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.