Friday, 12 September 2014

The unusual world of academic conferences

Academic conferences are a strange beast. In theory (and if it's theory-led, it must be robust, yes yes?), such events are a chance to rub shoulders with your most valued peers, to hear from the greatest minds in your field, to socialise with your academic idols. And true, they are all those things. But there is more, so much more, lingering beneath this perfect surface.

When I first started going to conferences alone, I was downright terrified. It was like the worst first day of school ever... a school where you have to stand up in front of kids six or seven years above you and try to speak aloud what you had previously thought were the most magical meditations that ever you mused in 15 mere minutes whilst those older kids all sharpen their claws and think about ways to rip you limb from limb, intellectually speaking. And then you must sit and eat lunch with those same kids, pretending that nothing happened and we're all friends here.

I spent the first conference I went to alone hiding in the toilets during the breaks for fear that someone Terribly Important might speak to me and that the resultant horror would cause me to lose control of my senses and start blurting out nonsense about which series of RuPaul's Drag Race I think is the best. (Incidentally - definitely the first. No-one will ever top Ongina, and you know it just as well as I do.)

I'm over that fear a little now, and have reached the stage where I mostly enjoy conferences. Certainly, the ones where I'm surrounded by my fellow qualitative, leftie contemporaries are nothing short of glorious. But I just returned from a different beast altogether - a much more mainstream, quantitative conference, populated by Big Wigs with a both capital B and a capital Double You.

Ninety per cent of the qualitative work there was consigned to the humiliation of a poster session (in which those magical musings I mentioned earlier must be boiled down into a sheeny soundbite and Velcroed to the wall, whilst you stand awkwardly alongside looking hopeful that someone will be transfixed by your efforts, the proverbial puppy waiting to be taken home from the pound - excruciating stuff for authors and punters alike), whilst the oral presentations were all given by people who think that if it's not been proven by a Randomised Control Trial, it's nothing more than pixie dust, blowing in the wind. Hence, I knew very few people and was out of my depth all over again.

The oral presentations are, along with the keynote speakers, the ostensible reason one attends these shindigs in the first place. It's definitely not all about getting your institution to pay for three days of unlimited food and freely flowing alcohol, oh no no. And as I said at the start of this blog, the presentations really should be a treat, a chance to hear the latest work from the people who are basically celebrities in your little corner of academia, legends in your own lunchtime.

However... with all the endless buffets and the hot, sticky rooms, I can't be the only person who finds myself constantly battling sleep in these things? My head doing that heavier-than-a-baby-grand thing, my eyelids doing that droopier-than-Pete-Doherty's-willy thing? (Well, re the latter... I imagine. I can't think that horse would help a fella fulfil its namesake in the old trouser department, but I've no personal experience - answers on a postcard if I'm wrong. This is science, after all, I'm open to peer review.) I live in constant fear that one day my body will betray me in the worst way possible during one of these things and I'll let out a snore louder than bombs and forever be known as the girl who fell asleep whilst Dan Zahavi told us what the actual secret of the universe is.

The applause at the end of a session usually jerks me back awake, and then come the questions. Ahh, the 'questions'. Which, as we all know, are not really questions at all - no-one ever really wants or listens to the answer. Instead, this is just the chance to point out, in the most polished and poised language available, that the speaker might know some stuff, but I know a bit more, so here's where you're wrong. Always prefaced with the obligatory, 'thank you so much for that talk, it was fascinating.' And postfaced with 'so blerty ner ner.'*

Lunch is always a trauma, served as it is minus alcohol - the squares. Being the awkward wheat free meat free person I am, I always face an epic struggle to find any food I can actually eat at conferences, meaning that by the time I have wrangled with a outraged kitchen staff member who clearly never got my three-times-emailed request and have been handed my dry as a bone, raw onion filled, gluten free sandwich (some of this blog is exaggerating for effect - this last is Actual Fact), I have to face a canteen full of people who have seemingly known each other since the maternity ward and are roaring with laughter over jokes I could never understand and so face the choice of trying to find a seat alone, taking my horrible lunch to the ladies and trying to moisten it up a bit with my tears, or being brave, sitting down and joining in the joke. I rarely opt for that last option.

Ah, but the conference dinner... that makes it all worthwhile. The wine comes out, and so does the gossip. The intellect elite love a good bitching session as much as the rest of us mere mortals do. The music gets turned up, and the dad dancing begins. Your single serving friend (thanks for that one, Chuck Palahniuk) suddenly becomes family. And you book your space for next year before the night is out.

*Well, it might as well be. 

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