Oh we do like to be beside the seaside…

March 19, 2004

A conference that combines learning and leisure draws academics, and setting it in a tourist-friendly spot offers an added inducement, writes Chris Bunting

It is sometimes easy to forget what extraordinary events academic conferences can be. Ayako Yoshino, an English literature PhD student at Cambridge University, remembers the first major conference she attended as an overwhelming experience.

"I was giving a paper at the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago, 1999, and I was only an MA student. The city seemed to have been taken over by English literature academics and I can remember thinking that if some terrible disaster happened there, the whole of English literature scholarship would be decimated.

"I looked around and nobody looked particularly extraordinary, but everybody was wearing a name tag and when I looked at the names I thought, 'I'm in a library.' All the names belonged to the spines of books I had read and now all these books were walking around and talking to each other in a disorderly fashion. You would see two names chatting. One would be from the Renaissance section of the library and the other would be from the 18th-century section and I would think: 'You shouldn't be beside each other, you should be in different sections!'"

Fraternisation between sections is part of the point of the big conferences, and it makes some conferences more of a vital fixture on the academic calendar than others. For humanities academics, the MLA is the major global conference of the year. Held just after Christmas, it is now seeking papers for its 2004 convention in Philadelphia.

One of the sessions - on the Eurovision Song Contest - shows just how much cross-fertilisation is likely to go on between the different subjects. The contest, says the blurb, is "replete with contradictions and border-crossings of all kinds". This includes the fact that "a French minister of culture called it a 'monument to drivel', while one contestant later became the Norwegian minister of culture"; the political nature of voting; and an Israeli transsexual's win in 1999. Conference organisers are therefore seeking anything from historical to sociological and theoretical approaches to the topic.

But while the big subject conferences can be great for consorting with those from different academic backgrounds and are the places to be seen if you want to make a big name for yourself, there has been a growth in recent years in the number of specialist conferences, mirroring the fracturing of subjects into different areas. Here, you can indulge in in-depth discussion about your research.

An impression of the breadth of what is on offer - and which subjects offer the best settings - can be gained from looking at a fraction of the conferences scheduled to be held on June 17 (to pick a date at random). Many are set in seaside or tourist-friendly settings, an added enticement to academics seeking refuge from the rigours of campus life.

While mineral engineers will be meeting in Cornwall, philosophers will be discussing truth and realism in St Andrews. But for those who fancy a trip abroad, medical researchers of the childhood cancer neuroblastoma are meeting in Genoa, hydrogeologists will be in the Polish spa town of Ustro to talk about groundwater vulnerability assessment and mapping, the University of Paris will be hosting a meeting on Disraeli, and the Centre for Irish Scottish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, is inviting scholars to consider Ireland's and Scotland's "conjoined histories in the long 18th century".

The idea is clearly to combine learning with pleasure. Conferences, Issue No.1
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