The rites of spring

February 19, 2009

Inspired sects on the Cretan beach or dispiriting meat markets in Leeds: Simon Goldhill on the ups and downs of the academic conference season

When April comes around, and students start to focus on the impending cruelty of examinations, academics turn their minds to the conference circuit. Will the budget stretch to Crete or Washington or Leeds this summer? The workshop for consenting adults, or the huge professional gathering of the discipline?

Across the world, the small black suitcase on wheels is packed, the laptop attached, and the pilgrims are off for those hours in shiny hotel lobbies, conversations with someone looking over your shoulder, and the gentle snooze through the fourth graduate-student presentation.

It is hard to imagine a campus novel without a good conference, and David Lodge has made the genre his own. In the campus novel, the conference plays the part of the ball in a Jane Austen story, or the carnivalesque celebration in a Verdi opera, or the dinner party for Mike Leigh.

It is a public occasion when status is both on display and at risk, when normal restraints are loosened by alcohol, dance or uncontrolled conversation. It provides the necessary moment in the plot when transgression is the name of the game. If not sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, it offers, at the very least, a drama of public humiliation, or a triumph of wit or, worst of all, the proclamation of a previously concealed truth. At conferences, Things Happen.

At least in novels. A chemical engineer told me sadly that his conferences, far from offering the thrills of Lodge's fictional world, were an opportunity for industry to display its really rather unsexy public-relations machine for the academics, and "anyway there are no women at chemical engineering conferences" - which would stymie most campus novel climaxes. Sexual chemistry is apparently as much of an oxymoron as good conference wine.

Most academics say they hate conferences but most go anyway. Most spouses don't believe that their partners hate conferences because they go anyway, and come home bleary eyed, hungover and overemphatically declaring what a waste of time it was, again, in Bermuda.

But it just might be worth asking what on earth conferences are for, and why we brave Heathrow every year, improving book in hand, in order to end up in a hotel room checking whether CNN has improved (it hasn't) and whether the minibar is worth raiding (it isn't).

The full-scale professional conference is a very strange beast indeed. In arts and humanities, the grandaddy is the annual conference of the MLA, the Modern Language Association, where literary scholars, largely working in English departments, gather in several huge international-style hotels Somewhere in America. Most humanities fields have similar, if smaller, occasions. There is always a book display, where people drift around with that slow museum or supermarket pace, half-glancing at books, or at least at the indexes and acknowledgements pages to check out the personal politics, and half-glancing at who is looking at books at the other stalls. Publishers, caught between trying to hook the next big thing and avoiding the pushy graduate or obsessive loon, flick their enthusiasm on and off.

The superstar professor enters strutting, with a train of sellable graduate students, like a Roman patron with his clients or a mother duck with her recently imprinted offspring. "Have you seen ...?", "I know ...", "How could she ...?" Just as at the Jane Austen ball, gossip is the mainspring of the conference passegiatta.

But the main purpose of these events is the meat market: the getting of jobs. So you have nervous young men and women in their suits, obviously very carefully and anxiously chosen in order to look professional but not too sharp, too pushy, too cheap or too unemployable, hovering around noticeboards, offering each other brittle encouragement, and listening too attentively to advice and trying desperately to interpret the tone of every remark from any potential employer.

Committees in cabal in brashly lit rooms ask again and again, "And what are you working on now?", and prepare to fight for their candidate. The question "And what are you working on now?" is so deeply ritualised in academic circles that when my seven-year-old daughter, a good mimic, politely asked it of a professor of philosophy, the professor automatically started to answer, and then caught herself trying to explain a new line on Kant to a little girl. Between the book display and the meat market, life feels all too much with us, a matter of getting and spending.

You will notice that no one really talks about intellectual exchange when it comes to the big professional conference - except to lament how little there is. The format is the 15-minute paper in a set of parallel sessions. At the MLA, they say, there are always two microphones and two platforms in each room. Microphone A is turned on, and exactly 15 minutes later cut off, and microphone B starts. Keep to time, no discussion, battle on ... A 15-minute paper is rarely a rip-roaring success. Some try to gabble through an hour's material; some don't bother at all, and give a paper only to get funded for their travel.

