Conferences, hospitality and the academic body (Josef Ploner)

While Covid-19 may have halted academic travel and gatherings and requires to ‘host’ conferences virtually, Josef Ploner reflects on the merits and limits of conference hospitality and how it caters for both the material and epistemic dimensions of the academic body.

SRHE Xmas decor
Celtic Manor Hotel – SRHE Conference, Wales (E. Henderson)

Ever since Agathon invited leading figures of ancient Greek intelligentsia to a lavish banquet of food, drink, and philosophical conversation in Plato’s Symposium, hospitality has become a defining element of learned gatherings in the European academic imagination, and beyond. In today’s buzzing world of academic conferences, hospitality – or the art of being a welcoming host and a ‘good’ guest – continues to play a very important role, not only as a way to ‘stand out’ in a crowded global conference landscape, but also by affirming loyalty, cohesion, and a sense of belonging within academic bodies and learned societies.

Seen through the prism of academic conferences, hospitality covers a whole raft of issues, some of which I will highlight in this post. Much of what follows is inspired by John B. Bennet’s reflections on the academy and hospitality, as well as Phipps’ and Barnett’s take on ‘academic hospitality’ as a fundamental idea(l) and practice which can take on various forms and is built into the intrinsically mobile nature of academic life. Drawing on these insights, the purpose of this post is to outline some of the forms and meanings that conference hospitality can take in relation to the ‘academic body’ – here conceived both as a physical entity to be cared and catered for as well as an epistemic system that defines an academic community and its boundaries.

Comforting the academic body – material and touristic forms of conference hospitality

Academics who regularly attended conferences are familiar with hospitality as a set of well-rehearsed and rather non-academic services and rituals intended to make us feel welcome and ‘ease into’ the host setting. For example, being picked up (and dropped) at airports and train stations; checking into comfy hotel rooms and conference venues; being pointed in the right direction; receiving warm welcomes, farewells, and souvenirs enclosed in delegate packs; attending conference dinners and coffee breaks; enjoying social networking or artistic ‘fringe’ events, and so on. These material and touristic forms of hospitality not only constitute the basic inventory and infrastructure of a major academic event, but also facilitate a tacit set of codes and behaviours that are played out between host and guest, and among guests themselves. As such, hospitality plays a key role in rendering any academic conference into a unique, yet well-rehearsed, social drama and spectacle. In its touristic and material form, academic hospitality is also intended to create a friendly and level playing field among ‘peers’ while assuring their safety, bodily comfort and emotional wellbeing. Indeed, these seemingly mundane dimensions of academic hospitality often determine guests’ motivations to (re-)attend a particular conference.

Elaborate Headboard, Sirsa District
Hotel venue, Haryana, India (E. Henderson)

From a conference host’s perspective, these touristic and material forms of academic hospitality are equally important. It is well recognised that cities worldwide continue to compete to become a top-ranking conference destination, whereby utilitarian factors like affordability, infrastructure and connectivity are increasingly augmented by additional hospitality and ‘service quality’ offers. Quite often, these are intended to stimulate the sedentary academic conference body by including leisure activities such as shopping trips, dining experiences, spa visits, or local sightseeing tours. Likewise, scholars have highlighted the growing trend among conference hosts in choosing ‘unusual’ and unique venues, intended to generate out-of-the-ordinary atmospheres or sensory experiences and to evoke novelty and memorability among attendees. The ability to provide such ‘extra’ services and hospitality also tends to affirm the overall prestige (and one may add the financial power) of the academic body that hosts an event. Not least, these ‘experiential’ and material forms of hospitality seek to instil an atmosphere of informality and equality, by suspending, at least for a while, the seriousness associated with academic habitus and hierarchy. At times, such efforts can take on quite ironic and carnivalesque bearings as James Burford’s ‘tongue-in-cheek’ piece on the conference disco shows.

The inhospitable academic body – the epistemic dimensions of hospitality at conferences

While material and touristic forms of academic hospitality are significant and seem to gain currency within international conference circuits, academic events can be, and quite often are, experienced as unwelcoming, discomforting or exclusive. Such experiences are eloquently documented in numerous Conference Inference blog entries that challenge embodied forms of not-belonging, for example in relation to gender, sex, or queer academic identities, disability, parenthood, ‘early career’ and (non-)tenure status, as well as class and caste. These accounts clearly show that, within the seemingly coherent and egalitarian communitas of an academic gathering, there are prevailing hierarchies and uneven power relations that indicate that some guests are more valued (or welcome?) than others. To this end, one could equally think of the occasional ‘celebrity’ treatment of keynote speakers; the benefits, discounts and extra services reserved for those with ‘member’ status; or the provision of separate spaces, timeslots or presentation formats for ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ researchers. And even when academic hospitality is meant to be about the respectful exchange of different opinions between equal peers, one may recall the disturbing, yet familiar anecdote about the conference paper that was ‘destroyed’ or ‘torn apart’ by inhospitable ‘colleagues’.

