From where I sit - Meetings of more than minds

June 25, 2009

Academic conferences are sometimes dismissed as frivolous and self-indulgent, even - or perhaps especially - by those who take part in them.

And frankly, given that my last paper was delivered at 8 o'clock in the morning to 12 sleepy people in a ballroom that seats 200, I too have some reservations concerning the value of conference-going in these tough economic times. Sharing my moderately interesting, but hardly earth-shattering, insights into the mutual professional benefits of marriage for John and Amelia Opie, the Romantic-era couple known as the Cornish Wonder and the Belle of Norwich, might not appear to justify the exorbitant costs of air fare and hotel fees that will duly be deducted from my professional expense allowance.

On the other hand, conferences can play a useful role in advancing understanding beyond the research delivered in papers and poster sessions, or even professional networking. You see, as a Canadian academic attending US conferences, I often get to share more than disciplinary information.

To begin with, there's the matter of geography and where I work. At Canadian conferences, my name tag needs no explanation: an affiliation with Queen's University means immediate recognition as a member of a top-tier university with a long tradition of academic excellence.

South of the border, the name causes nothing but confusion. The first assumption usually involves Queens, New York, sometimes - but not inevitably - followed by Belfast. I usually get as far as saying, "It's in Kingston ..." before being interrupted by delighted exclamations concerning Jamaica.

By the time I explain that it's Kingston, Ontario, everyone has abandoned polite interest in where I come from, including me.

More fruitful, however, than this general expansion of geographical knowledge is sharing information about institutional practices.

For the most part, we find we have much in common: academic life is much the same whether one comes from Kingston or from Albuquerque, with similar complaints about students, colleagues and administration.

Sometimes, though, the differences are vast and they are usually politically based.

Left-leaning American academics tend to view Canadian universities with just a hint of envy: the maternity and child-care benefits offered at Queen's, for example, can barely be imagined by many female American academics - or male, for that matter, given that we have decent paternity benefits too. And don't get them started on universal healthcare.

On the other hand, more extreme right-leaning academics have quite a different response. I've encountered some who cannot imagine that a state-funded university could have any possible pretence to excellence.

They also pity anyone at the mercy of a national healthcare system that cannot possibly match the benefits they receive through private insurance.

And, yes, I'll admit to a little envy when I get to experience the state-of-the-art facilities offered by private gems like Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Conference-going serves more than the "dissemination of research findings" so dear to the granting agencies. In North America at least, it also offers value added in the shape of the opportunities it gives for negotiating the cultural divides among even the closest of neighbours.

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