As I mentioned at the conference, this year's participation was somewhat lower than past years. Although I'm sure it's mostly the ebb and flow of conference numbers, this highlights our need to expand the conference. The more presenters and attendees we have, the more resources we can direct toward improving the overall conference program. But as we reach out, we must also be aware of issues that may lead some audiences to dismiss our academic and artistic work.

Primary Goal: Foster More Conversations

I want a place where we can discuss
every aspect of Wallace's work, and
then share our conversations with the
broader public.
Part of why I love the conference is that it forces me to read more Wallace - and, by extension, the other "hard" authors of today's best literature. Wallace's works have drawn a solid community of scholars and fans, but there is room for more conversation. His works still have a great deal to teach us - not just as scholars or as writers, but as people. In just one example, he observed and anticipated much of the interpersonal disconnection arising from our contemporary "plugged-in" society of digital media.

The primary goal for expansion is to further encourage conversations about Wallace and about writing that span across multiple disciplines. With the digital media example above, Wallace easily relates to Literature, Digital Humanities, Psychology, Philosophy - even Neuroscience.  Expanding our outreach will help us invite more viewpoints to the conversation, deepening our already multifaceted views of Wallace.

Further, increasing our numbers will provide more resources to enhance the conference. Greater public visibility would allow us to invite scholars and writers of greater renown. Already, we've attracted interest from playwrights, documentary filmmakers, an audiobook narrator.  Yet I've already been in the awkward position of having to turn some individuals away because we simply haven't had the funding to support their proposed programs. By increasing our contributions to academic and artistic communities, we can raise more funding to do a better job - we'll be able to invite more speakers, reserve larger rooms for more public programs, and cover some expenses for students and underemployed artists who might not otherwise have an opportunity to take part.

Now, the conference will never be "wealthy" or "profitable" (Wallace would spin in his grave if we ever went that route), but we can do more than simply keep the lights on. The goal is to build momentum to do everything we've been doing, only better.  And to do it bigger - big enough that it becomes self-sustaining.  This year, it was nice being able to actually pay the students who took care of our logistics.  They ran registration, set up our meals, and provided support for anyone who needed assistance - and each one gave up days that could have been spent earning income from a summer job.  Technically, we paid them $10 an hour - realistically, they put in far more hours than we paid them for.  And if we're really successful, publications related to the conference might raise enough money to help me work on the conference as a "real" job rather than a supposedly fun thing that goes at the bottom of my resume. (I really enjoy running the conference - it's frustrating that I spend most of the year putting work first, life second, and the conference third.)

Cautionary Notes: Wallace's Reputation and #MeToo

Clearly, we have something of value to offer readers and writers of all walks of life, and we can expand this enough to earn the funding that will make it better. But let me warn you - publicizing the DFW Conference is not without complication. Yes, Wallace's writing is key to the understanding postmodernism and contemporary literature, and his reflections on today's culture make his work crucially important for scholarship. But his treatment of women has led many to view Wallace's fame as simply another sign of the toxic masculinity infecting our culture. Although Wallace was clearly aware of the negative effects of men placing women in secondary social status (such as he addressed in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), he also took part in those behaviors. As Clare Hayes-Brady put it, Wallace can be considered a "woke misogynist" - he critiqued the patriarchal nature of our society through his writing, but then also engaged in unacceptable behaviors in his personal life.

We can't ignore his brilliance, but we also can't condone these behaviors. So as we reach out to the public at large to promote our academic conference, we will need to directly address the sharp social critiques that arise in response to Wallace's personal life. It isn't enough to simply "justify" the study of Wallace's writing despite his behaviors - we must also be forthright in our efforts to prevent similar abuses from occurring within our own community. Yes, DFW scholars have long been critical of Wallace's behavior - we now must show people outside DFW Studies that we've been having these conversations, and that we are applying the lessons of #MeToo to protect all members of our community.

As we do so, we must ensure the sincerity of our message through genuine actions. This year, we implemented a #MeToo reporting system for our attendees, but it was simply a beginning.  All we did was adapt our existing contact form to allow anonymous reporting.  We can and will do more.  We can and must continue to listen to women and men who have experienced inappropriate harassment or worse.

What We Do: The Intellectual Work of a Conference

So bear in mind: the more we promote the conference, the more pushback we will receive. Some will assume that we are overlooking Wallace's behavior, or that we are "excusing it" in order to "idolize" him. We haven't, and we won't. Instead, we're engaging in research. We're promoting the art of writing. We're reaching out to support the goals of empathy, intellectual rigor, and artistic attention that Wallace has demanded of us throughout his work and his teaching.  We aren't here to place the man or his writing on a pedestal - we're here to understand how his writing can help us become better people, better scholars, and better writers.

Our Audiences

Given the complex social responses to Wallace, we need to tailor our conference outreach to address the unique needs of potential newcomers.  I've identified four key audiences we'll be reaching out to as we expand the conference. But please don't read this as an "order of priority" - I see all four groups as interconnected, and many of our current participants already fit within multiple groups.

DFW Scholars

Clearly, we need to reach out to individuals who are directly researching and theorizing Wallace's works, but who haven't yet had an opportunity to attend our conference.  In particular, we want to support graduate students and international scholars who may need additional assistance (such as funding or Skype) in order to take part.  Overall, we want to help all scholars produce the best research they can, to encourage them to deepen their work in preparation for publications beyond the conference, such as the forthcoming DFW Studies Journal.

Scholars of Contemporary Literature and Culture

Wallace specifically drew on influences from far beyond literature, and his works have influenced scholars and writers across a variety of disciplines.  New voices and perspectives - including from scholars who aren't directly researching Wallace - can help us better understand the literary and cultural landscape to which Wallace spoke.  Further, I believe that many scholars from outside DFW Studies may be encouraged to add considerations from Wallace's work to conversations beyond DFW Studies.

Creative writers

Wallace was a writer who taught writing.  We can and should feature authors who can share their craft and their experiences with us.  And like Wallace, we can encourage writing students to read the hard texts, to spend the long hours at the keyboard, and then share their work.  In the past, some have viewed the creative writing component as a footnote to the conference - I would like to change this.  If we want to fully understand Wallace, then we must engage active artists who can further describe the ways in which creative processes inform language and thinking.

Fans of Wallace's Writing

Wallace has many fans who may not see themselves as writers or scholars, but who still thoroughly appreciate his writing.  Many are certainly ready to become more engaged in conversations about Wallace's work.  And given the hard topics that Wallace has written about, we need to hear from folks who've been through similar experiences firsthand.  All of Wallace's fans can help us better understand what it is about his work that resonates so deeply with human experience.

Questions or Suggestions?

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