March 23, 2007

Are conferences worth going to? "No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there," according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. For the most part, academics do not dispute the intellectual value of meeting with their peers. It's the manner of their meeting that causes some dispute. However pressing the topic, however grand the assembly, can academics justify the environmental damage of jetting several hundred delegates around the globe?

Mark Levene argues  that if we are serious about climate change and academics are serious about leading by example, they should forgo the foreign conference trip and learn to exchange ideas virtually. While applauding his intentions, many would agree with Ralph Adam that while e-conferencing may be cost-effective and environmentally friendly, virtual interaction - though viable for short sessions - is no substitute for the real thing. It is while networking or arguing for the supremacy of Western liberal values, modified Darwinism, or the last salmon sandwich that academics can find themselves on that serendipitous path that leads to the next idea, research grant or job. And if the reigning experts in your field just happen to be on America's Pacific coast, or in Australia, the environmentally conscious can assuage their guilt with the thought that it would be downright rude to expect the mountain to come to Mohammad.

Putting on conferences is another matter but, albeit with some caveats, equally rewarding. The diligent conference organiser may be forgiven if after navigating their way through the potential food pitfalls (simple plain food, small plates to discourage gluttons, buffets to encourage networking), accommodation problems (close to transport, inexpensive but robust), parking, location of fire exits and any likely visa hurdles, they find themselves at a loss as to what to do when presented with a delegate's mistress. This social problem is not as rare in academe as one might think, according to Susan Bassnett.

If the conference organiser gets it right, the rewards can be immense, especially on the corporate level. Many universities recognise that they offer unique spaces, far superior to those of the average Holiday Inn. As Cambridge-based Tom Holbrook says, effective conferences require "a suspension of the everyday world to think about your topic". The monastic, slightly cloistered university environments of Cambridge, Oxford or York, set metaphorically if not geographically apart from their urban settings, are just what many customers want. As he puts it: "People will put up with an awful lot for the power a space will bring."

But nothing beats the satisfaction of a dedicated academic arranging a conference for his or her discipline and, despite the enormous organisational hurdles, getting it right. As James Garden of Edinburgh University explains not only does the world come to you, but it can fill the departmental coffers for years to come.

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