Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference, Outburst 2: How to Be an Audience

The main thing you will do at a conference is listen to other people talking.  Since this is the main thing everyone attending the conference will do,* it is worth thinking how to do it well.
In the sprawling assemblage of a large conference, there is a huge volume of information, a smaller amount of interesting analysis, and a very small handful of bright new ideas.  Your job as audience is to get a useful sample of the information, analysis and ideas; and to give the presenters some feedback.
How to choose sessions? Large conferences offer ‘streams’. These are like mini-conferences for particular sub-fields, and some people stick with a single stream for several days. This can work: I have known gripping arguments that flowed over several sessions in a stream. But it often doesn’t work. The stream may be little more than an administrative convenience - rooms and time-slots are allocated this way. You can only find out by trying.
A warning: don’t follow fame. A celebrity academic won’t necessarily give a celebrity paper. If you want a selfie with her, him or them, that’s good fun and most will oblige. But in choosing where to spend your valuable time, look for what’s intellectually interesting, above all.
Ideal conference, imagined by Raphael. Socrates upper left centre
That can be difficult, because – it’s the big paradox of these events - the official conference format actually discourages intellectual engagement.  Hundreds of 10-to-15-minute presentations in random order, punctuated by dignified speeches through a microphone on a distant stage: this is a long, long way from Socratic debate!
(Re Socrates: if you haven’t read it, rush to your friendly local library and borrow a translation of Plato’s Symposium. It is funny, a bit weird, and in the middle has a fabulous theory about sex.)
Most of the intellectual work of a conference happens after the formal sessions, or before them, or instead of them. In the coffee shops, in the corridor, in the sitting-and-waiting areas, at lunch, at dinner, over breakfast, in the park outside, very occasionally in a bedroom, more often in a committee room. I once went to a big international conference which had not got the message. There were no informal meeting spaces and there seemed to be just one small café on-site for thousands of delegates. The conference dispersed to get caffeinated.
The formal programme still matters. It provides most of the useful information; and it provides hundreds of launch-points for informal discussions. So choose a bunch of sessions and go to them.
Choose, mostly, sessions on topics related to your own work, your teaching as well as your research. That’s not selfish: you are most likely to give presenters useful feedback in fields you know. But pick at least one intriguing session that is wildly irrelevant (‘Nesting Behaviour of the Lesser Damwort: A Foucauldian-Materialist Analysis’). You might get an intellectual jolt. Or you might have a nice horror story to tell when you get home.
Take a seat. (San Francisco 2009)
OK: you front up to a session and take a seat. However shy, do NOT sit at the back. There is nothing worse for presenters than speaking to seven rows of empty chairs in front of two rows of listeners clustered like frightened sheep near the door. The presenters don’t have the plague! And you are not going to walk out anyway, you are much too polite.  So stroll up to the front, take a seat there and encourage others to join you.
The session begins a mere six minutes late, when the chairperson and the tech helper have got the computer connected and someone else has decoded the light switches.  What do you do now? Sit back and listen quietly, right? Wrong! If you want to relax, go to the bar down the road, order a Sidecar and listen to the neoliberal music, no-one is stopping you. You are at this conference to learn, dammit, and all the educational research says that effective learning is active not passive.
Active listening: pen, computer, mind. (Costa Rica 2011)
So sit forward and listen actively. Take notes with that excellent conference pen on that handy conference notepad, or give your computer a workout. Don’t use a tablet, it’s bad for your back. I generally take short notes, just idea-sketches; but I regularly write down useful names, figures and dates. Engage with your mind: test the ideas and claims as they arrive. This may suggest an immediate question.
At question time, don’t be shy. If there’s vagueness, ask for clarity. If you have reason to think that part of the presentation is wrong, you can say so. In fact you should. Building knowledge is a collective process. If everyone remembers that, there’s no need to be aggressive, or for the presenter to be defensive.  A question or comment will signal that you are interested in the topic and want to talk about it. Many a good discussion has begun, literally, while people are gathering up their conference bags and moving out at the end of a session. Carpe diem: Snatch the day!
(*Except the poor conference convenors, who are usually so stressed that they don’t get to hear the talks.)
NEXT EPISODE: How to Give a Paper.  Coming Soon!

Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference: A Guide for Beginners, in Five Outbursts and a Cough

I have been to a couple of hundred academic conferences. They are an important form of work and connection. They are sometimes brilliant, often boring, often alienating; they are especially tough for new players. This is a reflection on my experience, with some advice for beginners and suggestions on how we might do conferences better.

