Academic Conference-ing

I was in Chicago a few weeks ago for an academic conference. The annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. AERA for those of you hip to the groove. Or grooved to the hip. Or ground into pieces by the hip-hap-happenings of academia.

Some colleagues and friends joined me in a luxurious town house (thank you AirBnb) about a mile from the miracle mile. The miracle mile, for those of you not hip to the groove, is the beating heart of the fine city of Chicago. Think mirrored beans. Think ghastly Trump towers. Think myriads of people moving this way and that.

My former high school student and, as of late, academic collaborator Ben joined me in Chicago. My longtime collaborator and friend Erin did as well. Fine people to spend a week academic conference-ing with, to be sure.

I drove in on a Tuesday. Drove back on a Saturday. Traffic to beat the band. The trip was a whirlwind. AERA is an enormous conference. Mostly, I leave feeling overwhelmed and frustrated that I didn’t connect with everybody I’d have liked to connect with. Annoyed I didn’t do everything I hoped to too. And tired. Very tired.


The first AERA I ever attended was in the spring of 2015. It was my last year as a high school teacher. I’d be starting my job with Penn State in the fall. So a-conferencing I went.

That bygone meeting of AERA, incidentally, was also held in Chicago. I remember schlepping back and forth between hotels. I remember giving talks. I remember being wide-eyed about stepping into my career as a professor. A scholar. A humble researcher. Blinded by that miraculous mile. Unaware that the gaudy named etched onto a tower looking over the river would soon factor so heavily in the politics of the United States. Hopeful to make a good impression on whoever I was supposed to make good impressions on.

And here we were in the spring of 2023. Returning to Chicago. A much different man. A much different Sam. So much water under the bridge. So many hip-hap-happenings have hip-hap-happened.

At one point during a conversation, my friend Erin described us as mid-career scholars. That phrase has been sitting with me. The word seasoned came out of her mouth too. That word stays with me as well.

A seasoned, mid-career scholar is very different than a wide-eyed assistant professor. How so? I found myself much less concerned with seeking out validation. This was true in the sessions I led. True in the ways I talked with people. I just didn’t think as much about trying to impress anybody. I can’t say I’m rid of that nasty habit altogether, but it was less in my mind. Or my body.

The very first academic conference I attended was the annual meeting of the Curriculum and Pedagogy group. It was in New Orleans in like 2012. I found myself in a taxi after I landed in New Orleans. The driver asked me where I was going. I told him.

“What are you trying to sell?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “It’s an academic conference.”

“My man, everybody is trying to sell something. What are you trying to sell?”

I laughed. “Me, I guess.”

Over ten years later, I’m less interesting in selling myself. In selling me. I became an educator because I didn’t want to be a salesman. I wanted to be a thinker. A teacher. A writer. In relationship with others. I get to be all of that, now, when time allows. Lord knows all sorts of other work in academia gets in the way. Service. Meetings. The bureaucratic functionings of the university are always beating down the door. Beating down the email inbox.

But a scholar is a thinker and that’s what I want to do. Think. And thank God for people like Erin and Ben. Both are so smart in different ways. So good to think with them.


Erin and I gave talks in a panel that was, to my mind, the best academic panel I’ve been a part of. I’ll spare you the details, but some brilliant people I’ve come to respect a great deal sat on that panel with me and shared stories and theorizations of our work to become smarter about whiteness in this country. And the audience was sizable. And they all forgave my bad joke about my aching feet that started the session. It was a long way from the town house to the miracle mile, and my dress shoes were not the right choice. I felt the listeners to my talk out to know why I was changing shoes.

After the panel, Ben and I led an improv workshop about justice. I thought nobody would come. The room was packed. I did that thing that hippy teachers do where I took my shoes off to facilitate the session. Only to realize there were holes in my socks. I made sure everybody knew this before we started. A woman raised her hand halfway through the workshop. Ben and I were leading exercises, commenting on improv, and drawing connections between improv and justice.

“Can I have your autograph?” this woman asked me.

I laughed out loud. “I promise there are better people than me here to get an autograph from. My socks have holes in them!”

A person tweeted after the session that it was the best thing they’ve attended at AERA and they’ve been coming for over 10 years. That did feel good to read. I’m sure Ben felt the same way.

Erin and I attended a pre-conference session and got to think together. Erin is one of the smartest people I know. Ben and I went to a show at Second-City and got to laugh together. Ben is one of the funniest people I know. And I said hi to all sorts of people around the country I know well enough to say hi too.

Sure, my feet were aching. And my anxiety was ratcheted up given all the things I’ve been ruminated about in these blogs over the past month. And man my eyes were getting droopy. Conferencing is exhausting for an extreme introvert. And don’t get me started about Solomon developing a fever as soon as I left. He always seems to get sick when I have to travel, and I always seem to worry about him being sick.

Still, it was good to be with people. To think with people. To conference with people. And Chicago was just a stone’s throw away from Iowa City.

So I can add a few more sessions to my CV. Check another AERA off the list. And keep moving forward as a seasoned, mid-career scholar who often has holes in his socks.

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