By Juliana Adelman
Conference season is nearly upon us. Oh, the academic conference… On the one hand they are vital means of communication, feedback, idea sharing and ‘networking’. On the other hand, they are overly numerous, expensive, time-consuming and often disappointing. I have to say that I recall my first academic conference with considerable fondness. I was in the first year of my PhD and I went to Manchester for the British Society for the History of Science’s annual postgraduate conference. I was so nervous before my talk that I couldn’t eat and almost lost the half a sandwich I managed to stuff into my dry mouth. On the way back from lunch with a group of my colleagues, a rather indiscreet participant told my fellow panelist not to worry about her talk as the other papers in her session sounded horribly boring. He meant MY paper, of course. Just the thing to calm the nerves. However, once the talk was out of the way, there I was, surrounded by other people who also liked the history of science! Hurrah! Shared esoteric knowledge is truly salve to the lonely postgrad soul. Now I have (mostly) got over the pre-talk jitters. I have moved to the dark side of conference organisation, full of budget spread sheets, orphan bank accounts with strange names, nagging emails (mine), whining emails (theirs), revised programmes, registration forms and conference packs. To be honest, I much prefer sweating over giving a paper.
Anyway, I started this post because I think it’s worth discussing the value of conferences to history (or academia) in general. The problem with conferences, as I see it, is that there are so many of them that people have changed their approach to them. I’m part of this problem, having recently organised one conference and planning two for this year. You can hardly blame anyone for just going to see those talks that seem the most interesting or most relevant to their own work. On the other hand I kind of resent breezing in to give your own talk and then breezing out again without giving others the courtesy of listening to theirs. Of course sometimes this is unavoidable as most conferences are planned so far in advance that something is BOUND to come up in the interim. But isn’t the point of a conference to ‘confer’? Yet conferences often barely facilitate this and mostly it is through coffee breaks and lunch which often get squeezed as sessions run over time. Although ’roundtable’ or discussion sessions are a good idea in theory, I’ve rarely seen them work in practice. As anyone who has taught a seminar can tell you, it’s hard to get some people talking and hard to get others to stop.
As a reformed scientist I’d like to throw something out there…the lab meeting. When I worked in a lab we had ‘lab meeting’ maybe once a month or perhaps every other week. At the meeting two lab members would give a talk on their current research. It was short and informal, the point was for the other lab members to make constructive suggestions and for the presenter to seek advice on particular problems. It wasn’t totally casual as the PI (principal investigator) was always there and if he/she was also your PhD supervisor or boss you took it very seriously indeed. This, I imagine, is what departmental seminars used to be about. Now, however, they are generally about bringing in outside speakers making them a sort of single-session conference. And we don’t really need anymore conferences. Anyone for a lab meeting?