Outburst 1: Arriving at the conference

Once upon a time, academic conferences were held in academic institutions, i.e. universities and colleges. Registration was cheap, and anyone could walk in. Visitors got basic housing in student dormitories, empty for the vacation. You might see last term’s lecture timetable pinned on the wall, sometimes a poster, a ghostly reminder of student culture. The beds were hard, the food was ordinary, the showers trickled down, but the feeling of solidarity among the conference-goers was high.

Academics used to organize the events themselves, and the results could be memorable. I went to one conference that held a dance in an ancient shearing-shed, its floor polished by a hundred years of sheep fleeces. Being among several busloads of sociologists attempting to square-dance on uneven timber surfaced with wool grease was an experience hard to forget.

In the hotel: a conference plenary, without dancing
Nowadays an academic conference of any size is likely to be held in a downtown hotel, with room charges to match, or a convention centre with hotels attached. Some are still held in universities I’m glad to say. But in either case, the price of admission is much higher than it used to be (even with student discount), because conferences now are typically administered by events-management corporations, which need to make a profit, and corporate-style university managers now charge conferences rent.

The events-management corporation has a computer template for conferences, the same for every discipline, so things are (a) more predictable (b) more boring (c) both. There will be an online form for registration, an online portal for submissions, an online schedule of sessions, and so forth. You will know about this long before you rock up to the front door.  If you are like me, you will have been unable to enter the portal, and then unable to find your session in the schedule, so you will have annoyed the help-staff several times already. They are usually patient.

If the conference is in a city of any size, there is often cheaper accommodation within walking distance or a short trip on public transport. The conference website won’t normally show this. At one of my first-ever conferences, in Los Angeles, I arrived by Greyhound bus from Chicago, asked folk in the bus station, and took a cheap room in the street they mentioned. The hotel happened to be favoured by the local sex workers and their clients, and the activity around and about provided me with a valuable introduction to the American gender order.  Nevertheless I recommend, if you have time, asking advice from local people before you arrive at the bus station. Going in a group and sharing an apartment is a very good solution, provided the others in your group don’t want to party after 3 a.m. Some conference sessions begin about 8.

When you get in the front door, look for the conference registration area. This isn’t in the lobby, but up an unexpected escalator and round a few corners; just keep asking, the hotel or convention centre staff will know where it is. When you find it, you will be given a bag with some advertising, a note-pad, a retractable ballpoint pen printed with the name of the conference, a conference brochure (these vary from minimal to magnificent), and an ID object.

The ID object used to be a pin-on name badge, designed for the lapels of men’s suits.  Since women have become more common at academic conferences and suits less common, you now get a unisex tape to put around your neck with a plastic card-holder dangling from it. This makes you look like a CIA agent entitled to ACCESS ALL AREAS, but hey, this is the new academic world, and you now have proof that you belong. Cherish the card, and pass it on to your grand-children.

The best way to arrive at a conference is in a group.  Big conferences can be very alienating, and having people to share meals and conversation is good for your mental health.  You can separate for parallel sessions, talk afterwards, and thus get a better idea of what’s going on in the whole event. If you can’t arrive with a group, look for kindred spirits in early sessions. You might be surprised!

Next outburst: How To Be An Audience. Coming soon!

