I have already written a few posts connected with conferences and if I am repeating the same ideas, this must be because things are not changing. I am back from a three-day conference, which makes number 57 in the long list of academic events I have attended since 1994 (not that many, really). As usual at this stage, once it’s over, I have mixed feelings about the whole procedure. My arguments will sound familiar to everyone who’s been in the circuit for a similar number of years but might give an introduction to problems unknown to junior researchers.

To begin with, attending conferences is very expensive. This last event, at a Spanish university, has cost me 500 euros, despite making considerable economies in terms of travel expenses. The 500 euros come integrally out of my pocket and although I know that it’s not that much in comparison to international conferences, it’s still a lot of money for a small item in my CV which will count nothing towards assessment. 350 euros, in contrast, would have gone a much longer way towards buying books that might help me produce better research. Yet, I’ve never spent that much in a few days on books.

Why have I attended? For social/academic reasons. First: loyalty towards the organisers, as this is was the 16th Culture & Power seminar, an event to which I have been attached from the very beginning in 1995 at my own university. Second: an interest in the potentiality of the topic –spaces– in relation to its application to SF, hence to increasing the academic visibility of this genre (there were six papers in two monographic sessions). Third: networking. I agreed to meet some colleagues for the purpose of furthering our common objectives, aside from the conference, and ended up coming across others unexpectedly, meetings from which other plans came out. Fourth: the need to take a break from admin duties (I’m degree Coordinator, or Head of Studies), which means having a good excuse not to check email.

As usual, question time, coffee breaks and mealtimes have been much more productive than listening to the presentations (well, to be fair, the best debates came logically out of the best papers). The colleague who organised the conference proposed that the next one be an extensive coffee break, with delegates discussing with each other papers forwarded in advance. I love the idea but remain a bit sceptical about it, as researchers often behave like bad students and might turn up with no homework done. At any rate, it is clear to me that the real exchange of ideas happens in conversation.

A worrying, seemingly unstoppable phenomenon is erratic attendance, by which I mean not only that many delegates attended just for one day (in one case, just to deliver a paper) but also that many dropped off the programme the day before or even without warning. This way, although this was a 50-delegate conference, plenary lectures were attended at the most by 15 persons –a shame. I am myself guilty of not attending a couple of morning sessions, as, frankly, I could not face the 10-hour day.

I know that erratic attendance is mostly due to the ongoing crisis as impoverished tenured researchers and severely exploited untenured researchers are cutting corners to make ends meet. Certificates of attendance were granted to all, which might not be a good practice, I’m afraid. Yet it’s difficult to find an alternative as having delegates sign for each session sounds too controlling (I’m paying, I choose what to attend…), and might completely alienate the poorest researchers. One-day conferences work, of course, much better in that sense, but, obviously, this is not a format for all kinds of conferences (I wonder what it is like to attend one of those medical conferences in my city, with up to 30,000 delegates…).

The worst part, for me, is that after many hours preparing the paper and the PowerPoint presentation I finally spoke to an audience of 10, including my two co-presenters. The session went very well and we had a very lively debate but, still, are 10 people worth so much effort? (with all my respect, of course, for those who attended my presentation). The best part, as with all the conferences I have attended, was the time spent with those special colleagues, who are actually personal friends. Perhaps we do need conferences that are just long coffee breaks. Or the academic equivalent of team building.

The last worry: age. Suddenly, I notice there’s a whole new generation in the circuit and that in conferences people connect along age lines which, somehow, makes networking less effective (or more complicated). Joining a colleague of a similar age for, say, lunch, is easy but asking a younger colleague makes me feel quite awkward (silly me!). Dinner is even more complicated. It might be just shyness and, of course, it would not apply to my own doctoral students or younger Department staff. Yet, it is there.

Now to enter the conference in my CV…

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  1. Being a (very) young researcher myself, I find it curious that you feel ashamed to ask younger colleagues to have lunch with you — in my own experience, I usually find myself having lunch by myself or with my fellow young, shy people at conferences, because we feel that older, more established researchers are out of our league. That is, if you ever want to talk to a younger colleague, please do so!!! We are quite often intimated by all of you and feel it would be very inapropiate for us to join you…

  2. Oh, my! I officially declare myself available to any young researcher who wants to approach me in conferences. My impression was, rather, that junior researchers might find us, seniors, boring… Thanks, Sara, I’ll certainly remember this.

  3. You may grumble and complain, Sara, but you’re still keeping the flag flying… me, I gave up on conferences about ten years ago, apart from the occasional one of course. Basically, too expensive, as you say, and hard to fit into my schedule to boot. Also, they may be fun if you more or less fit into a group, but older people tend to get less sociable, or perhaps it’s just me—not worth the effort, all in all, especially as curriculum-building gets more and more irrelevant. A paper gets far more readers online. But I agree that it’s not like live conversation. So good for you, if you can still find the energy, time, and money to go to conferences! You’re still academically alive, life on the virtual web is academic life half-lived. I also miss the occasional sight-seeing.

  4. I still believe in the idea of the conference – I’ve met many good friends in conferences and have generally benefitted from spending three or four days doing academic stuff (and not admin and teaching). The sightseeing is also a bonus. I’m grumbling, as you can see, mostly about the money (many people believe the university pays for our expenses) and the general falling standards. I don’t believe that virtual interaction, whether online or by plain reading, has the same results. Having said that, I’m possibly taking a sabbatical off conferences next year, as none will notice. My pocket will…

  5. I absolutely agree with your point here about the difficulties of attending a conference in our actual work context. Mobility without funding is an adventure few can dare to try, although the (in)famous ANECA demands that researchers participate in one zillion conferences, preferably international ones — and even to do long-term research stays abroad. This is particularly dramatic for non-tenured researchers living on meager salaries. In the case of conferences, delegates cash-pay for all the expenses of travel and lodging along with the ever-rising fees, and must later pay again with time by re-scheduling the classes missed while at the conference, often set at the most inconvenient hours for students. No wonder many colleagues can only afford attending a conference just on the day of their own presentation. In fact, participating in conferences is paradoxically “punished” rather than encouraged by our academic system. All this sadly perverts their spirit as effective professional meetings; in the present circumstances, I’m afraid our younger colleagues will find scarce chances for networking and little inspiration in conferences.

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