was free and all were welcome to enjoy talks, join us for breakfast and lunch, and take away a potted herb or heirloom tomato plant that were our table centerpieces.

Understandably, I think, there’s no shortage of querulous voices asking why anyone would organize either a wedding or a conference, and I think in both cases it’s got to be a strategic undertaking if it’s going to be successful. In this respect, success means setting the right tone for relationships of mutual support and exchange that you hope will last for decades. For many of us, already, this has meant mutual inspiration, new colleagues, and new collaborations.

Given the overlaps, it’s only fitting that conference season and wedding season are the same season. So go find a pair of sensible sandals; you’ll need them for working the room.

Dr Lilly Koltun presenting

Dr Lilly Koltun presenting
(photo courtesy of Dustin Washburn)