How to Make Conferences Less Awkward…by Not Trying

I’ve been away at the Society for the Study of Theology Conference with no internet for a few days, and I am now emerging, having been inspired in the meantime to write this little (firmly tongue-in-cheek) satire.  This post may only make sense to those of you who have regularly gone to academic conferences (though admittedly, the same phenomena often appear in other more mundane academic settings), indeed, perhaps only those who have regularly gone to British academic conferences.  One has the sense that the vices (or misplaced virtues) I am about to deplore are a particular affliction of the British people, with their penchant for uncomfortable politeness.  

The goal of an academic conference, you see, is to facilitate the free exchange of academic ideas with the minimum discomfort for all those involved.  We come, we sit, we listen, we ask polite questions; then we take our turns at the podium to boost our CVs, while everyone else listens and asks polite questions.  Ideas are gently expressed, gently prodded, and gently defended.  Everyone goes home enriched and intact.  Sounds great, right?

The problem is that this is all built upon a myth–the myth that all ideas are created equal–have equal value, equal coherence, deserve an equal hearing.  And ultimately, most people at these conferences do not buy this myth.  We must publicly pretend we believe it, pretending to be unfazed in the presence of a an idea that is hardly worthy of the name, but privately, we are painfully aware of its falsity.  Before we were academics, after all, we were humans.  And a human being can detect awkwardness the way a shark can detect blood–we have a built-in satellite dish to detect when someone is absolutely blowing it.  In normal social settings, we have built-in damage-control mechanisms–someone interrupts, and diverts attention from the epic failure unfolding before our eyes; or perhaps everyone just bursts out laughing, the offender included.  Or, failing all other devices, someone says, “Well, that was awkward,” and once we have named it, we can move past it.  Not so at the academic conference.  We don’t want anyone to feel awkward, so there will be no interrupting, no laughing, no acknowledgment of failure.  We will Stoically continue on, as if nothing had happened. 

But the laws of nature cannot be so easily derailed–the awkwardness still simmers in the air, the room heats up, people shift uncomfortably in their seats and start fidgeting with their smart phones–as soon as the session ends, everyone bolts for the door in relief.  So, I suggest that for academic conferences, to help us get past this awkwardness, we need to stop hiding from it and embrace it.  Let’s be rude.  Let’s sacrifice the dignity of one or two for the greater good.  I have three scenarios, that any of you conference junkies know all too well, any of which could be solved if “moderators” would actually moderate, would be willing to interrupt and shut people up, or even end the session early, instead of sitting there like dumb sheep.


Scenario 1:
The Mini-lecture as “Question”

You all know this one.  You know this one from freshman year at college, in fact, or, if you went to school with me, from 7th grade.  But guess what?  Senior academics still do it. 

The lecture ends.  Everyone applauds politely.  The moderator opens the floor for questions, and points to the first person to raise their hand.  They stand up, and begin to talk.  And they continue to talk, and to talk.  They cite a half-dozen of their favorite scholars, they tell you a bit about their own research.  They tell the speaker repeatedly of the impressions they had of what the speaker was trying to do.  At several points, they pause for breath, and the main speaker thinks they are now being given the opportunity to respond–to either affirm or deny that those impressions are correct.  But after a single stuttering syllable, the main speaker is silence again, by the resumed tirade of the “questioner.”  Unable to get a word in edgewise, the main speaker resorts to facial expressions and gestures to try to signal his response to the questioner.  The audience watches impotently, while the moderator, banned by the laws of politeness from actually moderating anything, looks on in self-imposed impotence.  At last the questioner concludes, though only occasionally in a sentence that could legitimately be written with a question mark.  Unfortunately, this rarely constitutes the end of the encounter, as such a questioner is unlikely to let the speaker go without a follow-up.  

We can only assume that these “questions” must result, more often than not, from people who submitted paper proposals, and were rejected. Wanting to heal their wounded pride and assert that they too have enough worthwhile thoughts to give a lecture of their own, they take the Q&A session as an opportunity.  Perhaps then we ought to provide empty rooms during the conference in which all rejected paper proposers could air their ideas to anyone or no one willing to listen.

Scenario 2: 
The Q&A disconnect

I’m sure you’ve all experienced this one too.  Someone raises their hand, and stands up to ask a question, that usually begins with something like, “Thanks, that paper was really interesting…it sorta reminded me of [insert completely unrelated text or field of discourse here].  I wondered if you might comment on that.”  Or sometimes, the question is more focused than that, but the end result is the same–the main speaker clearly has no idea what is being asked.  But he tries to answer anyway.  He flails desperately about with generalities, hoping to stumble by chance on what the questioner was getting at, and then concludes, “Does that answer your question?”  Invariably, it does not.  The questioner follows up, often in what seems a completely different direction from the original question, and the speaker tries again, but comes no nearer.  The exchange drags on and on, with both interlocutors sliding further and further into incoherence, or else speaking at complete cross-purposes, while everyone else looks on, ears reddening in embarrassment.  Again, the moderator remains in his self-imposed impotence.  Finally, the speaker mercifully decides to give up on the interchange, and looks frantically about for another questioner, who is usually happy to oblige, to free us all from the torture.  


Scenario 3:
The Epic Fail

Don’t tell me you’ve never been in that paper.  The paper where the speaker clearly had no idea what they were talking about.  Maybe they’d never presented at a conference before, maybe they had a flattering supervisor who wouldn’t tell them how badly off they really were, who knows?  It’s reminiscent, perhaps, of some of those auditions from American Idol they used to love to show on TV–where someone walks in, convinced they have a lovely baritone, and proceeds to give a good impression of a screech owl.  At conferences, it’s not always so immediately obvious.  We are generous people after all, we academics, ready to give the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps we simply didn’t understand what the speaker was trying to do.  Perhaps it was our fault, not theirs.  Perhaps a few well-placed questions will elicit more clearly the point they were trying to make, and it will prove a profound one. 

Or not.  Instead, what happens is that the questions reach out, groping, into a vacuum.  There is nothing there.  Follow-up questions close in on the victim, not like buzzards ready to devour, but rather like lifeguards, to try to rescue him and give him some opportunity to redeem himself, but they only worsen the problem.  He flounders and sinks.  His answers become more and more repetitive and platitudinous; sometimes he indulges in long digressions about only tangentially related subjects to fill the void and to make the clock go by faster.  The audience too is looking at the clock.  After all, we’re not ancient Romans.  We didn’t come to watch a slow death in the gladiatorial ring.  We want out.  We don’t want to watch the implosion, but we are forced to, for there is nothing else to watch.  At last, the session ends, and everyone runs for the door, with a silent pact amongst us not even to mention the lecture amongst ourselves henceforth–the memory is too painful.  The presenter, often as not, steps out still fixed in their delusion that they delivered a solid paper, since no one was ever willing to say anything otherwise.

So one of these days, I would like to go to a conference where the moderator was not afraid to stand up and say, “Ok, that’s enough.  You have nothing to say.  It’s no reason to be offended, it happens to the best of us–all of us have large air pockets in our heads, and it is likely that sooner or later, we will open our mouths and nothing of substance will come out.  That, my friend, is what is happening to you now, and it’s best that we saved both you and ourselves from enduring it any longer.”  Or we could just all agree to laugh.  If everyone understood that that was the procedure, we could carry on, shake it off, and enjoy a conference freed from gratuitous awkwardness. 

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