Awkward small talk, awkward disco dancing, and even more awkward sex: if generations of researchers are to be believed, these are key features of many academic conferences.
But a scholar has warned that the comic denigration of conferences as dull and exhausting events has become so pervasive that it is now “almost impossible” to imagine them as places of productive thinking or intellectual engagement.
Emily Henderson, assistant professor at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Education Studies, said that there was a risk of a vicious circle: that because academics have been instilled with the idea that conferences will be boring and embarrassing, this was how they actually experienced them.
In a paper – given at a conference – Dr Henderson detailed representations of what has been termed “conference fatigue”: the feeling of discontent and weariness that comes from visiting too many conferences and from attending too many presentations during the same event.
Drawing on sources such as online postings, articles in Times Higher Education and interviews, Dr Henderson said that mocking depictions of social events often came to the fore: terrible food, dodgy hotels and the inevitable disco.
But the academic side of conferences also came under fire, with presentations being described as “rather rushed…show-and-tell” affairs, tales of audio-visual equipment failing to work, and researchers signing up to events simply because they were in holiday destinations.
These depictions were combined with physical constraints such as jet lag, hunger and hangovers, and temptations such as meeting friends, all of which were portrayed as resulting in non-attendance of sessions or lack of concentration during them.
Speaking at the conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, Dr Henderson suggested that academics gained “a certain amount of social leverage or purchase” from engaging in this discourse, helping to assuage the real feelings of exhaustion and awkwardness that could occur.
But, she added, it meant that there was “a certain amount of shame that comes from having found conferences extremely inspiring and interesting”.
“All of these things make it almost impossible to imagine that a conference could be a site of productive thinking or intellectual engagement,” Dr Henderson said.
Dr Henderson asked whether academics’ representations of conferences were the result of their experience of them, or whether their experience of conferences was shaped, in part at least, by predominant representations of the events.
“Some of my participants talk about going as a peer group and being ‘too cool’ for the conference,” she said. “Where does that legacy come from? Are they picking it up from peers who say, ‘Don’t worry about attending the conference, you won’t get anything out of it anyway’?”
Dr Henderson contrasted conference fatigue with what she described as the other dominant representation of conferences: that idea that they can form a “defining moment” in the development of a discipline or the foundation of a research area.
Such representations, however, were often accompanied by a lack of any detail about the event, Dr Henderson said.
She argued that conferences were an “important site” for academic mobility, knowledge production and the development of academic practice; and that there was a need to develop new representations of these events that challenged the fatigue narrative.
Conferences were a worthwhile topic of higher education research in themselves, Dr Henderson said, something that was largely lacking at the moment.