Conference time?

In my early years as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, early July meant one thing: examiners’ meetings were over, and it was time to go to a conference. Any conference, actually. That was what you did if you had any academic intellectual pretensions whatsoever. So I became an attender of the annual conferences of the British Universities Industrial Relations Association (BUIRA, pronounced Bweerah); it’s still alive and kicking, and what do you know, its conference is kicking off tomorrow. Just occasionally I swapped the slightly heavier sociological analysis of trade union shop stewards at BUIRA for the more policy-oriented annual shindig of the Industrial Law Society, whose conference is now in September. God be with the days.

So what did we do at these events? I can’t remember every detail. No, to be honest I remember nothing at all. It’s like Woodstock: if you remember it, you weren’t there. Yes, BUIRA had earnest papers about trade union density, ‘stewards’ (never ‘shop stewards’) and the like, but they were delivered in the mornings to delegates who were having serious problems with hangovers, and in the afternoons to people who were trying, quietly, to catch up on the sleep they missed the night before. I do remember vividly a conference organised by Oxford labour lawyers in 1981, and in fact it changed my academic outlook, but I always wondered whether that was somehow cheating.

Shortly after that the novelist David Lodge published his novel Small World, a brilliant comedy about English literature conferences that became a bestseller. After that no self-respecting academic could avoid the conference circuit, but it was definitely naff to take them seriously.

It’s a while since I’ve been at an academic conference (and I don’t count conferences that cater largely for university presidents and senior managers). But they are still there, and have become more important as they often provide (in the form of conference papers or presentations) the raw material for a curriculum vitae likely to attract the attentions of the academic promotions committee. But not everyone is impressed. Social historian Rob Weir, writing for the website Inside Higher Education, has recently argued that the large conference format now serves no purpose – with outmoded presentation methods, ruinous costs and so forth.

Is he right? Maybe. But even in the new world of online interaction, there should probably still be an occasion for academics to meet and engage in exploration that can influence schools of thought. Not the ‘explorations’ of  Lodge’s Small World, often performed in bed. But the genuine opening of minds, where that is permitted to flourish beyond the social drinking. That’s still worth pursuing.

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6 Comments on “Conference time?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    The ‘ explorations’ describrd by Lodge in some way involve the mind as well As an aside, this exposes how thr dichotomy body/mind is one at the core of Western thought and need to be overcome since explorations worth undertaking cannot do without one or the other. As it happens Lodge’s ‘academic novel’ genre was the topic I first considered for my PhD before switching to Angela Carter whose explorations of the body and the mind were more intriguing.


  2. Flying round the world to read aloud to a yawning audience of eleven at 8am in a hotel conference room for 20 minutes, after which you take your place in the next batch of eleven searching for the panel on [insert absurdly precise panel theme here] which is in Room C behind the Grand Ballroom starting in five minutes so you don’t have time to retrace your steps and find the hotel Starbucks, but you’re hoping to meet up with a colleague there so that you can finally get together for a drink later so you can’t miss it, even though having flown in the night before and been up since 3am watching hotel TV by now you’re ready to lie down on the carpet and weep with jetlag — it would all be ripe for the college novel and we could leave it at that, but the plain fact is that this is also environmentally nuts.

    The problem here is that most institutions won’t provide even a minimal contribution (including in release from teaching) unless the attendee is presenting a paper. This is what leads to the hilarious inflation of the schedule. So it would be a step in the right direction if we could find ways of valuing the inbetween practices of meeting, talking, and sharing ideas. But even then I’m not sure we can go on flying quite so indiscriminately, so maybe we do need to get smarter about doing this online.

  3. Roger Mullin Says:

    One great benefit of conferences was the realisation in the late 1980s by Harrison Owen, that in fact the only purposeful bits were coffee breaks, lunch etc where individuals got together to talk with whomever they wanted about whatever they wanted. He refined this into Open Space Conferencing which can be a useful tool for large scale discussion and consultation.

  4. cormac Says:

    ? I wonder if this is a difference between the two cultures. I find conferences a vital way to keep in touch with other academics interested in similar fields.For example, this year I was really disappointed to miss a conference at Cambridge University on the science and religion of Georges Lemaitre (one of the fathers of the big bang theory). In retrospect, I should not have missed it – at no other time would you get all the experts on this subject gathered in one time and place. It would have been hugely beneficial to my research, and in establishing contact with other scholars in the history of cosmology.
    So for me, attendence at such conferences has nothing to do with my CV, and everything to do with keeping motivated and informed, and establishing new contacts and research directions!
    I’ve just finished attending a conference here at Harvard, and it has changed my mind on quite a lot of issues concerning the interface between science and society – sometimes, it takes more than just reading papers to change one’s worldview

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    The first step to improving conferences is to disallow the reading of papers. It is very difficult to follow an argument that someone is reading aloud. Why not just distribute the paper in advance and then talk about the implications, etc.? Many philosophy conferences do this.

  6. Wendymr Says:

    Bweerah Since when? Try Bur (as in the first syllable of bureau)-ah. And it wasn’t just the audience at morning sessions who were nursing hangovers. Though for me the highlight of Buira was the time Richard Hyman presented his latest thesis barefoot, munching his way through an apple – and not a PowerPoint presentation in sight.


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