The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the presentations of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind. David Lodge. Small World. Secker & Warburg, 1984.
The conference circuit is different things to people at different stages in their academic career. Doubtless it offers pleasures (and irritations) at all of these stages, but perhaps it is most fun for those towards the beginning or the end of their careers.
At the beginning, it can be, as Ross Geller once observed, like being a regular person (I am paraphrasing) in the presence of celebrities (perhaps this never wears off entirely; it hasn’t yet for me). ‘So that‘s what x looks like!’ If you’re lucky, you might even wind up sitting next to them at dinner. There might be some nerves to overcome in the delivery of one’s presentation, but only the meanest of fellow attendees would give a really rough ride to someone who doesn’t have a PhD yet. And a young academic need not angst over how well-known they are, nor too much over how well-received their paper is. (One thing I remember about beginning to attend conferences, or dinners after a guest speaker visited a university, was being surprised that, instead of talking film studies or whatever, many of these big names/big brains would instead chat about the food they were eating, their journeys to the event, the weather, or their pets. It was like having to learn all over again that these figures, like your parents and primary school teachers before them, are also people, with the same everyday concerns as other people.)
At the other end of the scale, there are the late-career academics, some of whom will be basking in the glory of keynote status and all the conference-related perks that go with it. (People outside the academy are often still initially perplexed upon hearing that most people have to pay for the privilege of attending conferences – or rather, get their institutions to do so.) What one also sees from some later-career academics and which I really take pleasure in, even to the point of having begun to harvest them, are off-the-cuff remarks offered from a position of no longer feeling a burning impulse of having something to prove. I’m not talking about take-downs, although they can sometimes be pleasurable and/or warranted. I’m thinking rather of the slightly salty, the plain-speaking, the rambunctious – comments usually offered as self-reflection rather than diagnosis of others.
One reason that this plain-speaking occurs is that when they make these utterances, these people are not expecting them to be immortalised in print. It would therefore be ungallant of me to attach the following few quotations to individuals or events. They can in any case stand on their own merits. Here are just three little pearls of tough wisdom that were tossed out by some brilliant minds. Words worth pondering, and sometimes worth living by!
1. (This was not in fact an academic, but a well-established director in conversation with a film studies person.) ‘Mise en scene? I just turn up with a few jokes.’
2. ‘People always talk about research agendas. I never had a research agenda. I just write about stuff.’ (That one is probably a slight paraphrase.)
3. (In response to the suggestion that censorship should be defined as anything that imposes limits upon the representational context of an artwork.) ‘But that’s just life!’ (This one is my favourite of all.)
Perhaps readers have treasured, conference-culled phrases of their own?