Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

the sense of humor thing

Or: why you should never play a practical joke on your professional association.

Thesis fundamental: Program Committees have their senses of humor surgically removed.

Conclusion: You end up with things on your CV that you would prefer, really, not to appear on your CV.

Evidentiary piece #1: A number of years ago, somebody called me up and asked if I'd be willing to participate in a session on digital projects for NWA's annual meeting, that year in Olympia, WA. Or something like that. I don't recall the exact sequence of events, but I must have written some of the session proposal because the session title was all my own work. Consortial digital projects? I thought it would be funny to propose a temporary title: Multiple partners, multiple audiences.

Imagine my dismay when the Program Committee accepted the proposal with no requested changes in title. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I'd been smart enough to suggest it as a paper session with me as one of the speakers instead of a panel discussion. Why? As presenter of a paper I actually had a paper title to go in my CV when I went up for tenure and did NOT have to include that terrible session title. Unlike my pal Anne Foster who did not present a paper but chaired the session, and who is either the most forgiving of women or who never picked up on the joke either. (If the latter is true: Anne, I swear I never meant this to happen. Though I notice you got tenure too in spite of it.)

Karmic note: some years later I was bemoaning evidentiary piece #1 while walking somewhere with Jodi Allison-Bunnell, a good friend, regular conference roommate, and no slouch in the thinking department, and she stopped dead on the street and said to me: "I was on that program committee. I never spotted the joke." And promptly looked appalled. At herself and not me, I hope, but I didn't have the courage to ask.

Evidentiary piece #2a: In 1998, at my very first SAA meeting ever, I was part of a session on archives & archivists in the movies & novels. That's another story and probably further evidence in support of my thesis here, but at any rate, the session participants were Frank Boles, Danna Bell-Russel, and Kathy Marquis. Pretty high-end company, myself excluded, to be doing what we were doing. Fast-forward to the SAA meeting in San Francisco in '08 when Danna and I were sitting in the lobby lounge of the Hilton and I said to her: "Wouldn't it be fun if the four of us could do another "lighter side of archives" session together?" We decided we couldn't do a reprise of '98 since somebody else was doing archives and the movies as a regular SAA event and doing it very well indeed.  We realized we needed to do something nobody else would ever consider doing. Our eventual brainstorming focus was: "What can't get published in American Archivist?"

Well, once we had that, the ideas started flying (mainly from me) and getting vetoed (mainly by Danna, who is frequently the good angel sitting on my shoulder telling me to shut up NOW.) I suggested archivists' shoes, Danna told me that was mean-spirited. I suggested "What's on Council's iPods?" and that didn't get a verbal response, but her expression was sufficient. A haiku contest was one of the early winners, and that stayed in. But neither of us wanted to do that, so we decided Frank could take that one on. Kathy would once again be our Vanna White of the session: doing whatever pointing needed to be done. Danna was pondering something musical or blog-oriented, and that left me with the one piece I'd never written, never thought I could or should write, and that was the one topic I'd left out, deliberately, of my thesis on archives and archivists in fiction: archivists and sex.

Note that we hadn't yet consulted either Kathy or Frank. There's actually an explanation for that. I was considering this a giant practical joke. It would become the session proposal that would never die. We'd propose, the PC would turn us down, we'd re-propose the following year to be turned down by that PC, and so on and so forth. No Program Committee would ever seriously consider something like this.

The second Kathy heard about the haiku contest concept, she immediately nixed being relegated to the Vanna White role and demanded that the haiku section be hers. Which essentially meant that Frank was our Vanna, but we decided to be a little more respectful of him--he was President that year, after all--and call him Chair.