More fundamentally perhaps, the academic bodies hosting conferences produce and uphold exclusivity by defining epistemic boundaries, linguistic confines and disciplinary thresholds that can be crossed by some, but not by others. As functioning parts of such bodies, many of us are not innocent bystanders in this border-drawing exercise when acting as gatekeepers, quality assessors or referees in the build-up to academic events. For example, as a member of a conference committee tasked with the review of submitted abstracts and paper proposals, I am not alone in my struggle to cast a ‘fair’ judgement when it comes to so-called ‘borderline cases’. What about the proposal that is written in ‘poor English’, but is based on rigorous research and conveys a fascinating idea? And what about this well-written and original abstract which just seems a little bit too far off the thematic and disciplinary scope of ‘our’ conference? Likewise, as someone whose own professional academic trajectory is not so clear-cut in terms of disciplinary affiliation or ‘purity’, I also found some of my own work to be politely rejected as “interesting, but not suitable”, or developed outsider or imposter syndrome when passing the threshold to a particular academic event. While it would be simplistic or self-pitying to dismiss such experiences as hospitality-not-granted, Phipps and Barnett (240-41) remind us of the complex and contested boundaries that interdisciplinary knowledge always entails:

the matter shifts between epistemological and ontological terrain as researchers stretch limits and test possibilities for hospitality of knowledge within the contexts in which they work. For the academic guest, the epistemological form of academic hospitality involves having something worthwhile to say, to offer, to the host.

Based on the above reflections and experiences, it would be easy to reduce (epistemic and linguistic) academic hospitality at conferences to courteous acts of accommodation, or mere gestures of inclusion towards those who, voluntarily or not, do not feel part of an academic body or community. Perhaps a more appropriate term to denote such epistemic forms of hospitality is reciprocity, or what Bennett referred to as the sharing and receiving of claims to knowledge and insight. This is achieved by developing meaningful conversations with knowledges that are perceived as other or opposite to one’s own beliefs and values and an awareness that “…however initially strange, the perspective of the other could easily supplement and perhaps correct one’s own work or even transform one’s self-understanding.” While recognising the significance of disciplinary bodies and the collegium as epistemic reference points within the academy, Bennett harks back to the ancient understanding of hospitality as a practise of xenophilia – a dedicated love, care and affection for what we perceive as ‘Other’ or strange, or what we initially fail to understand from our own epistemic, linguistic or ontological vantage points.

UFS columns
Conference venue at University of the Free State, South Africa (E. Henderson)

Academic conferences are crucial sites where academic hospitality is played out, contested, and embodied in various forms, some of which I have sought to outline in this contribution. More innocently or demonstratively perhaps, academic hospitality at conferences shows in its material and touristic forms (food, drink, service, welcome rituals), but is challenged when it comes to opening up, or seeking entry to disciplinary domains or the semi-permeable circles of academic knowledge, ritual and convention. By way of conclusion, this may be an opportune moment to return to Plato’s Symposium, the comfortable and lavish venue for a friendly intellectual contest, and arguably one of the archetypes of learned gatherings in the ‘western tradition’. Of course, seen from today’s perspective, Plato’s Symposium appears far removed from being inclusive or xenophile. Rather, it represents a homosocial get-together of educated, (presumably) white men, speaking the same language and inhabiting the same geographical region. Introduced as each other’s ‘companions’ or ‘acquaintances’, the guests in Plato’s fictional feast seem to be familiar with each other’s quirks and characters when musing over the divine and human manifestations of love. And yet, one might capture at least some sense of intellectual diversity and tension when looking at the key protagonists of the banquet: besides philosophers, we find a politician, a legal expert, a physician, a tragic poet as well as a comic playwright. Perhaps it is worthwhile remembering, celebrating and preserving some of this epistemic plurality and hospitality when judging the nature and purpose of academic conferences today, even if we may find it sometimes hard to get out of our own academic/professional skins, or feel strongly attached to, or disciplined by, a powerful academic body.

About Josef Ploner

Josef Ploner is a Lecturer in International and Comparative Education at the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE), University of Manchester. He Tweets as @josef.ploner

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