Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Useful" conferences?

Since I received many personal comments on the posts I wrote about conferences, I am back to the theme. I do not mean to say that there is an only way to make a conference "useful". Conferences can fulfil many purposes. One of them is to make your peers aware of your qualities. Another, is to bring together experts of a certain theme. In these cases, one has to be as technical as possible and the following discussion, if there is any, may also be quite fruitful and technical at the same time.
However, I am not primarily dealing with this kind of conference now.
  1. First, because I have never been part of such a small and fruitful group of experts, and hence I tend to even doubt about its existence. I have rather learnt a lot from people coming from different fields of expertise. Apart from Western philosophers/historians of Western philosophy, who often opened my eyes to problems I had overseen, I benefited from contacts with historians of art, political development scholars, sociologists, theologians and so on. This may have to do with the fact that my alleged field of expertise, "Indology" is in fact hardly more than a label for "whatever has been thought/done/said in South Asia, no matter when".
  2. Second, because I think that addressing a wider audience (at least that of the whole academia) can be fruitful both for the speaker and for the audience. To address a wider audience means, no doubt, to leave aside many details. Hence, one writes essays for technical readerships. But I do not think an audience would be able to follow these details when they are presented orally. Hence, why not rather forget about them (if they are unessential) and focus on the main point? Simplifying means choosing what is essential and what is not and this critical task can only be done by someone who knows the subject. Hence, it is not at all an easy task, nor does it demand a just superficial domain of the subject.
  3. Third, because conferences who are honestly 'oral' are funnier, lively and non-predictable. Hence, they are more likely to impress one for a long time and to mark a significant shift in one's intellectual life. Nor can I see any more important task for a conference (as distinct from an essay in a scholarly journal).
What are the ingredients of the type of conference I am thinking at? In general,
–Surely, no reading.
–Papers have to be pre-circulated. Even if not everyone is going to read them fully, someone will and most will at least have a glance at them.
–Not too much advertisement (too many people may ruin the atmosphere: they become a public and no more a critical audience).
–Most important, chairpersons have to prepare speakers. But how?
Apart from the above, speakers should pick up a fundamental question, one which is likely to be understood by even lay listeners. In the last conference I attended, a speaker, Rosaria Compagnone, decided to speak about the Padmasaṃhitā's role in the Pāñcarātra tradition. If the subject sounds boring, have a look at how she started her speech: (I am quoting by heart) "The Padmasaṃhitā is the key text of the Pāñcarātra religion, but it contradicts its main tenets. It is in favour of castes, rituals, etc. How is this possible?". I totally disagree with Dr. Compagnone, but she succeeded in making everyone's eyebrows rise.
What do you think?


abeppe said...

Hey Elisa, it was great fun. Really, organizing it as well as attending to the conference, I mean. What you write about Rosaria's talk I have experienced during Luca Alfieri's presentation and the discussion following it. Actually, I thought they would start to hit each other with a club, and that's exactly what I expect from a conference: fight and sweat and blood!

elisa freschi said...

Yes, I agree. I also expected fights (from this point of view, by the way, you and Artemij disappointed me;-)) and enjoyed them.
Just for external readers: we are referring to the research meeting outlined here:

Amod said...

I have just about always viewed the standard humanities conference model as an abomination. I call it the bedtime story approach: read to your audience until they fall asleep.

Since almost every single person attending an academic conference will have a master's or PhD degree or be in the process of getting one, I think it's a reasonably safe assumption that one's audience is going to be literate. So what exactly do they gain by having a paper read to them when they could just as soon read it themselves? The only value of gathering people from far distances into a room where a paper is being discussed is that they can ask questions and get responses, have the cut and thrust of genuine engagement and debate. And yet presenters routinely go so far over their presentation time as to leave no time for questions, thus making the entire exercise absolutely, completely, 100% worthless and pointless.

So, er, yes, I agree with you. It's worth noting that they don't do it this way in the natural sciences (at least according to friends I have in those fields).

elisa freschi said...

"Bedtime story approach" is a great label, I hope you don't mind if I use it while asking for grants for a non-bedtime story approach conference! And I also hope I'll be able to get enough money to invite you, too.
By the way, as Abeppe mentioned, and as proven by the long STIMW experience, it is indeed possible to avoid this model. It is certainly more fatiguating than reading the same paper one already knows by heart, and one risks sincere and unpredictable questions, but honest and inquisitive researchers will like it. As for the others, they are either lonely people who reflect better on their own (and, for them, there is no point in participating to any conference at all) or unsecure people who do not really want to exchange ideas (and I am happy not to waste time with them).
The main point remains: one needs a very good organization (in order for participants to be aware of what they are expected to do) and very good chairpersons, who should be ready 1. to interrupt briskly uninteresting and too long papers, 2. to instigate a stimulating discussion.
What are your experiences about it?

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