The international conference is a well-loved feature of academic life.
Its scholarly value should not be underestimated: it brings together researchers who might otherwise never have a chance to talk in person and can help to break down the boundaries between different national research cultures. It is too easy, especially as a Britain-based scholar of British history, to miss out on all of the excellent and often complementary work going on in other languages and in other places. Spending a few days in a foreign city discussing research with European or North American colleagues often provides a fresh perspective that can be very difficult to get at home, even in a cosmopolitan city like London.
However, international conferences aren’t just vital for ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘developing strategic partnerships’, they’re also a nice perk of the job. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say they’re a customary perquisite that many academics would defend all the way to the Tyburn tree. They are usually at least partly subsidised and, if nothing else, provide a good excuse to fly off to somewhere you might otherwise never get around to visiting.
My first opportunity came whilst I was still a PhD student at Warwick in 2008 when the Social History Society decided to host their annual conference at Erasmus University Rotterdam. As this was one of the first times I’d presented a paper, I was inevitably nervous. Thankfully, some unusually sensible Dutch laws made relaxation easy … I remember with great fondness unwinding at the end of the day next to a picturesque old canal with a well-deserved local delicacy, watching the narrowboats slide calmly past.
Sometimes, however, I find that the ‘scholarly’ and the ‘recreational’ parts of international conference-going can get all mixed up together. For instance, a few years after Rotterdam I travelled to Colorado for the annual North American Conference on British Studies with my co-blogger Mark. We spent almost the entire nine-hour flight jabbing away about history, especially our shared interest in early modern ‘popular culture’, and we didn’t stop the next day as we wandered around the city. That evening, we headed off to do a classic touristy event: a Broncos football game. It was a marvelous experience which I don’t regret for a moment, but I suspect we were the only two in the audience of 76,000 who were paying as much attention to the peculiar vernacular customs of American football culture as to Tim Tebow’s quarterbacking.
Most recently, on a conference trip to Paris a few weeks ago, I found myself standing under the Eiffel Tower after a couple days of intense scholarly discussion. A lovely view, but I was a bit distracted. Rather than admiring this splendid feat of engineering, I was absent-mindedly chatting with colleagues about the social impact of venereal diseases in early modern London.
Am I alone in this? Or is this just the enviable curse of a globe-trotting historian?
Ahh yes, fond memories of that nerdy visit to Denver! I have to say, I rather enjoy the intermingling of work and pleasure on these trips. I’ve had some great experiences composing 17th century style libelous ballads in an LA bar; discussing the concept of ‘Linguistic History from Below’ on the streets of a small town in Pennsylvania; or exchanging Lord of the Rings impressions with eminent professors in my field. I guess the mix can work both ways: sometimes you end up with your head more in the 17th century than the place you are visiting. This isn’t always inappropriate – on a recent visit to Antwerp with fellow ‘monster head Laura Sangha we spent much of our time reliving the city’s glory days of the print revolution and of Rubens in the city’s amazing museums. You feel rather less like you are directly ‘visiting the past’ when talking about ballads in LA though! Yet if sometimes the past seems to encroach too much on appreciating the present day destination, it can sometimes work out that the ‘holiday’ spirit of an international conference can lead to a lot of fun with colleagues, and turn relationships that have hitherto been professional into friendships too. The combination of jet-lag, local delicacies and being away from home can contribute to a more personable experience with fellow delegates than you necessarily get at domestic conferences.
Of course, that’s a rather sunny portrait of international conferencing. For a more cynical take see David Lodge’s novel ‘Small World’!
Antwerp sounds like the perfect place to mix business and pleasure. Belgian conference organisers take note: I’m available if you’re paying!
My trip to Florence last week for a conference on ‘luxury and greed’ in early modern Europe was similarly appropriate. It was brilliant to be able to hang around in a villa in the hills above the town during the day, hear a bunch of smart people talking about the material culture of Renaissance Italy, and then spend my spare time wandering around the Florentine streets which are packed with Renaissance goodies in every piazza and down every alley. As for the ‘greed’ bit … well, I did acquire a rather ravenous attitude towards their gelato.