[Note: conference bingo image is not mine- but not sure where online I originally found it]
September is, for many academics, the conference season, but they occur all year, and this post is borne from decades of bad coffee, overstuffed powerpoint slides, humble-brag introductions, and unspeakable ‘social event’ experiences.
Much of the behaviour I discuss here can be found in more general academic contexts, but there are two reasons for focussing on conferences. Firstly, they seem to invoke particularly concentrated cases of the behaviours I am discussing, and I might speculate that the platform they give, and the extended, and often new, audiences are factors in this concentration. Secondly, they often represent a specific nexus of anxiety, and point of transitional discomfort, for postgraduates, moving from a ‘student’ mind-set, towards being academics, with something of their own to contribute.
What this post is for, is to call time on some, what I see as pretty unacceptable, practices – and to have this dovetail with the work on resilience and on vulnerability, that I have been doing with colleagues.
This is largely in the sense of stripping out excessive ‘trial by fire’ mentality, and the idea of a macho, toughness, and replacing it with the sense that we are engaged, at conferences as we are more widely in the academy, with a collective enterprise: that of learning about the world, and communicating this.
So, what do I specifically have in mind?
- When you encounter postgrad papers, where they clearly don’t have answers to your question – don’t ask it! It is tempting to get a cheap ego-boost, but don’t be that person. You might suggest that they look at X, or Y – but this isn’t a question. And you were told that this was a Q & A, so maybe leave it and talk to them supportively afterward, Without an audience.
- The conference Q&A is a chance to model that most, you’d think, obvious ethical practice of being kind, and not worrying that this is a lack of rigour, or challenge. There is room to do these things in ways that empower colleagues to produce better work. To paraphrase something Dr Rivers and I said at an event recently, we don’t want to behave at conferences such that postgraduates and early-career colleagues believe that they need to become hard, tough, gritty, parodies of a nostalgic Wild-West masculinity in order to succeed and thrive in academia.
- The greater task, beyond conferences, but also possible to address via how we organise them, brief chairs, and set the tone, is the make the latter point (that you can still remain a decent, open, honest human being and thrive in an HE context) true…
Other Non-Questions that are perhaps less problematic, but still represent vainglorious interjections:
- “I’m Just Thinking Out Loud here..” – really? Why would you do that? Are you really, or just playing for time, as it seems that you can’t bear a session where your voice isn’t heard?
- “I enjoyed your paper, but just had this one short thing to say..” Not a question, but normally the preamble to a ‘correction’, which shows that the only thing they enjoyed was the anticipation of making a public correction.
- “I’m no expert, but isn’t it obvious that…” Wow. Is this ok? To say that despite the paper giver being an expert, they are so wrong, that even a non-expert (like the ‘question’ asker) can see it.
If you were hoping for some Carly Simon here – don’t be disappointed – here you go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6UAYGxiRwU