You see where this is going, don't you?  Yes, I'll admit my logic had been faulty to this point. There's a good role for the "lighter side of archives" fare at SAA. I'd even argue that it's essential. But I honestly thought that this was so far beyond that, that we were in the clear. Well, we weren't. The Program Committee bought it. Asked for 2 changes: the first of which was the session title (which okay, was really boring before, so boring I can't even recall what it was) and the second of which was that Frank be removed from the proposal. Apparently there's some sort of rule about SAA Presidents not participating in sessions in the year of their presidency. Well, that kind of wrecked my whole reunion concept but nobody said Frank couldn't attend and if we dragooned him to hand out the haiku prizes at the event itself, that might be good enough.

But back to the a-step-too-far part. The truth is, aside from my contribution, we really hadn't gone a step too far. Danna's proposal & resulting paper about archivists who blog outside of their professional responsibilities, was a fascinating look at the creative worlds so many of our co-professionals inhabit. She even managed to provide some practical advice for attendees on how to track blogs. And the response we received to the haiku contest calls was another amazing display of the creativity of so many archivists.  The winning entries as well as many of the other entries are now posted on the SAA site. Go and take a look. The finalized session title Archives After Hours, actually suggested by a Silicon Valley-type friend of mine with no connection whatsoever to the archival profession (hey Jen!), was not only incredibly accurate, but somewhat lyrical as well. We did good, as it turned out. And even some of the naysayers who attended walked away, if not overly impressed, willing to admit it wasn't the total waste of time they'd anticipated.

Okay, so maybe that wasn't such a strong piece of evidence. But I haven't arrived at the most telling part of the evidence. You see, the December email from the co-chairs of the PC approving the proposal was a huge shock to me. I honestly had never figured that the PC was going to go for it, or if they did, that they weren't just going to cut my piece right out.

Evidentiary piece #2b: Here's the thing: in another (dumb) moment of titling whimsy, I thought it would be funny to call my proposed putative academic paper on archivists in sexual fiction: Archives Uncut. Now, okay, I probably should have grabbed a clue that people weren't getting the joke when neither Danna nor Kathy said anything about it. But I know it's not that obscure of a gutter reference because when I handed the draft paper over to a younger librarian for proofreading and response, her first response was indeed "please, please, please tell me that's the actual paper title and not a placeholder!" So not only did the PC not ask us to dump my paper, they missed the double entendre, too.

And the worst part isn't that I now have this paper title associated with my name out on the net. If you go websearching my name (well, at least before I published this), you'd have to dig pretty far before finding this reference. So it's not a big deal for me to keep it off my CV if I want. I paid for conference attendance myself, did all of my research and writing on my own time and own computer, and so I can reasonably claim that this wasn't a product of my professional life. (Though come to think of it, claiming it's a product of my non-professional life probably isn't any better.)

The worst part? The worst part was that I'd forced myself into the situation where I actually had to do research on the topic. I had to go find appropriate fictional sources on the topic. And since some of these were not available, really, really not available through ILL, I had to buy them. You know how Amazon uses previous purchases to make recommendations? You should see my recommendations list these days. (Karmic revenge 1.) And not only did I have to purchase, I had to READ them. (Karmic revenge 2.) Let me tell you, there's a reason libraries don't buy this stuff. Several reasons, in fact.

In self-defense, I ended up writing one of the most academically-oriented lit-crit papers it's ever been my displeasure to write. The process of which was no pile of cuddly puppies, either.

So, in conclusion, this is why you should never, ever play practical jokes when proposing professional activities. I refuse to believe I am, I desperately need to believe that I am not, the only person on earth to whom this could happen. So consider me your cautionary tale. And let's hope I've finally learned the lesson too.


  1. The session title is on page 6 or 7 of the academic CV and prefaced with "Chair", if anyone was actually still reading rather than counting by that point they deserved the little chuckle--if they got it, I'm not sure glaciologists and chemical engineers are any less nerdy than archivists, and the theatre and anthro profs who are probably thought it was too subtle!

  2. Thanks Anne! I've been worried about this--okay, on a fairly minor level--for years. Glad to know it hasn't affected you.