Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Religion, culture and the politics of academia, or why I'm not going to Flow

Sorry to break my blogging silence with the screed I'm about to write, but something is bugging me and I want to have my say.

An exciting development in the world of TV and media scholarship in recent years has been the advent of Flow, an online forum for somewhat informal, timely writing by media scholars. Published by graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, the journal also spawned a conference two years ago, which I attended and enjoyed. The second Flow conference is being held this week in Austin, and I'm not going. Why? Because the first day of the conference overlaps with the Jewish high holiday, Yom Kippur, often regarded as the holiest of holidays in the Jewish religion.

I'm Jewish, but am not religious. For my immediate family, Jewish holidays are occasions for family togetherness, but not especially for religious observance. I don't go to synagogue services or participate in other religious rituals. In this respect, I might have attended Flow without it impeding on any particular religious conviction. But attending the conference would most definitely have been problematic for my cultural identity--and for the practical realities of my life as a Jewish parent, daughter, and daughter-in-law.

As a Jew, even a non-religious one, I find offensive a culture that takes Jewish observance for granted and sees it as insignificant. The Flow organizers have been apologetic about the conference scheduling but I still find the choice to schedule it on this day to be insensitive and culturally myopic. I do not believe that an academic conference would be scheduled over Christmas or Easter, even if many of the academics in the field had little or no religious investment in the holiday. And the organizers' offer to schedule Jewish participants' panels on days other than the holiday and to direct those interested to the campus Hillel services fundamentally misunderstands the community- and family-based nature of Jewish culture.

While I chose not to attend in part in protest of this kind of cultural prejudice, I also felt that my participation was impossible for practical reasons, even though those reasons are also culturally contingent. I am married to another Jewish media scholar, and so any time we both want to attend a conference we must make arrangements for the care of our 4 year old son. We typically manage this about once a school year with the generous assistance of our extended families, who travel to our home or take our son into theirs when we both attend the same conference. (Sure, we could bring him with us, but his presence requires that one of us NOT be involved in the conference at any given time--not a very acceptable situation to either of us.) Each of our extended families are more religiously observant than are we, so it would be impossible for us to ask them to care for our son on this holiday. And I, for one, would be ashamed to ask, knowing full well the significance of this particular holiday and the general disregard for Jewish culture in American society more generally. Asking my family to babysit on this day would reproduce the insensitivity that the Flow organizers have perpetuated, albeit unintentionally.

That's why I'm not going to Flow.

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