Boozing or snoozing?

March 19, 2004

Are conferences hotbeds of steamy sexual liaisons and long drink-fuelled sessions at the bar, or just tedious gatherings of old codgers boring each other to death? Sean Coughlan investigates.

What goes on when academics go to conferences? Do people really travel halfway round the world to listen to someone else's obscure ramblings?

Of course not - because conferences are not necessarily the best way to disseminate information, says Cary Cooper, professor of occupational psychology and health at Lancaster University. Instead, delegates arrive laden with their own personal agendas.

"People are there to network, look for jobs, to socialise and to schmooze, maybe cosy up to a five-star speaker. If it's abroad, perhaps they want to use it as a way of going on holiday with their family. Or perhaps they want to get away from their family," Cooper says.

It's a process he calls "social oiling", and it is this that has given Lancaster a reputation for encouraging delegates to both get on and off with each other.

But is the conference hotel really a fiesta of hidden wedding rings? Cooper concedes that "relationships do happen, but not as much as people think". People are away from home meeting other people, so the opportunity is there, but academic conferences are probably less about bed-hopping than their business equivalents, he says.

If sexual relations are overplayed, cultural ones are on the rise. As conferences become more globalised, comparisons can increasingly be made between international conference cultures. Cooper says, for example, that when it comes to self-promotion, US academics are much more adept than their self-deprecating British counterparts at using conferences to burnish their CVs or to raise the profile of their research.

But it's not all bad news because, when it comes to the post-conference events, he says it is the British who are more likely to be drinking in the hotel bar than their more sober US counterparts.

These get-togethers may sound like entertaining bashes, but an academic who works in an education department at a London university, and prefers to remain nameless to avoid embarrassment at the next conference, says that many of these events are a tape-loop of tedium.

"They are very, very dull. You hear about people letting their hair down at academic conferences but, in my experience, they're more likely to go to the gym to talk to each other in hushed voices. It is so boring that I usually bunk off and explore the city.

"There isn't really any bad behaviour either - we're too old and decrepit and badly paid for anything like that. And even for the conference jet-setters, they're always stuck in what feels like an identical hotel that could be anywhere."

There's no denying the importance of location for a conference - it is often the first thing potential delegates check. But although everyone would like to go somewhere sunny, interesting and far away, this has to be balanced against the likely cost and the plausibility of a conference's academic worth.

Overseas destinations are always the most sought after. US conferences get the thumbs-up for being well organised - but they also sometimes get the thumbs down for being too well organised. There are stories of reluctant guests being minibussed straight from the conference hall to some compulsory trip or to buffets where conversations are more research-focused than the conference itself.

European conferences, often held in beautiful medieval university cities, have the advantage of culture and history. But there are mutterings that these can fracture into multilingual mayhem, with the original purpose of the conference becoming more and more obscure. And in the summer months, it's not going to help if the beautiful medieval air-conditioning isn't working that well.

But it's not about having a good time, says a historian, author and veteran of the conference halls who doesn't want to be named. "In all honesty, people don't act as if they're on holiday - the opposite, if anything. It's just that they let their hair down in the bar, possibly because they've been so serious during the day."

He remembers the time when a prominent guest speaker realised that his entire audience of respectable historians was too hungover to listen to him.

This historian also remembers a great example of how embarrassing conferences can be - and how that mix of pretension, ambition and intellectual endeavour can go horribly wrong.

"There was a conference about Oliver Cromwell, and during a question-and-answer session with a panel of distinguished academics, the conference organiser popped backstage to go to the loo.

"Unfortunately, he had forgotten to take off, or at least switch off, his mike. Even more unfortunately, he hadn't just gone for a quick leak. It was much more prolonged and painful than that. So during the earnest discussion, the most extraordinary sounds started filtering through the loudspeakers in the hall, just noticeable at first, but increasingly louder as the effort got ever greater.

"Then, best of all, he reappeared completely unaware of the impact he had made, and - as it were - resumed his seat."

You can really make a name for yourself at a conference.

In my own words
Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics, University of Warwick
I was giving a talk in Warsaw last year. I had my slides and I was going to spend the half hour before the lecture setting up the projector. The organiser said I didn't need to: he'd done it many times and it would all be fine, so I wandered off and somebody got me a drink. With 30 seconds to go, I entered with my tray of slides. Seconds later, they were all over the floor. My lecture began with five minutes of cleaning up and 300 people sitting patiently. Never underestimate a slide. Conferences, Issue No.1
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