What’s the best way to organise an academic research event? Actually that’s a stupid question; it all depends on what sort of an event you want, or what it’s intended to achieve. So, to narrow the focus to the sort of event I enjoy: what’s the best way to organise a research workshop on a particular theme, however broad or narrow, with the aim of having a productive and enjoyable discussion of its different aspects and with at least the possibility of generating new ideas and possibilities (new to me, at least, if not necessarily new in themselves)? I’ve spent the last few days co-ordinating the annual meeting of the Legacy of Greek Political Thought network in Bristol (and so am now thoroughly exhausted, hence liable to be a bit terse and bad-tempered), and my basic principle was to get a bunch of clever people interested in more-or-less connected if not similar things, put them in a room together and make sure that coffee and food are available at regular intervals.
Well, it’s slightly more complicated than that; there needs to be some water as well… No, there’s always the question of finding the right balance between presentations and discussion (at every such event I organise, I leave more time for the latter than I did on the previous occasion, and it’s still never enough; okay, this time it didn’t help that I misread my own programme on the second day and so started half an hour late…) and of inviting the right mix of speakers. I tend to aim for a mixture of people I know whom I haven’t heard speak, or at least not for a while; a few eminent names whom I’ve heard of but never met; and graduate students and/or recent postdocs who are doing interesting things, whom I’ve either met at another event or encountered via the internet or been told about by someone else. Someone old, someone new, someone familiar and someone who flew (in)…
And then there’s the audience; arguably more important than the speakers, since in my experience the responses to papers generate new ideas at least as often as the papers themselves, and a brilliant and original paper will always benefit from a decent discussion afterwards. Of course the speakers themselves serve in turn as the audience for other papers, and often are the best-informed commentators, but it’s never occurred to me for a moment that one should proceed solely on that basis and have an audience solely of other speakers. On the one hand, that denies the possibility that someone else might produce the crucial insight in their response to someone else’s paper. The broader the range of participants, the broader the range of knowledge and experience (and not just of the ‘relevant’ scholarship), the greater the chance of the participants in the event as a collective coming up with new and interesting things (which means no disrespect to my speakers, I just don’t want to place the whole burden of generating interesting ideas on them).
And on the other hand, if there’s an exciting and productive exchange of ideas going on, or the possibility of one, why deny access to this to others who might be interested? Within limits, of course – if there are too many people, it runs the risk of ceasing to be a properly informal and relaxed discussion in which anyone can chip in, and becomes more of a formal, hierarchical, questions to the speaker sort of occasion. Which can be fine, but isn’t the sort of event I particularly enjoy. So, set a limit on numbers (which I never seem to reach in practice – which doubtless says something about either the kinds of topic I organise workshops around, or the relative inaccessibility of Bristol, or both), but then advertise as widely as possible in the hope that anyone who might conceivably be interested gets to hear about it and to have the possibility of deciding to come along and contribute (or just listen in the hope of hearing something new, but that benefits them rather than me and so I’m not quite so keen…).
Writing it out like this, it all seems unutterably banal; isn’t this what everyone does? The reason I’m bothering to write this at all is that, well, no, they don’t. I recently heard about a small conference taking place in the UK in the near future, involving a number of interesting speakers and respondents (some of whom I know reasonably well, others are entirely new to me) talking on subjects that are closely connected to some of my research interests. I was told about this by one of the invited contributors a week or so back, who wondered whether I’d heard about it and was planning to attend. No, I hadn’t, I’m already committed (to local council business that can’t be rescheduled at this sort of notice) on the relevant days, and in any case even when I’m on research leave (as at present), making such a trip across the country and leaving my wife in the lurch isn’t entirely easy – and if I wasn’t on research leave it would be the final week of term, so such an absence would be entirely impossible without a lot of prior warning to reschedule things. My response obviously sounded a trifle caustic, as the next comment was words to the effect of, well, yes, but the organisers feel that you can’t have a proper discussion with a larger group. The event has now been advertised more widely (at any rate the programme has appeared on the internet, along with venue information, though the words ‘All welcome’ seem to be missing; am I being too cynical in suggesting that such ‘publicity’ conveniently deflects any accusations that the event is a completely closed shop, an exclusive little group inviting their friends and proteges – while at the same time coming far too late for anyone who doesn’t live in the immediate vicinity actually to take up the opportunity?
I’m well aware of the risk that all this sounds like wounded amour propre: I work in this field, why didn’t anyone think of telling me? Am I so marginal, or so little regarded, or have I pissed off someone important without realising it? I’m sure the answer is that they can’t invite everybody without losing the cherished intimacy, so they just stuck with the people they really wanted there; this of course does nothing whatsoever for wounded self-esteem… But leaving aside personal feelings, I do honestly feel that this is wrong, and actually a rather problematic way of running such an event. Just talking to the people whom you’ve decided will have something useful to say? There’s a clear risk that you will end up with exactly what you already expected, i.e. nothing that’s actually new, while missing any possibility of genuine breakthrough. Maybe that’s even the point – a conference to solidify and promote a pre-agreed research agenda, rather than one which is interested in exploring possible new research agendas – but that feels like a terribly limited end to justify the gathering of a lot of eminent scholars from across the globe.