So most people go to hear their friends, students or patrons, and only occasionally drop in disconsolately, in hope rather than expectation, to a paper whose title or abstract "looked promising". The success of a paper is measured by how many in the audience stop reading the programme to see what to miss next. The academy always makes a big deal about democracy and openness. The big conference with its dozens of papers always looks like a very democratic space, but paradoxically it is the epicentre of patronage and small-room politics.

How different it is when big business sidles up! At a heart surgeons' shindig in Boston, everything was sponsored by drug companies trying to sell their products. The discos and open bars came with goodie bags, like at the Oscars ceremony. Dinner invitations at expensive and very male restaurants - large cigars and chill cabinets of raw beef - flowed freely to everyone titled doctor, even a gatecrashing classicist. Flashing lights, flashy displays, well-dressed sales staff with gleaming teeth and jewellery. Exchange of new technical information was brief and swift, and the dancing went on late into the night. The glitz almost made me long for the shabby-genteel atmosphere of an ancient novel conference in Swansea.

Democracy is not necessarily a good thing in conferences. Even a great project can be undone by its own popular success. When an audience starts to grow into the hundreds, when the time for discussion shrinks, when parallel sessions encourage you to go into town, my eyes begin to glaze over.

Organisers feel proud that so many people were attracted by their brilliant topic and roster of speakers. Speakers, egoists all, love the opportunity to orate in front of a large crowd. Graduates learning the trade come to put faces to the authors they have read, and to see their heroes and villains perform their party pieces. But less and less is created by the more and more. We can only whisper it, but the best conferences are rather elitist affairs.

Imagine this. "Come on Sunday night, as we start on Monday." So we turn up in Crete on Sunday night for a slow dinner by the harbour, to discover that the first paper would be at 6pm on Monday. So that left a whole day for the 15 invited speakers to swim at the beach, eat fish soup on the mulberry-canopied terrace and schmooze together. The next day had papers only from 9am to 1pm and 6pm to 9pm, leaving a nice long siesta time properly free.

A closely defined topic, a hand-picked group, and plenty of time for discussion in the conference hall and in the waves, between adults for whom the ice was well and truly broken. It is not hard to see that with conditions like that, you meet people properly, you debate issues in depth - and have a great time. You confer.

And with any luck, a real intellectual benefit accrues all round. Everyone brings to the table and takes away. The sum is greater than its parts. There is also a certain not wholly generous pleasure in standing in the sea in the afternoon sun in Crete, and phoning one's spouse in her office in grey rainy England and letting her hear the sound of the waves, and explaining that going to conferences is actually hard work, really.

I don't think anyone should be ashamed or embarrassed about attending a conference like that (except the phone call). Elitist, yes; democratic and open, no. But intellectually rigorous, exciting and pleasurable - and the final publication will be hugely better for the criticism, stimulation and exchanges involved.

It's strange how much academics seem to have internalised nasty, snide criticism from puritans, bureaucrats and the anti-intellectual world out there.

We are awkward and crestfallen to admit that enjoying our work and creating enjoyable conditions is OK - and we treat such enjoyment as a dirty pleasure. If we believe the puritans, we are meant to sit with our feet in a bucket of cold water, one eye bound up, to force ourselves to stay awake in order to study all night - or risk being thought a lightweight by the severe old men. We shouldn't sit in the sun and discuss; it's immoral ... Well, it worked just fine for Socrates.

The bureaucrats, for their part, always want to play the numbers game: more people equals more articles equals more countable brownie points. Measure the output.

But some of the best conferences are successful because they stop publication. They make you think again - which is a real output. Of course, there will always be those who deride the ivory tower as a "talking shop". But that is exactly the point of a conference: to talk shop, because that is what we do as academics, and we should be proud of it.

As Erasmus and Thomas More, Plato and Socrates, Wagner and Nietzsche knew, sitting around a table with friends, a glass of wine and a good deal of laughter, as well as a good deal of serious discussion, is one of the essences as well as one of the joys of an intellectual life. We shouldn't allow the scoffers to make us forget it.

So why don't we treat ourselves properly? We should have plenty of small, beautifully organised meetings where intellectual rigour and pleasure are intertwined (sun, sea and fish soup help).

And since we do need to have those big professional meetings, we should drastically restrict the number of presenters speaking there, and explain firmly to administrators that attending these meetings is a professional requirement - just like those horrid career development courses - and consequently funding to attend has nothing to do with giving or not giving a paper. And then we might start to look forward to April coming around when we do a-conferencing go.

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