Conferences and seminars are part and parcel of the way that universities work. We get to present and discuss our work with (primarily academic) audiences from all over the country/world. This means that we can improve our own stuff and get little ‘tasters’ of a huge range of different research projects and other scholarly work. It would take much longer to do the same thing on paper. You also get to spend time away from the office and this gives you a bit more space to stand back and think about stuff. This all tends to happen in nice locations, too: I’m blogging this at the end of a conference in Budapest, where I’ll have seen over 30 presentations in a few days. My head’s fizzing with all sorts of ideas, and the city is fantastic. It’s a win-win!
There is an expectation that conferences are a good place to ‘network’, and I’ve even attended days when the gaps between organised sessions as labelled as networking. At one level this is simply about discussing your own and other people’s work, over coffee, possibly drinks or dinner, and so on. This is great, in that catching up with people you don’t see often and meeting new people is fun. It’s intellectually useful, too, in that you can learn a great deal about other research that’s out there, and develop new ideas and insights. This is how higher education functions, as a community that produces and improves what we know and think about the world. You might end up collaborating with some of the people you meet, and you’re more likely to do so with people you’ve met than those you haven’t. And this is where the tension – at least for me – comes in.
The bit where it starts to become polluted somehow is that meeting people can be useful. In an intrinsic sense, this is fine if it happens in an organic, happenstance kind of way. You make connections with people and sometimes this leads somewhere. This is the nature of life, it happens all the time in that you make friends as you go along and some people stick around in your life for a long time. It’s in the other sense, the strategic instrumental one, where I begin to feel uncomfortable. This relates to the expectation that you can/should actively further your career by attracting the attention of more senior people in your field, which in turn could lead to research projects and publications. You showcase your work and ideas more than who you are, at least that’s how I feel. It’s not about scattering our business cards and impressing the ‘big names‘ with praise and questions in their presentations and/or engineering conversations with them to get noticed. At one end of the spectrum there are conferences where more junior researchers impose and ingratiate themselves on well-known academics, accosting them at any available opportunity – even in the queue for the loo!
This is obviously extreme (isn’t it?!), and I can’t imagine that those ‘cling-ons’ do that end up doing research with the people they pester. If anything it probably reduces their chances of establishing a meaningful working relationship, unless it’s standard practice. I’ve not really seen this ‘remora activity’ in the conferences I’ve attended. But it all connects with the idea that we work in a competitive funding and employment environment, one that is so competitive that we need to use every available opportunity to keep up/get ahead. But what this means for me is that when I meet people, talk to them, and discuss ideas, I feel the light presence of instrumentality on my shoulder and I don’t like it because it takes some of the joy out of it. I try to ignore it, and I hope that the people I’m talking to see me in the way that I intend.
Perhaps I’m navel-gazing too much, and really this edge of instrumentalism is more appropriate than I think it is, as long as it’s not the main/only reason you talk to people. Right, enough of this; I’m off for dinner with some of the senior academics in my field. You never know where it’s going to lead… Urgh.
This post led to the creation of a ‘partner’ blog by Liz Morrish, here. It seems that I’m not alone in my views, but we may may be more alone than we fear.