What’s the purpose of a conference? Reflections on RSA2015. Part II
I have suggested that it would be worth the Renaissance Society of America going meta and studying the anthropology of its own ‘Annual Meeting’. The advantage of this little proposal is that it would help us stand outside our own experience and look in at ourselves. At this point, I should probably put my hand up and admit to not being a habitué of the RSA’s annual get-together. The last time I attended was ten years ago, when it was in Cambridge (UK – not MA). There have been several reasons why I have been unable to attend in the intervening years, but I have tended to justify my absence with reference to the conference’s amplitudinous nature – how can, I ask, an event which is so gargantuan continue to have the quality of a conference? Aristotle described how a city could be so large that it failed to have the character of a city. We too might wonder at what stage a conference becomes the equivalent of a megalopolis and is too massive to retain a single identity. I must stress that I enjoyed my experience of the RSA this year and was glad to have been persuaded to contribute (thank you, Piers Baker-Bates, Tom True and Oren Margolis). I did hear a few shockingly poor papers (given by established academics) and some very stimulating ones (many – but not all – given by early-career scholars). I feel guilty that I did not sit in on more panels; struck by end-0f-term exhaustion, I crept away on the first afternoon to preserve my energy for presenting the next day, and on that day, the sessions were so stimulating – excepting (modesty forces me to say) my own intervention – that I was drained by the evening without the stamina to go to the plenary lecture I had very much wanted to hear (I am getting old). Perhaps, though, I should not be too hard on myself: my absence was not, I sense, egregious. Yet, that such selective non-attendance – like Poggio Bracciolini travelling away from Constance – was perhaps not just acceptable but the norm says something about the expectations of the event. The worry is that those expectations clash with the basic concept of a conference, as I at least have seen it practised on other occasions.
The differences of concept were reflected in an exchange of views I had with another attendee the day after the RSA ended. I would like to claim the exchange was full and frank but, as we were both British, it naturally fell short of that. The person with whom I found myself in discussion complained that there was no consistency between sessions about when questions were asked so that it was difficult to time moving between papers; her preference would have been to have a 30 minute slot for each paper, including questions, with the chair’s job to be making sure that each paper and discussion on it was confined to that half hour. She may have been thinking aloud, or felt goaded to suggesting it by my own joking proposal that at the start of each panel, the door should be locked to avoid the disruption to the session caused by people entering and leaving when they please. For my interlocutor, moving between sessions is an established habit at such a conference and helps ensure one can attend as many papers of interest as possible. For me, in contrast, it is both ill-mannered and counter-productive. The organiser of a panel has taken the effort to bring together a group of speakers with some sense of connexion between their topics. This, of course, works better in some sessions than others but, unless a session is obviously a medley of disparate elements without any rationale, then, to my mind, we should show respect to both the organiser and the speakers by attending the whole session, however interesting another panel might be elsewhere.
That explains in brief why, on my submission, panel-popping offends good manners; that is not to say that there may be occasions on which for an individual it is nearly unavoidable but it is to suggest that it should be discouraged as an element of conference etiquette. I said a moment ago, however, that I also consider the practice counter-productive and I should explain that. If the intention of moving between sessions is to maximise one’s intellectual stimulation then it can only do that if one is not interested in hearing or engaging in the discussion section of a session. Personally, I find that at times the most exciting part – when the chair or members of the audience can draw out threads that linked the papers together and when a discussion can develop involving all speakers and some of the others in the room. That, I would suggest, is at the heart of what a conference is – it is a collective experience where speakers and attendees alike learn from each other and develop their thinking through the exchange of ideas.
Yet, of course, a conference where part of its claim to importance is its very size – like not only the RSA but also the International Medieval Congress at Leeds – can never manage to hold all its delegates together as one collective. The fact that such events tend to be organised in significant cities where there are plentiful distractions in itself must dissipate that to some extent (I know that Kathleen Kennedy would point out that Kalamazoo, home to another International Congress of medievalists, is an exception in being a small venue for a heavy-weight event). Such conferences’ need to have multiple parallel sessions – in Berlin, it was over 50 to each time slot – encourages the proposing and organising by societies or groups of a series of panels on one subject area, with the result that there are several mini-conferences happening in the same place, often with delegates who have paid to travel from afar sitting in a room speaking mainly to colleagues they could more cheaply have gathered together elsewhere. Those involved in such sessions are not unaware that it makes little economic sense to work this way but they calculate it has advantages – the fact that many of the arrangements are another’s responsibility, let alone the attraction of being seen at the ‘premier’ event – which keeps them doing it. These mini-conferences act like the rioni or quarters of a medieval city, with the conference itself being the municipality which gives them space – and which ensures they do not come to blows (not that I have ever heard of such things happening at the RSA or IMC but, then again, perhaps I am out of the loop). Yet, if one is not a full member of such a mini-conference or, as few of these strands run through the whole of the event, when ‘your’ section is not in action, then the structure demands that one creates an individualised experience of the conference. In such a context, the pattern of panel-popping my partner in conversation was proposing as appropriate behaviour is not simply likely to happen, it is, in effect, encouraged. The question is whether that matters.
Some, obviously, would say not – or would, indeed, celebrate such structures, pointing out that as a metropolis gives an individual the opportunity to be who they want to be, not controlled by the collective habits that mark out village life, so these large events give opportunities that break down established structures of authority and empower the individual. There is undoubted merit to that argument and it could be taken as a rationale for the organisers of a large conference facilitating as many sessions as possible, though, as the argument over the lack of women among the RSA’s plenaries shows, size does not necessarily ensure diversity. There is a further danger about continuing expansion: I wonder when the metropolis turns into the megalopolis and the individualised becomes the atomised. That aside, and to repeat my central point, if we see a conference as an event which fosters a collective identity and a sharing of thought-processes among contributors (speakers and listeners), then the RSA or IMC would not fit the definition. Admittedly, neither of those two gatherings actually calls itself a conference. The RSA has its ‘annual meeting’ – though, with so many present, there are so few you do actually meet: you bump into friends you did not even realise were going to be there, and you fail to find others who are lost in the mass of people and of sessions. IMC, like Kalamazoo, terms itself a congress, hinting at the difference of its nature from smaller-scale or more old-fashioned (and more human-sized) gatherings. What is at stake, though, is not an issue of terminology – though this could help if, that is, we are alert to the nuances of terms and share a single language; that in itself must be in doubt considering the slippage that seems to occur between ‘colloquium’, ‘symposium’ and ‘workshop’, for instance. What I want to insist matters is that we all – as organisers and as attendees – consider reflectively the implications of size has for the nature of intellectual engagement at an event. Perhaps others do this and I am slow on the uptake but the way in which the patterns of sessions alters little between different types of conference suggests otherwise. The RSA (to continue with this example) envisage ‘panels’ and ’roundtables’, to which are added ‘plenaries’ as the basic structure. If, though, we want to foster more interaction and more exchange, are there not additional ways in which to achieve this – could not, for instance, there be occasions where the chair of each session or an appointed rapporteur feeds back to a wider audience? And does social media – beyond twitter feeds and storify (take a bow, Liesbeth Corens) – give opportunities to achieve such a sharing of experience (always remembering that a substantial proportion of the delegates are likely to be off-line during the conference itself)?
That is, of course, assuming that such sharing, with the assumptions of a single collective identity, is desirable at such an event. But have I misunderstood the anthropology?