Notes From a Conference Part 2: What are They For?

It’s probably not a good idea to reflect on a conference too close to its end, when you are tired and homesick, but I’m going to do it anyway. As with many large international conferences I’ve been to, my usual response is to wonder if it was worth the bother of being away from home, away from my family, (*middle class problems alert*) in a crap hotel room and faced with the need to sit, stand, listen and talk politely for such a long time – when the time could be put to better use at home (doing or writing research and/ or watching the tennis/ football). So, what are the most important benefits?

  1. Meeting people, new and old. Many of us will tend to have most contact with people by email, so it is good to get the time to have an actual conversation with people (often from different countries). In my case, I had a decent mix: meeting a longstanding co-author to discuss more projects; meeting a new co-author to discuss our chapter; meeting a handful of new people that I’d like to keep in touch, and do research, with; and having a few quick discussions with one of my PhD students off campus and in a new atmosphere (and immediately before and after her paper).
  2. Having your ego stroked a little bit and getting yourself known a bit better (see previous blog).
  3. Giving you a deadline to complete a piece of work in a way that other deadlines can’t do (for many, if not most, people the thought of talking mince for 15 minutes in front of your peers is not an enjoyable prospect).
I think these are the least important benefits:
  1. Getting new information from presentations and/ or papers. The quality of conference papers and presentations is so mixed that it’s difficult to justify the time spent reading and listening. In fact, my increasing impression is that many, if not most, people are *not* reading papers and listening (indeed, you can tell that many people are not listening because they have their laptops out and are replying to emails or having a sly look at the news and sport). This problem can be compounded by inadequate rooms (I had one seminar for 20 people in a 900 seat lecture hall; I had another in a room where you could only *just* hear the speaker if no-one moved).
  2. Getting feedback on papers. Sometimes this works. In fact, for one of my papers the audience was 7 people (it was at 8.30am, the day after the conference dinner, which ended after midnight), allowing us to engage in an *actual conversation* (the other was about 30 people, which was quite good too, but in a different way – it allows you to see if you can give convincing replies). Sometimes, it doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes (for example if you are on a panel of 4) no-one will ask you a question and you will wonder why you bothered.
  3. Finding that all the interesting papers are all being given at the same time (and. If you are very unlucky, at the same time as your presentation).

In other words, the benefit of a conference may not relate to the thing that seems to drive it and take up most of its time. Maybe the notional equivalent in politics is either the international summit (a set-piece event where most of the work is done in advance and the most productive discussions are ‘away from the table’) or the well-attended state funeral (which may involve fewer speeches and gives people the chance to talk without any weight of expectation).

See also part 1
See also part 3

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Uncategorized

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