Discourse and discourtesy

Conferences should be occasions for sharing and engagement, but Charles Husband too often sees only selfish and impolite behaviour

July 12, 2012

Participating in conferences, symposia and other scholarly forums is a recognised element in the job description of any academic. In the era of regular and intrusive research evaluation exercises, being the recipient of an invitation to give a keynote address is a valuable addition to the curriculum vitae as an indication of esteem; there is also a chance that it could be leveraged into an aspirational form of "impact". In the absence of the ego massage of such an invitation, an academic may nonetheless feel the heavy hand of research management pointing to the professional networking potential of conference participation and the banal necessity of professional visibility. Personal commitment to their subject, and their career, will also impel most academics to seek the opportunity to present a paper to an appropriate scholarly audience. It is therefore readily apparent that there are significant pressures that lead academics to commit to presenting an academic paper.

Intellectually, such opportunities hold out the possibility of testing one's data and analysis before a critical audience of peers. Through such dialogues, academics may belatedly and serendipitously discover what they are really trying to say. Or, they may find themselves crushed as long hours of preparatory work result in the revelation of a foundational flaw in their method or argument. More typically, however, they are likely to feel that they have extended the visibility of their work, and themselves, and gleaned valuable insights into their paper's strengths, weaknesses and potential for elaboration.

Of course, each intellectual engagement at such an event is also performative in that the individual's style, eloquence, éclat, brio - or monotone recitation delivered from a defensive hunch behind the rostrum - are evaluated as least as fiercely as the substance of their argument. For while returns to the research excellence framework may be based on scholarship narrowly defined, reputations are noticeably also built on performative skills. The fusion of academic competence and performative elan can powerfully raise an individual's visibility within their academic community. Keynote speakers in particular can hardly be expected to require their audiences to make generous allowances for a lamentable absence of communicative skills.

There is then a supply-side abundance of academics who must, perforce, strut their stuff on the academic stage. And, there is a demand for "quality speakers" who can service the intellectual engine of seminars, symposia and conferences. In sum, the theatre of academic production is not short of producers and is positively teeming with would-be performers.

Given that, it is surprising that there appear to be no clearly stated and widely accepted norms for participation in this vibrant and vital milieu. Or, if such norms exist in a vestigial professional penumbra of optimism over experience, it could reasonably be argued that it is time that their existence and enforcement were actively reconsidered.

All events set each speaker a specific limited time for their presentation, and the viability of a seminar or conference is highly dependent on this contractual obligation being fulfilled. Why then are so many academics constitutionally incapable of keeping to their allotted time? Why do they feel it is acceptable to so egregiously encroach on other speakers' declamatory turf? The last speaker in a session is too often required to edit on the hoof in order to compensate for the loquacious excesses of earlier speakers. What does it tell us of those who would rather hear their own familiar arguments than allow time for their audience to respond? Nervousness or an inspired engagement with the audience may on occasion be reasonable excuses for excess; and I can recall two occasions in the past decade when I myself have overreached. But routine lack of discipline seems a better explanation for a good deal of the more excessive transgression. Too often speakers look to their session's chair with astonished alarm as the "five minutes to go" signal is given; and too often this look of alarm is transferred to the chair as the speaker's peroration takes on the dynamics of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in full spate.

Chairing a session with a recalcitrant speaker is one of the most distressing of academic labours. Like the speaker, you have a shared view of the audience, but too often not a shared perspective on their response. As the audience's eyes flick to the wall-mounted clock, and their willingness to engage with the speaker visibly wanes, you are left exposed as the authority culpable for this sorry state of affairs. Indeed the notion of authority in this context is itself deeply problematic as the speaker whips out a dismissive hand gesture and with apparent self-belief promises "a few minutes!" while simultaneously, in a perverse demonstration of communicative competence, indicating their irritation at your importunate interruption of their flow. On one deeply memorable occasion, so little regard did the speaker have for my role as chair that as they entered into the third quadrant of the next speaker's time, I was compelled to invite the audience to leave the hall as the only remaining means of bringing this Wagnerian epic to a close.

We might also ask are there no additional obligations, formal or as expressions of professional decency, that come with giving a paper? Is it reasonable to come, give your paper, adjust your CV and leave? Such behaviour hardly speaks of being a member of a community of scholars. But it is far from exceptional. With keynote speakers in particular, can it be acceptable that their prestige allows them to turn up, light the blue touchpaper and retire? I have always felt that an invitation to give a paper at a conference was equally an invitation to attend the conference. If my colleagues are willing to listen to my paper, it seems a basic statement of respect that I should listen to theirs. Just as importantly, if the organisers felt that your paper was constitutive of a meaningful intellectual exchange, then it seems professionally appropriate and personally beneficial to remain for the duration of the event in order to explore what synergies and creative flux may emerge.

Perhaps some academics, more prestigious than myself, can construe their pre-eminence as constituting such a benediction on the deliberations of others that they feel obliged to accept keynote invitations as a form of noblesse oblige. And certainly the clamour for "big names" to launch a conference and add the imprimatur of excellence to the whole proceedings will place such demands on high-value speakers that such judgement on their part may seem not only reasonable but a legitimate expression of their professional duty. Perhaps so - but in taking on such an obligation, might it not also be reasonable that the keynote speaker would craft a paper to suit the specific audience and theme of the conference they are addressing? Very recently a distinguished American colleague told me of the experience of a chair who, in thanking the keynote speaker, praised the excellence of the argument only to qualify it with the damning phrase: "Indeed, I have thought so on each occasion that I have heard it!"

What would it mean for academic life if all keynote speakers felt impelled to participate fully in the conferences they addressed? They might feel more energised to prepare a paper for an audience they would live with for two days; and the other participants might feel lifted and nourished by the gift of time and expertise from a recognised leader in their field. Indeed, what would it mean for academic life if all academics always turned up for the papers they had promised to deliver. For some academics, saying "yes" appears to be circumscribed by a personal exit clause that allows them to renege on their commitment if they have simply not got around to writing their paper or if something more attractive is on offer.

The communities of practice that frame the world of academic production seem to have slipped into accepting an instrumental vision of paper-giving that has been significantly freed from moral obligation. It has been permeated by an acceptance of bad manners, poor self-discipline and limited commitment. This should not be tolerated. Perhaps this is just yet another manifestation of the corrosive impact of an academic culture driven by performance indicators where individual scholars have come to be individually measured against a range of criteria (number and quality of publications, number of research bids submitted, amount of research income generated; amount of knowledge-transfer income brought in; number of supervised doctorates completed (on time); number of teaching hours; variety and extent of administrative functions; amount of esteem; extent of impact; student ratings; fit to the "university offer"). In pursuit of these targets, academics have become routinely instrumental in relation to their attempts to manage their time and their priorities. Academic departments as communities of scholars have become more akin to overmanaged units of production in which individual units of production (staff) seek to make sense of their own experience of the societal and institutional degradation of their worth. This strategic individualism does not provide a good foundation for the celebration of a collective ownership of knowledge and creative insight that is the raison d'être of conferences and symposia.

Of course we know of conferences where intellectual exchange is a useful forum for intensive job-seeking; but the majority of conferences and seminars are planned and administered by people who have a real commitment to advancing the knowledge base of their field. It is perhaps time for the professional bodies that often bestow on conferences legitimacy and status to stimulate a debate about the etiquette of paper-giving; or should we merely rediscover the disciplining joys of heckling?

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