Posted tagged ‘David Lodge’

Conference time?

July 6, 2011

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.


Watering down Limerick

March 11, 2010

The University of Limerick has, and has had, many famous academics on its staff, but surely none more so than Persse McGarrigle, a noted expert on poet T.S. Eliot. Ah wait, I might not be able to count him, as he is a fictional character – he was one of the main characters in the wonderful novel by David Lodge, Small World. If you haven’t read it, you must do so – it holds the key to understanding academic life.

Lodge published the novel in 1984, and shortly afterwards it was serialised on BBC television. At the time Limerick already had the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE – the other NIHE was in Glasnevin in Dublin and became DCU); but it was not yet the University of Limerick, and so Lodge was able to take liberties with the name. Maybe Ed Walsh’s enterprising and innovating university when it emerged was not wholly like its fictional namesake, but nevertheless the name needs to be maintained for the sake of both.

Not, however, if Clare County Council has its way. On March 8 the Council voted unanimously to press the university to re-name itself the University of Limerick and Clare, partly in recognition of the fact that a good deal of its expanding estate is across the River Shannon in the neighbouring county. This of course is none of my business, and in any case I hold Co Clare and its inhabitants in the highest respect, but I’m afraid I am not in favour of this idea. There is research, in fact, that has found that universities called after counties or geographical regions do not do as well as those named after towns and cities (and maybe villages, if you consider Keele University). Apparently a regional name conjures up images of rural tranquility, which is great for a postcard but doesn’t convey a sense of intellectual excitement.

The University of Limerick does have important ties with Co Clare – but maybe these can be reflected in some way other than the name.