Recently I had an article published in the Times Higher Education in which I criticised what I felt to be egregious conference behaviour. I had just returned from a conference, and also been reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which seemed to offer a mode in which I could be both critical and ‘witty’. The article, ‘How to act like a superstar scholar’, took the form of an 11-point guide in which I adopted the fairly crude strategy of advocating, through the persona of a selfish academic, behaviour which a reasonable person would find rude, careless, and selfish. Satire depends upon exaggeration, and my piece expressed the irritations that had accreted over several years of conference-going by amplifying the worst behaviour in order to paint a picture of excess.
A few things occur to me now, with a little distance from it: firstly, how many of my points relate to the physical presence, absence and movement of conference delegates; secondly, that the satirical mode strains when I comment on the kinds of speaking that people do at conferences; and thirdly, that underpinning all of this is a sense that conferences involve different kinds of performances, all of which entail responsibilities.
The first point in the article, in the voice of one selfish academic addressing another, encourages the reader to make travel plans which pay scant regard to the schedule of the conference and contains this observation: “It’s also likely that you’ll have to leave early, but the final session of a conference is so poorly attended that it’s not worth staying for”. Seasoned conference-goers will recognise a kind of truth in this – the audience for a final plenary session (in which, conventionally, themes, insights, and directions for the future are summed up by a panel or keynote speaker) seems to consist of a handful of survivors of an epidemic – the majority of the attendees, who appeared to be so robust on day one, having been struck down and evacuated. There is an implicit statement of priorities signalled by their absence: “this is not important enough for me to stay for”. It is contagious, this attitude of disregard, and it weakens a conference. Being present matters – this is a condition of ontic simplicity. The presence of delegates constitutes the body of the conference, so the cynical notion that a conference session has no value because it is poorly attended produces a self-fulfilling decline. To conceive of ‘being present’ as a form of academic labour may be facile, but its value may be better understood as ‘bearing witness’ or ‘showing respect’.
Being present, of course, is not inevitably a virtue. The selfish academic dispensing advice makes a range of suggestions regarding mobility around the conference space, which include: maintaining fidelity to a particular seat, regardless of how many times it is necessary to exit and enter, and regardless of how many people will be disturbed by this; exercising the right to flit between parallel sessions, despite the impact on presenters and audience; and ensuring that time spent on refreshments and networking is not compromised by the exigencies of the schedule. How might we interpret this tendency of some to treat space and time as fluid media, while others respond to their structural and regulatory power? I could suggest a ‘deficit model’ and an ‘entitlement model’: the former explains the behaviour by suggesting that academics at conferences lack basic skills of self-management, unable to be in the right place at the right time, unable to moderate their fluid intake, and unable to recognise the impact of their behaviour on others; the latter explains the behaviour as an exercise of power and consumption – the conference exists as an array of diversions and indulgences from which one may select, taste and discard. The entitlement model frames the delegate as someone seeking stimulation and entertainment, a fickle consumer with a short attention span. The corollary of this, of course, is that someone presenting a paper is positioned as an entertainer – not a colleague.
And now I might be about to get mired in a contradiction, having made a distinction between entertainment and collegiality, because my selfish academic advocates an ascetic style of presentation: “Your audience expects depth and rigour, so read, verbatim, from your written paper. Since you spent considerable time crafting it, don’t deviate from it, even at the risk of occasionally appearing unfamiliar with your own writing – or, indeed, any form of animated human communication.” I think I can see a way of resolving this apparent contradiction though: both the ‘entitled’ delegate and the ‘verbatim reader’ act for themselves – they are ‘selfish’. And there is a difference between being ‘an entertainer’, and being ‘entertaining’, or even engaging. My selfish academic endorses a conference practice that I find baffling – that of reading a paper, word for word, to a group of fairly competent readers. Now, in other contexts, I quite enjoy being read to – David Sedaris reading his own work, or Martin Jarvis reading Richmal Crompton’s William stories – but there are some key distinctions to be made: a conference paper is not a story, and academic presenters tend not to be as gifted as David Sedaris and Martin Jarvis. So why does the practice persist? To invoke Plato, who was deeply suspicious of the written word, isn’t this the worst of all worlds? The written word reanimated, yet lifeless – a kind of necrophilic ventriloquism. As I mentioned at the beginning, my frustration with this perversity, this violence against communication, made it difficult for me to sustain the fidelity to the selfish academic’s voice; the selfish academic would never say: “…even at the risk of occasionally appearing unfamiliar with your own writing – or, indeed, any form of animated human communication” – that was my voice breaking through the performance. Ironically, one of the comments under the online version of the article said: “I was with you until number 10. Please, do not under any circumstances ‘read your paper’”, which prompted someone else to reply: “er, does that mean you think numbers 1-9 are perfectly reasonable propositions?”
I used the word ‘performance’ earlier and, to conclude this, I’m trying to work out if it’s the right word to account for what happens at conferences. In other venues and events, theatre and comedy, for example, there are clearly defined performers and audiences. The responsibilities of the former are clearly defined; the responsibilities of the latter less so, although there is a generally understood expectation that the audience should be present, awake, attentive and responsive. The kinds of behaviour outlined by my selfish academic suggest that the responsibilities of audiences to perform in particular ways at conferences are not necessarily understood, or enacted. We’d probably resist a code of practice, but we need, at least, a conversation to help us become better members of a community of practice.
Mark Readman is a Principal Academic in Media Education at Bournemouth University, where he teaches on professionally-oriented Master’s and Doctoral programmes. His research and publications include work on the rhetorics of creativity, screenwriting, and representations of pedagogy. He has been to a lot of conferences.