When people ask me in years to come where I was the momentous day that Michael Jackson died, my inglorious answer will be: “Dangling off a precarious internet connection at a three-day philosophy conference somewhere in Newcastle.” As I recall, my Facebook page started pinging with updates in the middle of a paper on Heidegger and Hegel. While panellists exchanged pleasantries about existentialism, and the good and great elbowed each other for Bourbon biscuits in the tea break, I was busy scrolling through Twitter, agog. Luckily for me, I found a fellow delegate, a disaffected Dutch graduate student, droll, lanky and monosyllabic, with similarly skewed priorities. Together we abandoned keynote speeches in favour of satellite television and watched, wide-eyed, rolling footage of moonwalks and looped renditions of ABC for hours. It was a taciturn, temporary sort of friendship, forged in tragedy and sealed by boredom. As conferences go, it wasn’t the worst.
The worst was in Wales a few years ago, where a saucily titled seminar on the Marquis de Sade promised the world and delivered despair. To be fair, it did inspire me to wish I could stick pins into the speaker, but mainly to check for signs of life rather than for any sexual sort of gratification. At this delightful time of year, as we slump out of exam boards and into the uninterrupted vista of summer research time, the only bump in the road that I can foresee is the seasonal hazard of academic conferences. In principle, I like the idea of the summer conference, and am easily seduced every year by its promises of scholarly riches and collective intellectual endeavour. In reality, I often come away exhausted by endless itineraries, embarrassed by awkward social encounters and generally puzzled by my profession. I readily concede that my antipathy likely comes from my own inadequacies, but am I wrong to think that academic conferences can bring out the very worst of our researching kind?
Let’s confess: we hate having to queue for croissants next to the “colleague” who wrote the spiky review of our last book, and we dread being cornered by that simpering assassin, our nemesis in knowledge (like Batman, we all have one) who seems forever to be peering over our shoulder and trampling all over our carefully demarcated scholarly territory. Conferences seem designed for discomfort. For an already insular profession, conference season only amps up our wretched self-absorption as the entire world telescopes into an interminable stream of 20-minute papers. Researchers aren’t always the best presenters of their own knowledge, and panel formats with their invariably barbed Q&As, are not necessarily the most illuminating mode of knowledge dissemination. When we deign to address each other as respectful “delegates”, it can be in an exclusive and mangled language that is mostly incomprehensible to everybody outside our particular corner of the research world. The quirks, trends and curios of our various research areas are peculiarly our own; at conference time we pull the curtains and prattle away at each other, probably inconsequentially.
And, perhaps it is this very thing, that absorbing and exclusive intimacy, that also makes conferences important to us. In the sacred space of the conference, nothing can intrude. At research-specific events, we can have those flashes of recognition, like a delicious flicker of romance at a disastrous speed-dating event, where, finally, someone understands us and gives us the wink – except in this case it is more likely a cocked eyebrow, an angled head vigorously nodding while simultaneously concocting a fiendish objection.
But perhaps my problem is that I’m not getting out enough – or going far enough away. “Foreign conferences are lovely,” a friend wrote to me, puzzled by my general scepticism at symposia. “Essentially, they are holidays. Just been to Iceland and the conference dinner was outdoors on a remote island, had to get there by boat – amazing! Plus the coffee break looked like this: [cue photo of mountain of doughnuts].” Another friend wrote in hushed tones with details of a trip to Hong Kong and “being served foie gras, dim sum and Japanese steaks” at a conference, ahem, on global inequality. The last conference I attended was on the 37th floor of an elegant building in London Bridge and although it was nice enough, by day three I had taken to swigging caffeinated beverages like a dejected alcoholic, and defenestration seemed a nice option to save me from hearing another person tell me how lovely they thought the view.
But conferences are, of course, good for the young and unjaded. They are useful gatherings for the networking necessary to get a foot on a ladder, places where you might get articles commissioned, an idea of the job market and a sense of the future of research. It is worth acknowledging, then, how stupidly hard we make it for the untenured and unwaged to gain entry to the privileged space of the conference and all the riches it holds. The best conferences are the ones that reach through their research particularities to think about the state of the disciplines within which they exist, or that form an idea of the university itself as a beleaguered space saved by our solidarity and the respect that we share for knowledge and teaching. Conference season awaits me. I’m still apprehensive. But at least I’m not going to one that someone summed up like this: “Finland. Sauna. Naked conference delegates.”
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London. She has just agreed to speak at the English Shared Futures conference in Newcastle in July 2017 and will have a hip flask handy.