Now, please give a warm welcome to...

October 5, 2007

...Fred Halliday, who presents a conference insider's list of do's and don'ts for visiting lecturers and their hosts

The world of the academic conference has long fascinated, lured and disconcerted those of whose professional life it is an almost unavoidable part. Such forays are, at best, an occasion to meet and hear interesting people in different places, away from routine. At worst, they are a chore involving awkward travel arrangements to completely unfocused jamborees in remote places in the dead of winter. Certainly, if I were paid one penny for every conference of wordy vacuity I have had to attend on "Islam and the West" or "Dialogue of Civilisations", I would be a wealthy person.

Nevertheless, it is part of any academic's job to organise meetings and invite speakers, something that always involves a bit of suspense about the reliability and quality of the speaker, and a significant and increasing input of bureaucratic preparation. Against this background, the following notes are offered.

Duties of speakers

(i) Not to cancel at the last moment, except for a very important reason;

(ii) to put on one's best performance, in formal and informal attendance - in effect to act;

(iii) not to quibble over secondary details of reorganisation, scheduling or theme;

(iv) to make it clear if you require a fee and agree it in advance, otherwise be quiet;

(v) to use visual aids only if they enhance and substantially enrich, with extra information or images, that which you are seeking to convey to the audience;

(vi) to accede to a number of reasonable, small-scale, additional requests for advice, consultation, interview;

(vii) to thank the hosts and organisers, not least those administrative support staff who normally get overlooked;

(viii) to repeat, if called for, what you have said and written many times, but to make it appear as if it is the first time;

(ix) to follow up, with reasonable dispatch and attention, the small favours, references and leads you promise to send;

(x) to reciprocate, as far as you can, when people you have met at conferences and on invited trips show up at your university;

(xi) not to hang around after the conference is over - the organisers have other things to do.

Duties of inviting bodies

(i) Not to require of academic speakers, who already have enough paperwork of one sort of another, that they fill in some tedious pre-conference form requesting footling information;

(ii) not to pack the speaker's schedule to the full, or lay on without prior agreement major new commitments;

(iii) to meet, greet and provide some introductory hospitality, and to put the speaker in contact with one or two interesting people;

(iv) to lodge the speaker in a suitable hotel, one that is quiet, and pleasant and appropriate for an intellectual or professional person, with a lounge or lobby one can read in, and in an interesting location with access to cafes, bookshops etc, and some touch of beauty and/or historical interest (the Bellevue Hotel, Aberystwyth, yes; the Ostbahnhof Hotel, Berlin, no);

(v) to settle all claims for payment and expenses promptly, if possible within a month, and not to quibble about one return train or taxi fare for which there is no invoice;

(vi) to provide, where circumstances require, appropriate translation (Catalans, Valencians and Balearics please note);

(vii) to ensure that the person chairing the speaker's meeting has properly prepared an introduction, keeps it short, but never, under any circumstances, uses the words "X requires no introduction...", an evasive way of admitting that they have not made any effort to find out who they are going to listen to;

(viii) not to foist oppressive, embarrassing or vexatious local practices on often tired, patient and stressed visitors, such as long boring "high table" dinners (Oxford, Cambridge), third-rate Indian restaurants (most other UK universities), ducks' feet as main course (Beijing), Stetson hats (Texas), sheep's eyes (Khartoum), fatty sheep's tails (Ulan Bator), mastication sessions of narcotic qat (Sanaa, Aden), hypocritical pretence at avoidance of alcohol (most Arab universities), evening meal at 6pm with no alcohol (East Coast, US), evening meal at 11.30pm with too much alcohol (Barcelona, Madrid, Moscow, Berlin), ponderous, ugly and useless formal presents (Baghdad and many other places), long, vapid and self-regarding introductions by the chair (much of the world), pestering and importuning about own students who have failed to get into the London School of Economics (pretty much everywhere);

(ix) to make double sure the taxis you are supposed to have booked to return the speaker to the hotel, or to the airport on departure, show up on time, and take them to the correct terminal of the departure airport;

(x) ABOVE ALL, never, never, under any circumstances, to ask a speaker - after having issued an invitation to deliver only a speech or lecture - for a written text to be published, this constituting for any person who is busy and has given generously of his or her time an act of the highest rudeness, the equivalent of being invited to someone's house for a drink and then demanding a meal to follow.

Fred Halliday is Montague Burton professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and visiting professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies.

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