A festival of books

Greetings from Flight 575, heading south from Colombia across Ecuador and Peru along the earth’s longest fold, the Andes.  I’m en route for Chile, and tomorrow across the colder part of the South Pacific Ocean to Australia. We are just passing another complex of mountains, their separate snow tops so brilliant they are almost blue. Between them are tremendous gorges, with slim rivers far in the depth; I can imagine how cold the water is, even here near the equator.
I am coming home from a Festival of Books. In fact I have been a minor Festival attraction, speaking (via Spanish translators) to several hundred people, at a couple of sessions. Two of my books are on sale.  Perhaps mercifully, I haven’t heard if anyone bought them.
At the fair: the entrance to a book pavilion
The annual Bogotá Feria del Libro really is a festival, a fête, a fair. It’s held on a fairground, complete with sideshows, one featuring early Chaplin movies in black and white flickers. There is fast food, a brass band, young lovers strolling, and hordes of kids.  The kids are mostly teenagers in groups wearing their school uniforms. For the younger ones there is a display of dazzlingly-coloured books and toys in a big space in the main pavilion. Catch them young!
But the main thrust of the festival – a really mixed metaphor there, folks! – is the books. There are displays of everything from Spanish versions of Harry Potter, to local fiction and poetry, to treatises on agricultural hydrology, regional history, and the rest. There is a fine Book Bus, showing how to take them to the people. Through the day, through several weeks in fact, runs a continuous programme of book launches, talks by authors, interviews, debates on current issues, and more.
Go, the Book Bus! NB a naval officer considering his literary choices
I’m impressed by how many university presses there are in Colombia. There are broad-spectrum lists on display from the Universidad Nacional (public) and the Universidad de los Andes (wealthy private).  There are a lot of others, offering rather more restricted fare – religious universities, secular universities, technical colleges, and so on.
What I definitely didn’t expect among the university displays was a booth for the publishing arm of the Escuela Superior de la Guerra – the armed forces’ War College.  This offers to the public a few titles giving the military’s interpretation of the recent armed conflict. (Doubtless they also print manuals on how to kill efficiently, not for sale to the public.) Full marks to them for exposing themselves to the fête. They were having a couple of book launches, attended by a platoon of officers in parade uniform. I spotted a full Colonel and possibly an Admiral, unfazed by the swirling crowds of high school kids and young lovers.
The military were of interest, because after the Feria I visited the Caribbean coast for a few days, and spoke there with organizations involved in the peace process. The long civil war in Colombia, which has roots in land struggles fifty years back, has been deadlocked.  It produced massive trauma in the countryside, not least because local power-holders and right-wing activists have recruited private armies, known as ‘paramilitares’, who can be more brutal and erratic than the regular army.
The armed political groups sometimes overlap with cocaine networks, which are also armed and violent. The scene is enmeshed with the U.S. war on drugs as well as the U.S. war on communism.
Recently a comprehensive peace deal was signed between the national government and the main guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). But the agreement was opposed by other forces, including right-wing politicians from the ruling class, and the conservative churches. The churches objected to the deal because it included gender equity and sexual rights. They succeeded in defeating the referendum that was called to approve the peace agreement.
(Why would the religion of peace try to sabotage peace? It’s one of the mysteries of modern life why so many churches have recently become obsessed with gender and sexuality. From Catholic circles in particular has come a weird campaign against “gender theory” or “gender ideology” – a topic which troubled none of the Four Evangelists, as far as I remember, nor Saint Thomas Aquinas. Some early stirrings of this politics were heard at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. It is now a coordinated international campaign against feminism and gay rights. We have had doses of it in Australia, in the vicious political attacks on the Safe Schools programme, and then in the failed attempt to block marriage equality.)
Back to Colombia. The peace process has gone ahead. Alongside disarmament, land rights, regional development, and political incorporation of the guerrilla forces, it does include some measures concerned with gender equity.  A complex structure of courts, agencies, councils and consultative bodies, both national and regional, has been set up to implement the peace. (Too complex, some of my colleagues think.) The difficulty is to make this structure work in practice. The elite-controlled political system, and the long insurrection, have left a great deal of injustice, loss, displacement and fear.
I had the great privilege of meeting three groups involved in social change at the local level, and holding long discussions with them. Their key current issue is to broaden participation in the peace process. This means involving groups normally outside the Colombian political system – especially, groups of women.
At a meeting with women's group
There are obstacles in plenty: lack of money, lack of know-how, husbands opposed to wives’ adventuring outside the home, and local power-brokers defending their turf. There is a continuing threat of violence. This is not a small matter: since the peace accords there have been at least a hundred murders of community activists, probably by contract killers.
But something is stirring.  In the groups I met, the discussions were engaged and lively, sometimes humorous, with a lot of sharing of direct experience.  They covered background issues, on which I was able to offer some information. But above all they were concerned with practicality – what should we be doing now? What will actually work?
Where these discussions will lead in the long run, I cannot guess. Yet I felt I was getting a glimpse of a real democratic process, growing in the most difficult of conditions.

Shaking the Milk

A week ago I was in my kitchen at breakfast time, opening the refrigerator door and getting out a bottle of milk.  I turned around and began to walk back to the bench, shaking the milk bottle up and down.

And stopped.  I had been shaking the milk without thinking.  But now thought.  It must be thirty years since the milk at the grocer’s – I mean the mini-mart – has all been homogenized, and needs no shaking.  My hand had remembered.

Milk used to come in glass pint bottles, with foil tops, which you could either tear off quickly – usually a bad idea – or remove by a kind of twist-and-wriggle.  This made the top come off whole, so it could be parked on top again when you put the bottle back in the refrigerator.
Source: Adelaiderememberwhen

There were two colours of foil top, gold and silver.  Our family always got the silver.  I think the gold had more cream.  This was Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s; I believe the colour coding in other places was different.

Either colour, after opening you could pour off the Top of the Milk, which was heavy with cream and so a treat.  But then the next person got thinner milk, and the next person even thinner.  And in our family, that was Not On.  Everyone was entitled to their fair share of the cream.

So the first person to use any bottle had the moral obligation of Shaking the Milk, to distribute the cream molecules evenly through the watery molecules.  And that meant really shaking it.  No cheating!

Primitive socialism - a whole ethic in a gesture.  No wonder my hand remembered.
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