Inhabiting New Territory: The Comforting Discomfort of Conference Aloneness (Shauna Pomerantz)

In this post Shauna Pomerantz explores conference aloneness as a keynote speaker in Trondheim, Norway, which was fruitfully experienced on multiple levels

Shauna in TrondheimIn Trondheim, I knew no one. A strange experience even for a three-day international event, where you are bound to know at least someone from some conference last year or the year before, someone who was published in the same anthology as you, someone who read your latest book. This aloneness was startling and exhilarating. I had forgotten – or maybe never really knew – the feeling of being alone in a foreign place. I was an outsider: to a country, to a group of academics, to a landscape, and to the experience of being a solo traveller. For months, I had looked forward to this feeling. With two kids and a heavy administrative load in a bustling department, this kind of empty space was so rare that I almost did not recognize it until it opened before me.

My relation to aloneness began to unfold on the bus trip from the tiny Trondheim airport to my four-star hotel. The hotel was replete with a breakfast buffet laden with smoked fish and nutrient-rich smoothies. It was dark in the afternoon, as is usual for Norway in November. I had spent the night on the plane from Toronto, arriving bleary-eyed from having watched three movies instead of sensibly trying to sleep. But by the time I entered my hotel, I understood that I was at the beginning of a transformative experience.

I knew I was in for something new, something jarring, something uncomfortable – I was confronted with a kind of uncertainty that was unfamiliar but not entirely unwelcome.

So many conferences are spent catching up with friends in tiny nooks hidden within massive spaces. Drinking coffee. Ditching sessions. Scrolling through the program looking for familiar names. But in Trondheim, I had come specifically to deliver a talk. I was lucky enough to be invited with all expenses paid and given a title: ‘keynote speaker’. The luxury of this opportunity was not wasted on me. I wanted to work through some new ideas and theories. I wanted the space and excuse to spend time writing about immanence and girlhood, and to practice a fresh language in my theorizing. The keynote role afforded me this amazing prospect (see also Tai Peseta’s post on the practice of keynoting).

But keynote speaker can also be an isolating position. Polemic by nature, the keynote’s job is to provoke, to ensure new ideas infiltrate the conference, and to offer something out of the ordinary. I was invited for just such a purpose.

As an outsider to the field, I was asked to speak through my own discipline to offer insights and shed light on how different ideas might reinvigorate or contest old ones. It is a challenging job to – however politely – critique a field in front of many of its prominent members. The feeling washed over me slowly. At the podium, I could feel it. At the coffee break, I could feel it. In the back of a taxi on the way to dinner, I could feel it. Sitting across from conference participants over celery soup with crème fresh, I could feel it.

The aloneness.

No longer just about geography and lack of familiar faces, this solitude had its own distinct flavour. Was it the realization that I had been controversial in my talk? Was it the fielding of confused or unreceptive questions? Was it the keynote title and the expectations that come with it? Was it Norway, a country that elevates solitude to an artform, like a bronze Vigeland sculpture? Was it the dimming November light making the days shorter and shorter? Alone in my tiny-but-perfect hotel room, I asked myself these questions.


Three days later, I experienced yet another layer of aloneness. Now a tourist in Oslo on two stolen days of vacation outside of regulation academic activity, I became – however briefly – part of a dynamic city filled with brisk nods, winding alleyways, ancient artifacts, stalwart castles, Viking lore, open-faced shrimp sandwiches, thumping electronica, merino underlayers, and reindeer appetizers. I ambled over cobblestone streets lined with tourist shops, climbed the iconic Opera house roof, wandered the cavernous Akershus fortress, took open-mouthed selfies in front of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (which came out more “Home Alone” than existential angst), and was levelled at the Nobel Peace Centre – a museum filled ironically, not with anything peaceful, but with images of war and torture. It was here, in a teeming metropolis, that I worked to untangle the keynote experience. Ensconced in a different kind of solitude, I no longer had to smile or listen, no longer had to hold up my end of a conversation, no longer had a title to live up to. I talked only to servers in restaurants and the young people behind the counter at my hipster three-star hotel, also boasting a breakfast buffet but with more oatmeal than smoked fish and no smoothies in sight. I was not just alone, but anonymous. I moved through the damp, grey city like a backpacker-ghost.

Many months after I returned to Canada I found myself thinking about what it means to be alone: in a landscape, in cities, at a podium, with ideas, surrounded by people. My experience of conference aloneness on these many fronts became a retrospectively meaningful site of transformation – to become comfortable in this discomfort, to recognize its ordinariness, to use it as a productive space for reflection. As a result, I knew that I was not the same after Trondheim. I had been pushed into new geographical, theoretical, and emotional territory. A comforting discomfort. And that, alone, is worth all the existential angst – and smoked fish – in Norway.

About Shauna Pomerantz

Shauna Pomerantz is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in the department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University, Canada. She researches girlhood studies, youth culture, and the social contexts of young people’s lives through the lenses of post-humanism and post-structuralism. Her latest book, with Rebecca Raby, is Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism (University of California Press). When not teaching the sociology of childhood, popular culture, and research methods, Shauna can often be found talking to teenagers, asking them what kind of music they like and what shows they are currently watching on Netflix.

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