There are two interconnected things that I find disturbing about this – to the extent that I didn’t make even a cursory attempt to see if I could actually reschedule things and persuade my wife to hold the fort on her own for a couple of days. The first is the danger of – or perhaps the evidence of – a kind of groupthink, an implicit consensus that doesn’t want to consider alternative possibilities. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the invited contributors are all of one mind – on the contrary, in some cases the differences between them on key issues are well-known – but what that means is that certain debates are being taken for granted as central to the topic, and others excluded. It’s not that everyone is signed up to the same ideas about antiquity, but there is some measure of agreement about what ancient historians should be discussing, and to an extent about how they should be discussing it. The obvious risk – one that seems to be endemic to discussions of anything to do with ancient economy and society – is that the conference offers a predictable reenactment of the usual arguments from either side. Someone, if not everyone, will make some new moves, but in all likelihood wholly within the parameters of the existing debate, in which case the opposing faction will be able to draw on their standard repertoire of responses. Of course it is not impossible that someone will come up with something completely original and thus transform the terms of the debate – these are all very clever, knowledgeable people – but I can’t help thinking that the chances of this are slightly lower as a result of excluding (or effectively excluding) the truly random element of someone who comes along because they think it looks interesting, not because they’ve been pre-selected as a suitable contributor to the discussion.
My other worry is about the way that this set-up replicates and entrenches academic hierarchy. It’s inevitable that this happens with invitations – I don’t claim that events I organise are any different – because you can’t invite people you don’t know or haven’t heard of; so, the people who get invited are friends and acquaintances, established scholars, and (if there are any junior people at all) the proteges of the organisers or of their friends and acquaintances. It’s either about having the right connections or about being sufficiently well-established so that people you’re not connected to have nevertheless heard of you, and the only significant variables are how far a given organiser seeks to cast the net widely beyond their close connections, and how far they go out of their way to include young scholars or just stick with the big names. The only way of avoiding this is to have an open call for papers, which effectively sets up a different kind of event (and actually I now need to spend some time thinking through why I’ve never really gone for this approach, as it does address some of my concerns).
So, any event involving invitations, unless (possibly) the organiser is being deliberately subversive, will pretty clearly reflect the power structures and relationships of the discipline; unavoidable. But making the entire event invitation-only means that it can only ever do this (and this reinforce the groupthink that follows the ideas and/or conception of the debate set up by the dominant players within this subset of the hierarchy). Opening up attendance to anyone who’s interested offers an opportunity for hoi polloi – the grad students whose supervisors aren’t global players, the postdocs and junior lecturers at less prestigious institutions, the non-academics – to get involved; there’s still a hierarchy (some people have to buy their own lunch, for example, and some people are most likely to get asked to speak first in any discussion), but it is no longer quite so absolute – superior/inferior as an improvement, however marginal, on in/out – and there is now the possibility of an idea emerging from the oppressed masses to unsettle the consensus of the superiors (because none of them would admit to believing in the hierarchy – it’s all about the merits of the ideas themselves – they have at least to pretend to take such contributions seriously.
I’m going on about this at length because I haven’t actually thought about these issues in twenty years, since I was a research student involved (in a pretty feeble manner; most of the credit belongs to others) in agitating about the exclusion of research students from another of these cosy little invitation-only affairs being held in our own university. I’ve no idea if there was then a period in which they became less common, or I just haven’t noticed them, but in the last few years they’ve become difficult to miss in ancient economic and social history; a series of conferences where the plebs were allowed in on the first day to hear the papers and ask some respectful questions, and then the real discussion took place next day among the invitees along (and I have been one of those invitees on one occasion, and now feel rather ashamed about it), another gathering earlier this year that I would have loved to attend, that apparently operated on a need-to-know basis. I wonder how far the propagation of graduate conferences is in part a response to a growing sense of exclusion, rather than (as I’ve always assumed) a means of setting up a more supportive environment for those who are still learning the norms of the profession, a nursery slope for young academics.
What is to be done, other than fretting at length on a blog? I can at least start with my own practice: thinking carefully about accepting invitations to closed events, however attractive the topic, the venue and the promise of hospitality (but then I’m probably not going to be invited to very many after this) and introducing a call for papers for at least some of the contributions to any event I organise in future. And at the very least, making every effort to attract a diverse audience. I go to research events and organise them in the hope of hearing something I didn’t know or hadn’t thought of, or that triggers ideas that I might not otherwise have had; that seems less likely to happen if I only ever listen to people who’ve been invited as a known quantity, rather than the occasionally glorious randomness of discussion within a thoroughly diverse group.